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All Due Respect

(Aaron Josefczyk/AP)
If the fact that LeBron James is the de facto coach of the Cavaliers is news to you, it probably says more about how much attention you pay to the team and the personalities than it does about James or David Blatt.

The Marc Stein piece about James emasculating Blatt in huddles and, really, at any time when the adversity or LeBron’s unhappiness is cranked up, comes as no surprise to people who know James or who watch the Cavaliers more closely than just during The Finals.
It’s part of the reason he came back here.
‘The Letter’ and the ‘Coming Home’ stuff is a part of it. It’s just the part of it that a slick team of PR people knew a desperate fan base, and a world full of people looking for an inspiring story of homesickness and redemption, would swallow and share on their Facebook walls.
But for James it was always more than that.
James is nothing if not astute when it comes to the business of basketball and business in general. In Cleveland James knew that a messy divorce from his hometown (or region, anyway) cut two ways. He knew he mishandled it and he also knew that Cavs owner Gilbert may have messed it up more than James did.
James was well aware that burying the hatchet with Gilbert and returning to Cleveland would set him up with his redemption story and also likely give him carte blanche in terms of the control he could exert over the franchise.
He knew Gilbert would have to sit and quietly chafe at that fact while being consoled that his franchise had just appreciated about 400% with the stroke of James’ pen. James was also smart enough to realize that there were limits to how he could maneuver back in Cleveland. He effectively shut his mother down in Miami, so her running around The Q like Cleopatra wasn’t going to be an issue. And his boys and business partners would have to quiet down their act as well.
These things were only part of what James learned in Miami, though. He also learned after an embarrassing loss to the Dallas Mavericks that there might be something to him operating more out of the post. He learned that he could be far more effective being efficient than he had ever thought possible during his first ball-centric stint in Cleveland. He learned how to space the floor with shooters and open the floor for slashers and that opening the floor created space for limited but athletic big guys to crash the boards for easy points and extra possessions.
In short, James learned about playing effective basketball in a new NBA while winning a couple of titles and always keeping one eye on Cleveland where he could apply those learnings with a city and franchise desperate for him to return.
So he did return, and when he did David Blatt had already been hired. James said and did all the right things early in training camp as it pertained to Blatt. James had also already manipulated the transaction that brought Kevin Love to Cleveland and, along with Blatt, he also inherited Kyrie Irving.
Blatt, a proponent of the Princeton offense, probably lit up at the thought of utilizing his system with those three players as the focal point. But it quickly became clear early in the season that James wasn’t implementing much, if any, of Blatt’s motion offense when he was on the floor.
The Cavs would run some of that motion when James came off the floor to rest, but when he was on the court all eyes, and the ball, were generally with him. Blatt was effectively neutered long before Stein saw the level of disrespect while standing on the sidelines during The Finals. It was an issue from Game 1.
Blatt never signed on for the circus he ended up directing. He was hired to coach a bunch of young guys and to use his offense to maximize whatever that limited and young roster could give. Instead, with James coming home, Love in place of the drafted Andrew Wiggins and a flurry of mid-season trades, Blatt was now in the spotlight with a team that almost every expert picked to get The Finals.
Blatt’s a smart man. He can be defensive with the media and he can speak beyond those without a Princeton education, but he knows his X’s and O’s and he’s a bright basketball mind. And many feel bad that he’s been thrown under the bus a time or ten by the best player in the world.
I’m not one of those people.
It’s not that I don’t like Blatt. He’s fine.
But in terms of coaching, I’m more than fine with LeBron running the show. Blatt (or someone standing where he does during games and practices) is necessary because he acts as the lightning rod for a passive-aggressive James. James can roll his eyes and remark about things he doesn’t agree with like lineups and inbounds plays and Blatt takes the heat and keeps the pressure off LeBron. That might not be what he signed up for but it pays extremely well and it’s one of only 32 head coaching jobs in the best basketball league on earth.
So Blatt is superfluous for the most part when the clock is running. To an extent, every coach in the NBA is. Blatt himself has called James a coach on the floor. In this case it happens to be far more literal than when most coaches say it.
But I wouldn’t change it. And by that I mean any coach the Cavs would hire would be playing assistant to LeBron. Whether it’s Blatt or Tyron Lue or Mark Jackson or anyone else, this team is better off with James running the show because he’s perhaps the one player on earth who can actually pull it off.
There’s not a coach anywhere that can recognize a defense being thrown at James any better than James can. And there’s not a coach anywhere that can more quickly adjust to that defense or scheme to beat it than James can.
James butted heads with Erik Spoelstra in Miami for the first year he was there as well. He believes, and those beliefs may be validated after his Miami years, that he knows the game and how to play winning basketball as well as any coach walking a sideline. The fact is, short of someone like Gregg Popovich, there simply isn’t a coach out there that LeBron would show deferential respect for.
At the end of the day, I’m more concerned about the Cavs optimizing the next five years or so that James will still be an impactful player and less concerned with the deal that David Blatt got, fair or not. I understand that being blatantly disrespectful has no place. It’s simply a lack of class and upbringing and it flies in the face of the “humility” that James peppers his interviews with.
But playing in The Finals is kind of a kick. It’s fun. It’ll be even more fun when the Cavaliers MASH unit isn’t the focus of conversation. And regardless of who coaches this team, James holds all the cards. From his basketball intellect to his performance on the floor and especially to his contract situation, James controls this team’s and this town’s fortunes. Literally.
If Blatt can accept that and still wants to be a part of it, gaining valuable NBA experience and increasing his net worth, I’m fine with that. If Blatt decides he’s got too much pride to continue on being the whipping boy, then it wouldn’t surprise nor disappoint me if he takes his pride and his years of overseas coaching experience elsewhere.
But there will be “Blatts” lined up around the block to coach this team. And there’s a chance they may only be successful to the extent they too can swallow their pride and defer to James.
There’s one coach on this team. And regardless of whether Blatt stays or goes, or who replaces him, that coach won’t be wearing a suit and tie during games.
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