Pro basketball fans are watching a transformative moment in the National Basketball Association Finals, one that has been developing for a while now.
With the Golden State Warriors taking charge of the championship series by "going small," traditional NBA post players like Warriors center Andrew Bogut and Cleveland Cavaliers center Timofey Mozgov have found themselves sidelined in favor of faster, more versatile teammates. These circumstances have played into the very gifted hands of Cleveland's LeBron James, who has put up monster numbers in the series and come as close to dominating a five-man game as any one man ever has—except, perhaps, Wilt Chamberlain.
"That term, 'the King,' he wears it," Chris Dennis, who was James' personal advisor through high school and his early pro years, said with a laugh.
"He's too big, too fast, too good, for anybody," said retired coach Paul Westhead, who coached the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1980 NBA title and the Phoenix Mercury to the 2007 WNBA championship.
James drove the Cavs to a 2-1 series lead despite the loss of talented teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving to injuries. After his team lost Game 5 to fall behind 3-2, James declared himself the best player in the world, and managed to do so without sounding all that boastful.
In the process, James has made believers out of fans and pundits alike who think that, given Cleveland's injuries, a LeBron-centric offense is the only way the Cavs can compete and win in this series.
However, there's an alternative narrative surrounding James' on-court heroics, one quietly acknowledged among NBA coaches. If James wants to maximize his chances of winning more championships—and eventually eclipse Michael Jordan, a goal Dennis claims drives James—then he'll need to consider making the same self-limiting bargain that his Airness did. That is, LeBron will need to embrace a system offense.
Once upon a time, Jordan dominated the NBA with his individual play while never quite getting his teams to the top. Ultimate victory—and six NBA titles—only came after Jordan embraced the triangle offense. Hall of Fame coach Tex Winter, the developer of the triangle offense, claimed that Bulls coach Phil Jackson became great because he persuaded Jordan to accept a more team-focused approach.
It wasn't easy. The Bulls' evolution to the new approach took two seasons, during which Jordan complained that the triangle was an "equal opportunity" offense. He was right. But the triangle paved the way for Jordan to relate better to his teammates—and for teammates ranging from fellow All-Star Scottie Pippen to bench shooter (and current Warriors coach) Steve Kerr to maximize their strengths and lighten the load on Jordan.
Should James follow suit? By every indication, he already relates to teammates better than Jordan ever did. In his case, the issue is making those teammates stronger.
When James left Miami last year, there were rumblings that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was frustrated: his squad was playing too much AAU-style ball, relying on a single star player to dictate everything. It helps when that player is LeBron James, but the AAU approach looked even more unsophisticated during the Heat's humiliation in the Finals at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs and their European-styled, multiple-action offense. The Euro has two major advantages: one, multiple action means that the defense doesn't know where to focus its efforts because there is so much screening and cutting off the ball; and two, it fosters and requires team depth, which helps aging stars like Spurs big man Tim Duncan extend their playing careers.
Before James landed in Cleveland last summer, the Cavs already had hired David Blatt, perhaps Europe's top coach and a specialist in running that style. Blatt wanted to the do the same stateside—but his plans were interrupted.
"It's like that adage of, 'Man plans, and God laughs," said Warriors assistant coach Ron Adams, the team's defensive guru and the man in charge of scheming to defend against James. "You go into this and you're all set. You have your ideas. You're a highly successful coach in all these different scenarios. You have your philosophy.
"And then the best player in basketball drops into your program."
The circumstances also amuse international coach Tim Cone, the triangle guru whose teams have won umpteen titles in the Philippines. "Will we see Lebron running around in the half court offense like Manu Ginobli does for San Antonio?" Cone said with a laugh. The answer, in a word, was no. Blatt simply didn't have the stature or persuasiveness of a Phil Jackson to get James to go along with his plan.
Despite great expectations, Cleveland got off to a 19-20 start. By late December, there were reports of an open insurrection from James. Bad body language, his disinclination to be involved in team huddles, his asides to the press or anyone else who would listen—none of it boded well for Blatt.
Reporters asked James for an endorsement of the coach in late December. "Listen man, I don't pay no bills around here," he said. "I play."
Blatt also struggled—publicly—with adapting to the NBA. In the Eastern semifinals against Chicago, he tried to call a timeout in the last seconds of Game 4. Only Cleveland was out of timeouts. Fortunately, the officials chose to ignore his mistake, which could have resulted in the Bulls getting two technical foul free throws. Then Blatt tried to draw up a last-second play that had James inbounding the ball. James changed the play and took the last shot, a game-winner.
During the Finals, Blatt admitted that he had to scale back his offensive plans. "Yeah, I did," he said. "And, fortunately, it worked out for us."
Given Cleveland's mid-season acquisitions of rotation players Mozgov, Iman Shumpert, and J.R. Smith, the injuries to Love and Irving and James' overwhelming ability, it's hard to argue that scaling back wasn't the right choice. At least for now. The Cavs made the Finals, and still have a puncher's chance against a Warriors squad that some expected to breeze through the series.
Still, Blatt clearly believes that multiple action is the way to win titles.
"I think you see a lot of that now," he said of the Euro in the NBA. "The challenge is in having the continuity of your personnel. A lot of times it is also personnel driven, what type of players that you have, how do they function best offensively. Sometimes you play that way because you can. Sometimes you play that way because you want to, and then you may miss the boat because that may not be what your team needs to do.
"Obviously, I love that style and we've seen a lot of it now in the NBA and it's a good thing. But, again, you need time together and you need, I think, a particular kind of personnel to play that way."
Blatt's ability to implement his going forward likely will have less to do with its efficacy—which is pretty much proven at this point—than with his relationship with James. Winter used to say that Jackson's ability to connect with Jordan made all of the Bulls' success possible; can Cleveland's coach manage the same with his star player?
Following speculation throughout the season that he might not keep his job even if the Cavs won the title, Blatt recently was asked about his relationship with James. "Well," he said, "like any relationship, you meet, you go out a few times, you start to talk. You get to know each other. See the things that you like, things that you like less. If you're really interested in being together, you work on those things. And in time the relationship grows and deepens and hopefully flourishes."
His relationship with James has flourished, he said, "and here we are happily together in the NBA Finals."
Are they? James was asked if Blatt deserved more credit for the team's playoff run. "I don't think he cares about that," James said. "It shouldn't matter, getting credit from other people, who cares. It's all about how we credit each other, that's inside these (walls) on these floors every day in this practice facility, the game, film session, things of that nature. So it shouldn't matter what everybody else (says)."
Maybe not. But coaches talk. They see James' obvious greatness, and wonder how much better he still could be. Heading into next season, will James be able to ask, "What would Jordan do?" More importantly, will he see the need to adapt, to have a meeting of the minds with Blatt, to evolve and open up the Cavs' offense beyond hero ball?
No matter what happens the rest of this postseason, James' answers to those questions may have a huge impact on his legacy.