Debate all you want about who is the greatest player in NBA history. The most powerful ever? Case closed.
Meet LeBron James, master of his universe.
Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin may devise deals or target free agents, but he's not doing either without the approval of James. Coach David Blatt may make play calls and substitutions, but LeBron has veto power.
Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant decided who coached them to championships—Pat Riley for the former, Phil Jackson (for a second time) for the latter—but they didn't hand-pick their teammates. Michael Jordan, stepping down from president to put a uniform back on with the Washington Wizards, picked his coach and his teammates despite his change in titles, but he wasn't presiding over a team capable of winning a championship.
None of the aforementioned, though—no one in league history—has the combination of influence and potential James has with the Cavaliers.
The most tantalizing aspect: to think he planned it this way, that his well-renowned court vision could actually apply to his career arc, that he finally figured out how he could one-up them all—Kobe, Michael, even Bill Russell and his 11 championships (two of which he won as a player-coach, though Red Auerbach ran the front office). As off-putting as the whole controversial pilgrimage from Cleveland to Miami and back proved to be, or potentially shortsighted trading Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love could be, or damaging as overruling Blatt and letting the world know it remains, it could well be worth it if the end result is a championship. Because unlike Kobe or Michael or Russell or any other Larry O'Brien Trophy-hoisting superstar you can name, James will go down as the one responsible for it all—roster architect, X's & O's mastermind and, of course, all-purpose floor general.
"LeBron wants to be the guy that says, 'I was the one who brought a championship to Cleveland,'" says Paul Silas, who coached James his first two seasons. "And if they win, he will be. He absolutely runs that team."
Those close to James say they've never seen him prepare with such Spartan focus because he's convinced with a healthy Kyrie Irving and Love a title is there for the taking—and, according to Odds Shark, Las Vegas oddsmakers agree. As young and ripe for stardom as Irving and Love might be, the Cavs' title chances are sure to slide with any slippage by James. Whether it was needing two weeks off midway through last season to deal with an assortment of nagging injuries or his current back issues that curtailed his training-camp activity, the grind of five consecutive trips to the Finals is clearly beginning to show. "They can win a championship as long as he's playing at a high level," says former teammate Brendan Haywood.
Well, yes, as long as there isn't something intrinsically flawed with a player, no matter how talented or savvy, being in charge.
And on that, the record is unclear.
San Antonio Spurs power forward Tim Duncan operates in a similar sphere to James: a championship linchpin in a small market where he essentially grew up as a player, if not a person, with an impeccable reputation off the court. "Timmy would wield similar power if he ever wanted to exercise it," says a Spurs source.
Duncan, however, has shunned both countless endorsement offers as well as imposing his will on matters involving the Spurs' playbook and personnel. And rest assured, coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford have not made every move with Duncan's blessing. Over the years, so many players Duncan grew close to were dealt away—Antonio Daniels, Malik Rose, Cory Alexander, George Hill—that he joked about not making any more friends among his teammates to save himself the heartache.
The result: Duncan has five rings in six trips to the Finals and has nearly as good of a chance to win another one this season as LeBron does.
"It's important that you respect your best player's opinion," says a league executive who has won multiple titles. "You engage his feedback and involve him in whatever you're doing. At the end of the day, though, he has to believe you're doing what needs to be done in both his and the best interests of the franchise."
Jerry West, who presided over superstars from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson to Kobe and Shaquille O'Neal during his tenure as the Lakers GM, took the same approach. "You don't manage anyone, you work with them," West says. "'Manage' is imposing your will on a player. It's about trust, and you have to give them a reason to trust you."
Magic, West says, was the superstar who had the strongest opinions about who he wanted on the team, and while West heard him out, he didn't always heed Magic's advice. "He liked his friends, and we didn't like them as much as he did sometimes," West says.
None of the championship-winning executives queried about working with superstars believed that a team could win it all if the player held all the reins.
"Absolute power in life corrupts—it does," West says. "If you give a player that kind of authority, then it's your own fault."
In his letter published by Sports Illustrated after he decided to leave the Miami Heat and return to the Cavaliers, James suggested it was simply a desire to make an impact on his hometown. Other more cynical theories about why he left Miami abound in the NBA, one being that he realized he'd always have to share the credit for whatever he did with Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade. Being the only one with a championship pedigree—other than those he convinced to follow him—would mean if the Cavs did win, he would be viewed as having delivered the secret formula.
That is certainly how a recent ESPN The Magazine pictorial portrayed him. It presented James as a hands-on CEO, doing everything from rewriting the playbook to identifying and recruiting talent.
Griffin fully concedes that James is the most powerful person in the organization aside from owner Dan Gilbert. "He's going to have the biggest voice, he's the most important, accomplished player in the league and he's an absolute basketball savant," Griffin says. "He has the most thorough understanding of X's and O's on the floor and best mind for the game off the floor of any human being I've ever known. Coach, front-office person, anything. It would be crazy for me not to consult with him on what we want to do."
Griffin, though, takes exception to the idea that James runs the entire franchise the way a puppeteer would a marionette. "The idea of him dictating things is not how he is," Griffin says. "That [ESPN] article puts him in such a terrible light. It is not a factual representation of how he's carried himself. It's just not."
