Is LeBron James a coach killer?
|Ian Thomsen||Apr 9, 2018|
The book, which comes out April 17, is filled with all kinds of insider information from Miami Heat president Pat Riley and other key NBA characters, but for now let’s focus on the biggest news.
The story. In November 2011, which was the opening month of his first season in Miami, LeBron’s Heat were off to a miserable 9-8 start. One night earlier, during a loss in Dallas, LeBron had rammed shoulders with Miami’s young coach Erik Spoelstra while heading to the bench for a timeout. Soon ESPN would publish a story quoting an anonymous source close to the Heat who complained about Spoelstra’s treatment of LeBron.“Everybody knows LeBron is playful and likes to joke around, but Spoelstra told him in front of the whole team that he has to get more serious,” the anonymous source told ESPN in 2010. “The players couldn’t believe it. They feel like Spoelstra’s not letting them be themselves.’
The source of the report was clearly someone complaining on behalf of LeBron. “Anybody inside of his ‘family’ that may have made those kinds of accusations early in the process — before we’d played twenty games — just didn’t understand the dynamics of really building this team,” Heat president Pat Riley told me, as quoted in the book.
In the middle of the turmoil, Riley met in his office in 2010 with LeBron, Wade and Bosh the day after their loss in Dallas. During the brief 10-minute meeting, he asked the three stars how things were progressing. “They just said, ‘We’re not feeling it,’ or something like that,” Riley told me. “We talked about the typical things that we have to do, have patience and all of that stuff. And I remember LeBron looking at me, and he said, ‘Don’t you ever get the itch?’ I said, ‘The itch for what?’ He said, ‘The itch to coach again?’ I said, ‘No, I don’t have the itch.’ He didn’t ask any more questions, and I didn’t offer any more answers. But I know what it meant, and I always go back and wonder about what he was thinking at that time. He walked out scratching his leg like it was itching.”
Months earlier, during the Heat’s recruiting pitch to LeBron as a free agent in July 2010, a similar question had been raised. “They wanted to know what was going to happen with Erik,” Riley said. “They wondered if I was going to be coaching. I said, ‘Look, Erik is the head coach, that’s it. I support him. I’m not interested in coaching.’ The thought was in their mind at times that maybe I would come back and coach, I think. But I was truly done, I didn’t want to get back into it, and Erik is a hell of a coach. He was coming off two good playoff years, but he had not been coaching three superstars. And then with the whole LeBron effect, it would have been a tough transition for any head coach with two years of experience.”
Does this mean LeBron must have been complicit in the firing of David Blatt five years later? In January 2016, midway through LeBron’s second season back in Cleveland, the Cavaliers abruptly fired Blatt even though his team was number 1 in the East (30-11) one year after he had coached them to the 2015 NBA Finals, in which they held a 2-1 series lead before succumbing to injuries and the Warriors.
Cavaliers GM David Griffin took responsibility for the coaching change while insisting that LeBron had nothing to do with it. Blatt was replaced by his assistant Tyronn Lue, a Doc Rivers protégé who coached the Cavaliers to a 3-1 comeback in an NBA Finals rematch with Golden State. LeBron has maintained that he was not involved:But the speculation has persisted that LeBron compelled the Cavaliers to replace Blatt, who was a top coach internationally before taking over Cleveland in 2014 with no NBA experience. And so it would be easy to jump on the 2010 anecdote from Riley as circumstantial evidence: If LeBron was trying to engineer a coaching change in Miami, then didn’t he probably do the same thing in Cleveland?
I respectfully disagree with the assumption.
LeBron was desperate. Think about LeBron’s circumstances as he scratched at his leg provocatively in November 2010. For the preceding decade he had been portrayed around the world as “The Chosen One,” which was the headline on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine that introduced America to LeBron when he was 17 years old.
LeBron was meant to be the second-coming of Michael Jordan. But after seven NBA seasons, he hadn’t won – and had not come close to winning – an NBA championship. As a free agent in the summer of 2010 his TV show, The Decision, had recast LeBron as the NBA’s villain. He was the most hated athlete in American sports and now, in the company of more talent than he had ever played with in Cleveland, he was losing.At that time LeBron didn’t know how to win. His need for championships had driven him away from the only life he had known in Ohio. Winning the NBA Finals was his only path to redemption – and there sat Riley, who had come out of coaching retirement five years earlier to lead Miami to the fifth championship of his Hall of Fame career.
LeBron didn’t appear to have personal problems with Spoelstra, who in 2011-12 would reinvent the Heat offense around LeBron to win the next two championships. This had nothing to do with personalities. LeBron was asking Riley to take over because he needed his help more than he’d ever needed anyone or anything in his basketball life.
Now jump ahead to January 2016. When the Cavaliers dismissed Blatt, LeBron was no longer a desperate 25-year-old who didn’t know how to win. He was, in fact, an enormously secure 31-year-old who had claimed two championships and was months away from winning the final three games of the season to earn his third.
There has been no hard proof that LeBron conspired to have Blatt fired — maybe because there was no reason for him to do so.
LeBron at 31 didn’t need someone like Riley to step in and save him. By then LeBron had learned all of the secrets from Riley and Spoelstra. He had absorbed the championship lessons from Miami and was applying them in Cleveland.I understand why LeBron would need to be coached by Riley in 2010. I don’t know why he would push for Blatt’s dismissal in 2016. It would be beneath him.
The context of Riley’s anecdote. Riley was interviewed by me for nine hours for The Soul of Basketball. It remains the only time that Riley has opened up about his controversial 2010 recruitment of LeBron, Wade and Bosh, who went on to win two championships and reach four NBA Finals in their four years together.
Point by point, in fascinating detail, Riley explained how championship teams are built. I believe, ultimately, that Riley wanted people to appreciate LeBron’s career and his achievements.
Because that success did not come easily. In spite of his God-given talent and the money and fame that flowed to him as a teenage prodigy, LeBron’s path was more painful than Michael Jordan’s.
We all know who LeBron is today: The greatest player of his generation, the global star who is driving the NBA’s popularity and prosperity around the world.
He makes it look easy now, but it was hard back then. My book goes back to that lonely, insecure year when LeBron’s future was not assured. While The Soul of Basketball revolves around LeBron, it also tells the stories of his rivals in 2010-11 – thanks to exclusive interviews with Dirk, Mark Cuban and the Mavericks; Kobe Bryant and the Lakers; Doc Rivers, Paul Pierce and the Celtics; as well as Gregg Popovich, Larry Bird, Isiah Thomas, David Stern, referee Joey Crawford and other characters (including more news from Riley). All of these people joined with Riley in helping (or forcing) LeBron to learn the hard truths of fulfilling his potential.
Taken altogether, Riley’s contributions to The Soul of Basketball are proof of his respect for LeBron. ``The itch’’ is an important part of the story. It shows how much LeBron had to learn on his way to becoming the world’s greatest star.