CLEVELAND — Mike Brown was once skewered for saying LeBron James "allows" Brown to coach him (never mind that Shaq said otherwise). David Blatt once compared the job of coaching James and the Cavaliers to that of a fighter pilot before the Cavs pulled the ejector seat less than a year later.
It's no secret James and his head coaches haven't always seen eye to eye. The disagreements have ranged from your normal heat-of-the-moment conflicts to outright disrespectful shows of defiance.
But Luke Walton has earned respect for leading the Golden State Warriors for much of their 73-win season. He is entering his second year with the Lakers, having coached great players along the way—but no one with James' focal magnitude.
Walton will be James' seventh head coach, and the former's desire to learn from Tyronn Lue and Erik Spoelstra—two of James' previous coaches—makes sense. Uncharted territory is much easier to navigate with a little background info.
While I've never had the chance to coach James, I have had five seasons of covering him on a daily basis and four seasons of watching him from afar. And while Walton (or any member of the Lakers, for that matter) hasn't reached out, I'll gladly provide thoughts on what can be expected over the next three seasons for the head coach, the team and those watching the spectacle up close.
Expect a Roster in Constant Flux
When James returned to the Cavaliers in 2014, he preached patience. The city of Cleveland had not won a championship in over five decades, and if James' first seven years with the team provided him with anything in the way of learning experiences, it was the cold reality that winning a championship would be much more difficult than it had been during any other moment in his basketball-playing career to that point.
During his four years with the Heat, James learned what it took to win a championship and knew that the Cavaliers—then anchored by Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters and a recently drafted Andrew Wiggins—were not anywhere near the level required to compete for the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
James wrote in SI:
"We're not ready right now. No way. Of course, I want to win next year, but I'm realistic. It will be a long process, much longer than it was in 2010. My patience will get tested. I know that. I'm going into a situation with a young team and a new coach. ... But this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball."
Cleveland fans had been forced to witness unwatchable basketball. Fans were routinely celebrating elevated numbers of pingpong balls. But they had waited 43 years for a championship—one or two more seasons wouldn't have been the end of the world.
LeBron had other ideas.
Six weeks after James' essay, then-general manager David Griffin began swapping the future for the present as he moved Wiggins to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Kevin Love. Six months later, Cleveland moved multiple first-round picks for veterans who would provide much-needed depth. However, they also would come needing new, larger contracts much sooner than the assets that were moved.
They signed James Jones. They added Mike Miller. They gave a roster spot to Kendrick Perkins (the first time).
James' first game back with the Cavaliers was a high-energy, highly covered contest that included a city-rallying spot from Nike and a loss at the hands of Carmelo Anthony and the New York Knicks. On January 5, as the Cavs sat with a ho-hum 19-16 record, the patience-testing process was thrown into hyperdrive as the team traded Waiters to Oklahoma City along with a second-round pick in a three-team deal that sent JR Smith and Iman Shumpert back to Cleveland by way of New York.
Before the ink dried on the paperwork for the Smith-Shumpert deal, Cleveland moved multiple first-round picks to Denver for Timofey Mozgov.
Coaching him will provide unique challenges. Lue was forced to juggle personalities and friendships when Dwyane Wade arrived in Cleveland. The Lakers' addition of Rajon Rondo raises eyebrows on its own. How Rondo will earn minutes alongside last year's No. 2 pick Lonzo Ball will be a delicate balance.
Brandon Ingram showed growth over his rookie season compared to last, but where does he fit alongside James and Stevenson? And if the answer is moving James to power forward, where does Kyle Kuzma fit alongside McGee? And with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope represented by Klutch Sports Group, the same agency that represents James, does he take more minutes from Josh Hart?
The majority of NBA head coaches would gladly take Walton's "problems," but James' addition will bring a level of scrutiny the Lakers haven't seen since Kobe Bryant's farewell tour. Walton will not only have the pressure of coaching a team with James, but also one with Rondo, JaVale McGee and Lance Stephenson—who'll each wear Lakers gold for the first time.
Balancing the experienced veterans with the developing young guys will be one of Walton's biggest challenges.
As the Cavaliers traversed through James' second stint with the team, a championship in hand, it became immediately obvious his preference for experience would always trump upside. When Cavs GM Koby Altman made a roster-altering series of moves in February, James found himself surrounded by younger players expected to bring energy and pace to the court.
"It's a challenge, man," James said in a one-on-one discussion with Bleacher Report following the mid-season trades. "It's very challenging—especially for me, being someone who likes chemistry and having things in order."
When discussing the basketball IQ of the Big Three Boston Celtics during the most recent NBA Finals, James had high praise for Rondo's play-making ability. As much as he appreciates Lonzo Ball, how much of a leash will there be? As much as Stevenson has irked James since his days in Miami, will his playoff experience win out over some of the upside on the team's roster? And in what would be the biggest headline maker of them all, would the Lakers deal any of their up-and-coming talent for a shot at Kawhi Leonard?
LeBron James: Player-Coach
David Blatt went to the Cavaliers as a highly decorated international coach with a high basketball IQ and a willingness to remind one of both characteristics. In James, he met someone who canceled plays and spent more time directing traffic throughout the flow of the game than anyone holding a clipboard.
An eight-second sequence in a playoff series against the Chicago Bulls in 2015 where Blatt famously attempted to call a timeout when the team did not have any defined their relationship. Lue pulled back Blatt before he could make the call, and the Cavaliers got the ball with 1.5 seconds left. James sunk the game-winner from the corner.
"To be honest, the play that was drawn up. I scratched it," James told reporters following the game. "I just told coach, 'Just give me the ball. We're either going to go into overtime or I'm [going to] win it for us.' It was that simple."
