LeBron James Is Officially NBA's Hardest Player to Coach

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 22, 2015

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LeBron James dragged a threadbare Cleveland Cavaliers roster to within two wins of an NBA title, an effort that showed why, for so many reasons, James is the easiest player in the league to manage.

His mere presence practically assures title contention—regardless of the support around him.

The trade-off for that insta-success is James has earned the right to be more difficult, controlling and influential than any other player in the league. And he knows it.

In the idyllic world of old-school NBA hierarchies, players bowed to coaches who bowed to general managers who bowed to owners. Chain of command, pecking order, organizational stratification—that kind of thing.

But because James is so obviously great, he disrupts that order.

Reports of James marginalizing Cavs head coach David Blatt feel unseemly, but they're not accounts of some young hothead testing the boundaries of his power. James is a proven megastar with immense physical gifts and one of the most advanced basketball minds we've ever seen. If he has strategic input or stylistic ideas, everyone around him should listen—regardless of organizational rank.

Blatt was a proven winner in Europe, but he hadn't coached a second in the NBA until this season. He made some missteps this year, and his general demeanor often came across as more thoughtful than commanding. That made the dynamic between him and James even more complicated.

Which is why we've reached this uncomfortable point in the offseason where actions and words don't square.

ESPN.com's Marc Stein delivered a damning account of James' conduct toward Blatt:

I saw it from close range in my role as sideline reporter through the Finals for ESPN Radio. James essentially called timeouts and made substitutions. He openly barked at Blatt after decisions he didn't like. He huddled frequently with [assistant coach Tyronn] Lue, often looking at anyone other than Blatt.

There was James, in one instance I witnessed from right behind the bench, shaking his head vociferously in protest after one play Blatt drew up in the third quarter of Game 5, amounting to the loudest nonverbal scolding you could imaginewhich forced Blatt, in front of his whole team, to wipe the board clean and draw up something else.

Cut to general manager David Griffin's postseason press conference when the team's top personnel man told reporters, "LeBron himself said he thinks Coach has done a hell of a job. So if you want to use his actual words, that's what the man said."

Tony Dejak/Associated Press

Admit it: Some part of you is frustrated with James. Some part of you bristles at the way he's been reported to blatantly disrespect a man, Blatt, who seems like a perfectly nice guy just trying to do the best he can in a tricky situation.

And when you hear comments like the one ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst made on SVP and Russillo (via SB Nation), it's hard not to feel a little disgusted:

I think, at the end of the day, LeBron likes the freedom. He likes having Blatt to kick around, something he couldn't get away with with other coaches in the past. I think LeBron is OK with him going forward. If David Blatt is OK with taking the abuse from the star player, which he does, David Blatt will be back. I think it'll be Blatt's decision more than anybody else at this point.

Some choice Blatt's got there, huh?

Stick around, be ignored, maybe win a ring at some point and, ultimately, get very little credit for success...or give up.

Erik Spoelstra never gave up, and maybe that's where Blatt should turn for signs of hope.

MIAMI - OCTOBER 12:  Forward LeBron James #6 and head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat on the bench during a game against CSKA Moskow on October 12, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Marc Serota/Getty Images

According to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, the Miami Heat head coach didn't have James' respect from the outset either:

It took awhile—Heat insiders will say that it really took well into the 2011-12 season—but eventually James gained sufficient belief in Spoelstra not only to allow [Pat] Riley's protege to completely coach him, but to start parroting some of Spoelstra's principles, from a leadership position, to the rest of the team.

The early rhetoric James offered on his Miami Heat coach ("This is who we have," he told reporters in 2010) sure sounds familiar to what James said to Joe Vardon of Northeast Ohio Media Group last season:

Joe Vardon @joevardon

I asked LeBron if Blatt's the right coach for the #Cavs: "Yeah, he’s our coach, I mean, what other coach do we have?"

That the two situations start off at similarly unpromising points is no assurance their conclusions will be similarly successful. The Cavs don't have Pat Riley around to flash rings. They lack an organizational oligarch to back Blatt like Riley supported Spoelstra.

The Cavs have some leverage on James that the Heat didn't, though, even if it's hard to imagine them ever exercising it. James can't leave Cleveland again. Not after what it did to his reputation the first time around, and not after the way he made his return about so much more than basketball.

If the Cavaliers side with Blatt in a hypothetical "It's him or me" situation, James can't walk away without doing irreversible damage to his recently rebuilt reputation. Of course, if Blatt ends up being viewed as the reason James leaves town, he might find it hard to land that next job...or walk down the street in Northeast Ohio.

The Catch-22

LOS ANGELES, CA - JANUARY 15:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers returns to the court behind Head Coach David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers during a 109-102 win over the Los Angeles Lakers at Staples Center on January 15, 2015 in Los Angeles,
Harry How/Getty Images

We're dealing with two separate issues here.

The first is James' right to be the Cavs' be-all, end-all overlord—a right he's earned with his play and track record of success.

The second is whether he knows how to use the power he's earned.

Maybe James' reported outward disrespect toward Blatt is the first sign he shouldn't have such expansive control; at some point, James' dismissal of his coach could damage the chemistry and continuity necessary for real success. Remember, not everyone on Cleveland's roster deserves carte blanche to treat the head coach's directions like they're bad jokes.

Some players, most players, haven't earned the right to flout the typical power structure. And if everyone follows James' lead, it's not hard to see the Cavs coming apart at the seams eventually.

Assuming Blatt stays put, he'll spend the next couple of years coaching a player who is (and should be) more powerful than he is. That'll only change if James proves unfit to wield that power.

But even that scenario is a bad one for Blatt.

A failure by James—as a strategist, locker room leader, whatever—will mean the Cavs continue to fall short of their championship expectations. At that point, Blatt would probably get fired anyway.

Such is life when you're coaching the best player on the planet.


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