Could LeBron James Coach The Cleveland Cavaliers, Too?
During the NBA Finals, LeBron James has been a coach-on-the-floor for the Cleveland Cavaliers. League history suggests he could handle the job for real.
Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports
He plays almost all of the minutes. He handles the ball—and makes the offensive decisions—on seemingly every possession. He does stuff like this. So far, LeBron James isn't just dominating the National Basketball Association Finals; he's dominating his own Cleveland Cavaliers team, too, so much so that it raises an intriguing question.
Why not just have James coach the Cavs, even as he plays for them?
Please note: this isn't meant to be a cheap shot at current Cleveland coach Dave Blatt. Yes, Blatt has endured some rough patches and made some rookie mistakes during his first NBA season. And yes, James chafed early in the season at having an inexperienced coach, making little effort to hide his annoyance and even disdain for a man who was hired before James decided to leave Miami and return to Cleveland.
Still, Blatt appears to have established a working relationship with James during the playoffs. He's a well-credentialed coach with an outstanding international record, and given his management of a Cavs roster missing injured stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, deserves credit for Cleveland's postseason success.
But back to the questions at hand: could James really, truly, officially coach the Cavs? And should he? NBA rules say no. Player-coaches are not allowed.
However, NBA history suggests otherwise.
Once upon a time, player-coaches were part of a great barnstorming tradition in American pro basketball, as many touring teams were run by star players whose operating philosophy boiled down to I'll get my guys and head out on the road. That same spirit animated earlier decades in the NBA. Before he became a famed member of the New York Knicks' title teams in the early 1970s, Dave Debusschere was the player-coach of the Detroit Pistons—even though he was only in his mid-20s at the time. More notably, Hall of Famer Bill Russell took over for legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach in 1966, and extended the team's 1960s dynasty.
In fact, Russell's turn at double-duty is illustrative. For one, no one saw it coming. Heading in the 1966 season, Auerbach had coached his teams to nine championships, eight of them consecutive. He was just 45. But he was tired. Celtics owner Walter Brown had died in 1964, leaving Auerbach to shoulder the club's administrative load. The Celtics, including Russell, were aging. Auerbach still loved competing and winning, but privately, he admitted that coaching had become a burden.
Prior to the 1965-66 NBA season, Auerbach announced he would coach one more season then retire to the Celtics' front office. His hand-picked replacement? Many speculated that Celtics legend Bob Cousy, then the coach at Boston College, would get the job. Auerbach talked to Cousy—as well as retired Celtics player Tommy Heinsohn—about taking over the team, but both men insisted that the best coach to motivate Russell the player would be Russell himself.
Fast-forward to the 1966 NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers came into Boston Garden and stole Game 1. During the postgame interview session, Auerbach broke the news: Russell would be his replacement. It was a bombshell. Boston's center would become the first African-American coach in the NBA, and the first in any of America's major sports leagues. Also, he would still be playing.
Denying the Lakers the glory and psychological edge that should have come with pulling off a major victory, Auerbach's announcement helped drive the Celtics to their ninth championship. At his retirement dinner, Russell addressed the gathering: "When I took this job, somebody said, 'What did you take it for? You have nothing to gain. You got to follow Red Auerbach.'
"I don't think I'm going to be another Red Auerbach."
Russell wasn't. He was his own man, just as he had been throughout his playing career. And it worked. In his first season as player-coach, Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia 76ers won the NBA championship. But in his final two seasons, Russell coached himself and his veteran teammates to back-to-back titles over the Lakers.
A few years ago, Russell explained his success like this.
"I egotistically would tell people, when they would challenge me on what I'd say, I'd say, 'I know more about winning basketball than anyone you'll ever meet or encounter,'" he said. "They'd say, 'Well, there's no modesty.' Well, no, there's honesty, rather than modesty. When I was in high school in three years we lost three games. In college we won 55 straight games and two NCAA championships. We won the Gold medal in the Olympics ... with the Celtics, we were in the Finals 12 times. Now if I was dumb as a brick, just being around that many winning teams I'd have to have learned something.
"I was an integral part of deciding how we were going to play. I had input on that. And so this is one game I know about."
Now consider James. He never played college basketball. But like Russell, he was a winner in high school, a winner in the Olympics and a winner in the NBA—not only because of his unique physical gifts and obvious work ethic, but also because of his rare hoops intelligence.
On the floor, James makes the right play. Almost always. He makes his teammates better, and akin to Magic Johnson or Wayne Gretzky, seems to see a few seconds into the future. Basketball is one game he knows about. Throughout the playoffs and during the Finals, he has been the Cavs' conductor, just as Russell was for the Celtics. He is, to borrow a phrase, an integral part of deciding how Cleveland is going to play: searching for spot-up shooters off pick-and-rolls, bullying to the basket when Golden State deploys a smallball lineup, almost single-handedly controlling the pace of the series in order to give his short-handed club the best chance of competing.
None of this should come as a surprise. James is heading down the backstretch of his career as a man in full, seemingly intent on controlling every element of his environment—no different than a master in any given field, from filmmaking to finance, from music to medicine. Did James return to Cleveland out of love and duty, to take care of unfinished business and bring a championship to the state he still calls home? There's no reason not to take him at his word. But it's hard not to suspect that he also came back for more control, more than he would ever have in Miami, where team president Pat Riley rules the roost.
So, could James make it official? Could be coach the Cavs? It's hard to imagine the NBA allowing it. And even if the league changed its rules, it's hard to imagine any player wanting the extra responsibility and pressure. NBA coaching has become an all-consuming profession, an endless loop of scouting, strategizing and watching it all go to heck over 48 minutes.
If one player could pull it off, though, it would be James. He understands the game, and as a teammate, he seems to understand people as well. (By contrast, Michael Jordan never could have played and coached at the same time: he was too harsh on the other players in his own locker room, wouldn't have known when and how to ease up and relieve unnecessary pressure). Chris Dennis, an Akron AAU coach who worked with James for years, says it would work. Or consider this quote, from another NBA coach:
"He's a terrific, terrific, and special player and person. He's done great things for this team and for our journey. He has taken on a leadership role that I think comes from not only his performance as a player, but his maturity as a person and from the wealth of experience that he's had being such a successful NBA player and becoming truly one of the great NBA players in history."
Auerbach, talking about Russell? Nope. Try Blatt, talking about James. Again, I don't bring this up to slight Blatt. He'll be a terrific NBA coach for years to come. Rather, I mention it as a way of answering our initial question. Could James be the next Russell? He doesn't need to be. His talent is unique. Like Russell, he's very much his own man. Which is exactly why he could be his own coach.