NEW YORK — If it’s possible for a 13-second video to say it all, this one came as close as any.
During the Cavaliers’ 34-point blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors in January, EuroHoops.net posted a video of LeBron James running the Cavaliers’ huddle. Head coach Tyronn Lue was a mere bystander while James lit into him and everyone else standing around him.
This was nothing new. In addition to being recognized as one of the greatest players ever to set foot on a basketball court, James has long been one of the most vocal superstars in league history.
His booming voice can be heard from courtside seats even in the NBA‘s loudest buildings. His knowledge of X’s and O’s is so superlative—and his self-belief so impenetrable—that coaches have routinely given him input into game-planning decisions and even allowed him to draw up plays throughout his career, a person familiar with James’ interaction with his coaches said.
“You want your franchise player to have input, because that’s how he can help you lead your team on and off the floor,” the person said. “A lot of these guys have great ideas, and to think that you have all the answers is nonsense. So you try to cultivate that with LeBron. As the years went on and he had a better understanding of how he wanted to play, he became more vocal with it. He was never disrespectful or out of line or anything like that.”
But all of these visuals—and audibles—have shaped a lazy, armchair belief that seems to be widespread among NBA fans. Namely, LeBron isn’t just the best player on whatever team he’s playing on at the moment; he’s also the coach.
This assumption is flawed on a basic level. As it turns out, having leadership ability and a loud voice aren’t the only criteria for coaching an NBA team.
“The job of the coach and the staff—scouting the opponent, formulating a game plan, making adjustments—to say that someone even as smart and talented as LeBron is doing all those things is insulting,” a league source said.
“It’s like saying Tom Brady is the coach of the Patriots,” the person added. “Yeah, when he gets to the line and sees where the linebackers are, he’s going to make a decision. But that decision comes from a game plan and a system and preparation. The whole point of coaching is to gather the right information and make it as easy as possible for your players to make good decisions.”
And for LeBron and the Cavaliers, there isn’t much ambiguity as far as coaching decisions. What interim coach Larry Drew would do is the same as Lue would do—or you and I would do.
No matter who is wearing the nicest suit on the sideline, it’s going to look something like this: During a 121-114 victory over the Brooklyn Nets on March 25, James came up the floor without the ball and motioned for Jordan Clarkson to get out of the corner. Clarkson obeyed, bringing the defense with him and allowing James to rush in for an easy alley-oop dunk.
Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press
“I had nothing to do with that,” Drew said with a smile after the game. “That was all ‘Bron. He recognized how they were playing the play that we were running, and he made the call out there and he got the alley-oop. He’s been that coach on the floor for us all year long.”
His whole career, really.
“That’s just who I am,” James said. “I feel like I’m an extension of our coaching staff. I take their commands and try to give them to our players out there on the floor. Just trying to see the game in multiple ways.”
But James hasn’t always been this way, according to a person familiar with his interactions with coaches in the years before he won his first championship with Miami in 2012.
“He was actually pretty easy to coach for the simple fact that at that time, he really didn’t want any responsibility for anything,” the person said. “He didn’t want to recruit guys, because he was super conscious of his image. He felt like if he recruited a guy and he didn’t come, that would hurt him.”
“I do believe he has a lot of influence, and I do believe that whether it’s Ty Lue, [former general manager] David Griffin or [current GM] Koby Altman, they consult with him,” the person said. “But that’s no different than Gregg Popovich doing it with Kawhi Leonard or Tim Duncan; or Mike D’Antoni with Chris Paul or James Harden.”
After purging the roster at the trade deadline and incorporating four new players into the rotation, the Cavs are now dealing with uncertainty at the top. Lue is on a leave of absence to deal with health issues, saying he had experienced unexplained chest pains and a loss of sleep throughout the season.
Drew, who has head coaching experience, took over on March 19. There is no precise timetable for Lue’s return, although Drew said, “I know he’s really on the road to recovery. He’s back to being his old self, cracking jokes. And he’s doing the things necessary from a health standpoint to get back.” On Friday, ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the team hopes Lue can “ease his way back into a full-time coaching role over the Cavs’ four-game homestand that extends until Thursday.”
Lue’s health struggles put a long overdue spotlight on how demanding and stressful the job of an NBA head coach can be. And it also suggested that if there were ever a time for James to assert his leadership and strategic acumen even more, this would be it.
Joe Skipper/Associated Press
“Especially with us right now, we have four new guys here,” George Hill, one of those new guys, said. “He’s been extra vocal—helping us out, learning different plays, talking us through it, watching film with us—just to keep us all on the same page.”
Rodney Hood, another trade deadline addition, said, “He doesn’t hold back on details when I’m doing things wrong. I’m becoming comfortable being uncomfortable.”
James has been harping on Hood lately to attack more and be “more selfish,” in James’ words. In the huddle, James is “always speaking his opinion on what we’re doing well or what we could be doing better,” Hood said. “His voice is always there.”
Sometimes, LeBron gets the whiteboard and Sharpie as well. But that’s nothing new or specific to this current Cavs team, either.
In a late March 2010 game against Milwaukee, James drew up the game-winning play in a 101-98 victory. Mo Williams drove the left baseline and passed to a cutting James for a layup. Then-coach Mike Brown admitted afterward that it was LeBron’s play all the way.
“When he brought it up, I kind of chuckled because I was like, ‘Really? Are you kidding me?'” Brown told reporters at the time. “And lo and behold, they went out there and ran it to a T. I don’t know if we’re ever run the play before in that situation.”
But does drawing up a play or yelling in the huddle make James a coach? Just ask yourself where James got the knowledge and information to know what play would work in that situation—from the scouting and preparation done by the coaching staff, of course.
“It’s like with Kobe,” a league source said. “They’re so smart and curious, and they’re always wanting more and more information. ‘What do they do on this out-of-bounds play? What are this player’s tendencies?’ But it’s not like they’re gathering the information. The coaches do that.”
And yet, whether you’re Brown, Lue, Drew or Erik Spoelstra, to coach LeBron James means you sometimes have to accept that his voice will be louder than yours. And if you do give him freedom on the floor or in the huddle, it’ll be on TV, Twitter and Instagram in about five minutes.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
“I wouldn’t do that,” Lue told reporters. “They’re already saying LeBron’s coaching the team, anyway. So if I give him the clipboard, they’re really going to say that.”
Which brings us to the most difficult and complex job that comes with coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers, no matter who it is: coaching James. It’s a matter of walking the fine line between maintaining your authority and giving an all-time great—in terms of both talent and basketball IQ—the influence he’s earned.
“Can he be passive-aggressive? Yes,” a person familiar with the Cavs’ dynamics told B/R. “Can he be overbearing? Yes. But to say that he’s coaching the team implies that he’s defiant and disrespectful, and that’s not factually accurate. That’s just not who he is.”
Ken Berger covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KBergNBA.