"I was supposed to take the ball out," James continued. "I told coach, 'There's no way I'm taking the ball out unless I can shoot it over the backboard and go in.' So I told him to have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out the way."
James remembers where he was at all times. In the most recent game. In last week's game. In a game three years ago in the middle of February against the Washington Wizards. James will take the assertion that a play that transpired was similar to one from many moons prior, only to shoot back with the accurate account that the plays were just a bit different.
Take, for instance, James' game-winner in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers this past postseason. The parallels to his game-winner against the Orlando Magic in 2009 were there. James, however, felt the two plays—both playoff, buzzer-beating game-winners—were much different.
"It didn't remind me until a lot of the people in the locker room brought it up at that time," James said following the win. "The inbound pass was on the other side of the floor, and I didn't have a chance to put the ball on the floor, but it pretty much ended up being the same spot, kind of in the middle of the floor."
Taking advantage of James' computer-like mind will be integral to Walton's success. The instance with Blatt against the Bulls was not isolated; James also improved plays for Spoelstra in Miami and Lue in Cleveland after Blatt's firing. Take that game-winner against the Pacers for example: James had worked on that play in practices throughout the season. When he finds the time to unleash something like it, the smart money says to go with it.
The Occasional Pouting
When James returned to Cleveland in 2014, he teamed up with two players in Irving and Waiters who spent the pair of seasons prior attempting to be the Cavaliers' alpha dog. Recall the video of Waiters frantically waving his hands at James as he stood open at the wing—a six-second gaze into a cauldron that was bubbling underneath.
Not long before this moment, James spent an entire game in Portland standing in the corner on offense, disengaged and acting passive-aggressively as Irving and Waiters fired up shots and the Trail Blazers beat the Cavs by 19.
In a game roughly one week later, James admitted he entered the contest in "chill mode," only turning up his intensity after an altercation with Tobias Harris, then of the Orlando Magic. And who could forget the subtweet heard 'round the world?
And this past season, James spent January playing at a solid level by most NBA measures, but one that was below the superstar standards fans have grown to expect. As the Cavaliers locker room was unraveling with in-fighting between longtime members and those who were added during the previous offseason, James effectively pouted his way into the deadline-day deals.
James, who will turn 34 this December, is bound to pace himself throughout the duration of his career. This should not be mistaken for laziness or lack of effort. Playing 82 games last season, James also carried the Cavaliers through the playoff gauntlet, going to seven games against both the Pacers and Boston Celtics. Nevertheless, James is already posting videos of early morning workouts to his Instagram page, gearing up for what he expects to be another long season.
With this, however, comes the understanding that some nights will be better than others, but the good drastically outweigh the bad. You take "chill mode" and subtweets and the occasional moments of standing in the corner because you know, come playoff time, there will be no player more prepared for what's to come than the man who's played in eight consecutive NBA Finals series.
He Has Killer Expectations
When asked if James could one day be a head coach, Knicks head coach David Fizdale explained why the best player in the world would not last on the sidelines, per ESPN.com's Dave McMenamin.
"He would kill somebody," Fizdale said. "Perfection is like [his standard]. He wants perfection. ... I think [as a coach], he would end up killing a player at some point because they wouldn't live up to the expectations that he would set forth."
James did not disagree.
But as Spoelstra recently told Walton, per ESPN.com's Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers are getting a different version of LeBron. He's older and wiser, is coming off an 82-game regular season and reportedly wishes to have a lesser load, per ESPN's Doris Burke. He's won three titles and four MVP awards and has repeatedly said he does not have much else to give the game of basketball.
Playing with a host of young players and a handful of one-year teammates with questionable track records while in a conference loaded with some of the game's best teams, James will have his patience tested again. Can Walton keep the locker room at an even keel during an 82-game season despite all the question marks surrounding the makeup of his team?
Ball seems to have a fan in James, but he also had an entire month during his rookie year where he shot 30.4 percent from the floor. Kuzma, while exceeding most expectations last season, also struggled with inefficiency. What will his sophomore season look like? And can Ingram continue with the growth he exhibited between his rookie season and a 2017-18 campaign that saw him average 16.1 points per game on 53.6 percent true shooting?
ESPN's Brian Windhorst recently said on The Lowe Post podcast:
"I'm not saying anything that LeBron doesn't know, but he is in for a lot harder of a regular season than he's ever had. There are no gimmies in the West. LeBron has lived in a world for 15 years where there was roadkill coming over the horizon on the schedule. This Western Conference, there will be weeks where it's the Pelicans on Tuesday and the Jazz on Thursday. This is going to be a different situation than LeBron has been in for 10 years. This is going to be an incredible challenge for him with the way the West is set up right now."
Will we see a rehash of what took place in 2014? Who knows? Perhaps James means it this time. When he returned to Cleveland, it was on a one-year deal that allowed him to take advantage of the ballooning salary cap. But it was also a one-year deal that constricted the Cavs' sustainability. The Lakers have three guaranteed years of James' services and a fourth year if the four-time MVP opts into a $41 million payday.
In Houston, Philadelphia or even Cleveland, James' path to another championship might have been easier. If we presume his move to Los Angeles is more about personal happiness and the next phase of his career, then he has all the time in the world.
If this is the case, and the NBA world is getting a LeBron who has swapped a competitive, win-at-all-costs, excellence-demanding approach for one that is a little more cool, calm and methodical, there's a chance Los Angeles is getting the best version of LeBron yet.
That "if," however, is bigger than the hill that houses the Hollywood sign.