It’s the worst kept secret in the NBA that one of the main reasons LeBron returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers was a promise that he would have a large role in strategic decisions. On top of that, LeBron would be able to install his friends and business associates in high places in the organization, all but ensuring that he would be involved in discussions that Heat president Patrick Riley had very much left him out of (think of it less as a free agent signing and more of a corporate takeover). Yesterday, we looked at LeBron the general manager, and tomorrow we will look at LeBron the star player. With the Cavaliers about to face off against the Atlanta Hawks in the conference finals tonight, now is a good time to evaluate how LeBron James has fared as a coach.
When LBJ returned to Cleveland this past off-season, he was not quite given absolute power. The Cavaliers, in an attempt to woo free agents (and not at all confident that they would be able to lure LeBron back) hired David Blatt as head coach in the middle of June. A successful coach internationally who had never coached in the NBA (even as an assistant), Blatt was suddenly given a most difficult assignment — coach the biggest star in the NBA. But LeBron wasn’t just any star, LeBron was a player who had coaching aspirations of his own, as well as the ability to change plays on the court and give other players personal instructions after the huddle.
In Miami, LeBron’s relationship with Erik Spoelstra, not much of a veteran when LeBron came into town, was a bit rocky at first, but was ultimately smoothed by all that winning. On top of that, Spoelstra had the blessing of Pat Riley (an actual winner) and two years of experience as an NBA head coach. Blatt, on the other hand, had none of these qualities – the only people backing him had never won anything. LeBron, in contrast, had already won two championships and logged thousands of minutes on the court. He has also always shown an eagerness to call plays and command the court, a desire that has always been supported by his own abilities (often, LeBron’s best play call is making sure LeBron gets the ball). In short, Blatt was not in a very good position to stand up to LeBron if LeBron wanted to act like the head coach. Which is exactly what LeBron did this season.
Brian Windhorst, an ESPN reporter who has covered the Cavaliers and is connected to LeBron’s entourage, told Bill Simmon’s the following:
The Princeton offense that David Blatt installed in the preseason, they just threw that out. What typically happens—and this has been happening for like three months now—is LeBron will take the ball, and LeBron will call the play. David Blatt will see what play LeBron calls, and he will repeat it to the team. That happens on a regular basis.
So LeBron is actually the coach of this Cavs team (as opposed to the likelihood that he is the general manager). This is unfortunate because LeBron is not really a good coach. In fact, he is a bad coach. Even worse for the Cavs, David Blatt is not a competent coach (yet) . Blatt has stumbled through his first season and certainly could have benefited from sitting on an actual NBA bench before taking over the reins of a team (see Blatt having to delegate to an assistant when to call timeouts).
LeBron as a coach is impatient, not much of a motivator, and mostly merciless on the bodies of his players. We’ll start with that last point -- Kyrie Irving has been the key to success for the Cavs team, becoming a superstar in his own right just as LeBron came into town. And LeBron the coach was all too willing to let the fragile guard rack up the most minutes of his career by a long shot. Irving is not the most durable of players, and by the time the Cavs got ready for the post-season run, he was in tatters. His body heading into the conference finals is completely beaten up — right at the moment a good coach would have been saving him for all season.
When it comes to motivation, LeBron has been mostly inept at motivating his star player, who just happens to be LeBron James. LeBron coaching Lebron has its perks (he can come up with plays that he’s most comfortable with), but he’s not able to see much of a larger picture, like figuring out how the hell to incorporate Kevin Love into the game plan. That’s something a coach is supposed to be really good at, and something LeBron couldn’t quite figure out (until fate intervened and saved him the trouble). He tried to motivate Love by throwing shade at him on Twitter, but that’s a pretty bad way to get a guy to play harder (having a functional offensive and defensive scheme is better!). And finally, LeBron’s impatience with his players is something that has hindered the team. He treated his own coach as if he was Mario Chalmers. Yes, the Cavs got off to a slow start. Yes, they have been winning since LeBron took full command of the team. But maybe actually forming a cohesive defensive game plan might help them stop the offensive juggernaut that is the Hawks? Food for thought, at least.
For all the above reasons, the Cavs would probably be a better team if their coach were someone other than LeBron James. It just shouldn’t be David Blatt, either.
Final Grade as Coach: C-
Photos by Christian Petersen/Getty Images