CLEVELAND: In the pantheon of this game’s greatest players, there is one key category that separates LeBron James from many of his peers both past and present.
Magic Johnson had Pat Riley, Bill Russell had Red Auerbach and Tim Duncan has Gregg Popovich. Michael Jordan didn’t win until Phil Jackson arrived in Chicago and the same was true with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
Scroll through the list of legends and nearly all of the game’s greatest players, particularly within the last 35 years, are linked to at least one of the game’s greatest coaches. There is a logical connection. Great coaches can’t win without great players, but even great players typically need great coaching, too.
In that regard, James is much like Oscar Robertson, which is ironic since their games have been comparable for years. Robertson came into the NBA coached by guys like Jack McMahon, Ed Jucker and Bob Cousy, who was a hall of fame player and a mediocre coach. Robertson spent 10 seasons with his hometown Cincinnati Royals, went to the All-Star Game every year and even won a Most Valuable Player award. But he didn’t win a championship until he was traded to Milwaukee in 1970. He wasn’t paired with a legendary coach there, but he did have who would eventually become the game’s all-time leading scorer in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That helps.
This isn’t to excuse James from his treatment of David Blatt during portions of their 18 months together. James often ignored his coach, scratched plays, shoved him out of the way once to argue with an official and did most of his communicating through Tyronn Lue instead.
Throughout his NBA career, however, James has never been coached by a legend.
Paul Silas was followed by Brendan Malone, who was followed by Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra, Blatt and now Lue.
Silas and Lue are the only former players. Brown, Blatt and Lue were rookie head coaches with James. Spoelstra wasn’t a rookie when James arrived in Miami, but he was entering his third season of his first NBA gig. Safe to say nothing during his first two seasons prepared him for what blew into town in 2010.
All of James’ previous coaches have enjoyed varying degrees of success in the NBA ranging from NBA Finals appearances to Coach of the Year awards and championships. He was a huge reason why, while none of them — at least to this point — carry the same NBA legacy as guys like Jackson and Popovich.
James can be incredibly difficult to coach. A number of his former coaches have conceded as much in private moments. What makes him so difficult is also what makes every coach in the league covet the opportunity to grab him: His greatness.
After spending nearly two seasons around James daily, I think he believes he has a higher basketball IQ than every coach in the league. Even scarier, he might be right.
Teammates marvel at how James sees plays develop before anyone else on the floor, about how he knows ways to attack on his team’s next possession based off how the defense reacted to the last one.
“What do you guys want me to do? Turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ?” James asked in recent days. “If that’s what they want me to do, I’m not going to do it because I’ve got so much to give to the game.”
Magic Johnson came to James’ defense this week on Twitter. Johnson also earned the reputation as a coach killer after he essentially had Paul Westhead removed as head coach of the Lakers despite winning a championship when both were rookies at their positions.
“There’s NO WAY he can accomplish [six Finals, two titles and four MVPs] and be a coach killer,” Johnson wrote of James on his Twitter account. “All the greats who are also the leaders of their teams have expressed their opinions in private & public and [James] is no different. … My advice to LeBron, is to be LeBron.”
Is James a coach killer? He has demonstrated symptoms of it, sure. But Silas was fired because Dan Gilbert just bought the team and wanted to bring in his own people and Blatt is the first coach since to be fired while actively coaching James.
When the Cavs fired Brown in 2010, there was a strong faction of the organization that wanted to keep him. Ownership did, too, but ultimately fired him while guessing at James’ intentions because he never made them clear. And despite making Spoelstra’s life difficult in their first season together, Riley denied recently that James ever asked for Spoelstra to be fired.
In all this debate about whether James is a coach killer, why hasn’t anyone asked:
How many of them deserved it?
Jason Lloyd can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow him on Twitter www.twitter.com/JasonLloydABJ.