It's the perfect political play for Griffin—he doesn't deny James is in control, he just bashes the idea that he's controlling—but other league executives say Griffin has earned James' trust by swinging the deals that landed center Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in January. Perhaps that's why James simply told Griffin and Gilbert "to keep that motherf--ker," in referring to restricted free agent Tristan Thompson, but didn't wield his own free agency to force their hand. James signed his two-year deal well before the Cavs finally came to terms with Thompson, even though both are represented by the same agency, Klutch Sports Group, run by James' childhood friend, Rich Paul.
"The good thing about him is he's not a power abuser," says Haywood of James. "He's always been a fair guy."
But clearly he's a guy who prefers players with whom he already has a rapport. Mike Miller and James Jones followed him from Miami last season and Jones is back for another year. Kendrick Perkins, a backup center last season, was a former AAU teammate with LeBron. Richard Jefferson, added as a free agent this season, played with James on the 2004 U.S. national team.
While Griffin credits James for convincing Jefferson to come to Cleveland, mutual interest between Jefferson and the team already had been expressed. "There wasn't that much of a sale," Jefferson says. "It was a no-brainer."
The same attraction existed in Washington with Jordan, says Haywood.
"We knew he was the GM also, that every guy on that roster was there because Michael wanted him there," Haywood says. "It was accepted because he was the greatest player ever and at 40 years old still outworked everybody."
The head coach, both with the Cavs now and the Wizards then, is the one in the trickiest position, since he must somehow convey he's running the show on a nightly basis when he is only at the discretion of his superstar. Haywood recalls a game when Wizards coach Doug Collins—Jordan's first coach in Chicago and hand-picked choice to join him in Washington—sent Bryon Russell to sub in for Jordan. The next stop in play saw Russell walking back to the bench.
"Where are you going?" Collins asked.
"He told me to go back to the bench," Russell said, pointing to Jordan. "I'm going back to the bench."
Blatt has faced similar issues. James, Haywood confirmed, called a players-only meeting in training camp last season and defined everyone's role without the coaches present. Blatt's plan to run the Princeton offense was reduced—some say at James' request—to make room for Doc Rivers' Boston play sets, which put associate head coach and former Rivers assistant Tyronn Lue in charge. James also changed a last-second play called by Blatt in Game 4 of their second-round playoff series with the Bulls, the result being a game-winner by James, a series tied 2-2 and the distinct impression that Blatt's authority had been compromised.
By the time the Cavs reached the end of the Eastern Conference Finals, Blatt would give an instruction and the players would check for James' approval. When Blatt sent Tristan Thompson back into the waning minutes of a Game 4 blowout and completion of a four-game sweep of the Hawks, Thompson then turned to James, who helped persuade Blatt to use Kendrick Perkins and Haywood for mop-up duty instead.
"With superstars of that magnitude, it's really a 50-50 deal, and you have to be smart with the 50 percent they choose to give you," Haywood says. "When you make the obvious mistakes, then people start to question you."
If anyone is second-guessing anything with LeBron, it is not apparent. That is the luxury of being the only person with a championship pedigree in the organization. Kobe didn't have that exclusivity, which may be why his desire to have the team make certain deals—trading center Andrew Bynum for Jason Kidd being a prime example—were ignored. Jordan didn't have that luxury in Chicago, either, illustrated by the Bulls trading his best friend, Charles Oakley, to the Knicks for Bill Cartwright.
So the question remains: Can the Cavs win it all when the chain of command, whether he chooses to exercise it or not, runs from LeBron's double-wide headband to his size 15 sneakers?
"I've never seen it work that way," says 72-year-old Silas, who played 16 distinguished seasons and worked as an assistant or head coach for another 23. "But we will see this season. If anybody is good enough to do it, LeBron is. I know this: He is going to run the team down the stretch no matter what. To me, a coach can't have that every time. You have to have other players involved. But Blatt saying to LeBron, 'I don't want you to run the team down the stretch, I'm going to run it'—that is not going to happen."
History says LeBron needs to delegate authority for the team to succeed. Blatt was reluctant, according to Haywood, to critique LeBron in film sessions until Lue did it; LeBron, Haywood says, has to allow Blatt the license of correcting him in front of the team or the rest of the players won't respect his criticism of them.
The pressure of pursuing a championship tests a team's unity on every level. Any uncertainty about what a team should do in any given situation can be the split-second that leads to a defensive rotation that is too slow or a pass that is too late, resulting in a game-turning error. But how does James cede control to someone who hasn't built a championship roster or made all the play calls that result in a title?
Somehow he must, says one former member of the Cavaliers organization. "Blatt is a good coach, but at the end of the day LeBron basically is running the show," the former Cavalier says. "But Blatt has to make sure he makes some decisions in front of LeBron on his own so he doesn't lose the rest of the team. Hopefully, LeBron knows he has to be a certain way so that the rest of the team will still buy into what Blatt is telling them.
"I think it can work. LeBron is doing a pretty good job of keeping the noise down. He knows what he wants around him, he knows how he wants to play and he's about the right things."
Jefferson thinks it can, too, although he's not clear just how involved in everything James is.
"I've only been here a month," he says. "I've heard stories, but it would be tough for me to say from such a small sample pool. I will say his knowledge of our plays, other people's plays, defense—his knowledge of everything is amazing. He would make a great GM or coach."
Some would say he already has been. But a championship-winning GM and coach? That’s TBD.
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.
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