It isn’t just that LeBron James overruled coach David Blatt before his game-winning shot to beat the Bulls, it’s that he told the whole world about it after the game.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it. I just told coach, ‘Give me the ball,'” LeBron said after the game. “I was supposed to take the ball out. I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.’ I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball, and everybody get out of the way.'”
If you’ve followed the Cavs this season, you know this sort of thing is normal. All year long LeBron has openly contradicted his coach and generally presented himself as an authority figure in the Cavs locker room that operates independently from the head coach.
Brian Windhorst of ESPN, the best LeBron reporter in the world, called their relationship “one giant game of passive-aggressive theatre.”
Here’s a quick rundown of LeBron-Blatt awkwardness:
- LeBron and Blatt didn’t meet until six weeks after he signed with the team, Windhorst reports.
- The team abandoned the Princeton offence that Blatt tried to install before the season. Now, LeBron calls the plays and Blatt signals those calls back to the rest of the team.
- Two months into the season LeBron decided he was going to play point guard. When asked by reporter Chris Haynes if he asked Blatt before making the change, he said, “Nah, I can do it on my own. I’m past those days where I have to ask.”
- At the team’s first practice, LeBron stopped everything and had a 30-minute players-only meeting where he told everyone what he expected of them.
- After an opening-night loss to the Knicks, Blatt reportedly ripped the team for how they played. A few days later a reporter asked LeBron about it and he said, “I think pep talks and things of that nature get overblown.”
- In the team’s third game of the year, LeBron was weirdly disinterested in a game against the Portland Trail Blazers. After the game, Windhorst reported that LeBron was letting his team fail on purpose to teach them a lesson.
- In January Windhorst reported that assistant coach Tyronn Lue was calling timeouts behind Blatt’s back and the team looked to him in huddles instead of Blatt.
- LeBron routinely refers to Blatt as a “rookie” head coach in interviews. According to Windhorst, Blatt hates when people use the word “rookie” to describe him because he coached in Europe for decades.
And now, we have LeBron basically saying “nope” to Blatt and calling his own number on the most crucial possession of the season.
This stuff comes off like a quirk when things are going well for Cleveland, as they have been over the last three months. It’s easy to dismiss the LeBron-Blatt weirdness with a laugh and a mumbled, “
These two.” The way they have been playing since the trade deadline, you could even argue that this is a highly productive (if unusual) working relationship that ought not be tinkered with.
But there’s a fine line between quirkiness and dysfunction. When things aren’t going so well, these same anecdotes suddenly take on a greater weight.
Even now, there’s evidence that LeBron’s latest overhaul of the Cavs’ offence hasn’t been the best thing for the team. ESPN’s Tom Haberstroh wrote an article pointing out that LeBron is relying more heavily on isolation plays than he ever has. With Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving hobbled, LeBron has decided he needs to win games by himself. And while his “give me the ball” plan may have worked on at the end of Game 4, it’s hard to see that strategy carrying them to the title.
Injuries derailed this Cavs team just as they were becoming the juggernaut we all thought they’d be. In one sense, the pressure is off both LeBron and Blatt. No one expects them to win a title without a healthy Love and Irving. But in another sense, the fact that the Cavs now have to make significant adjustments on the fly is the ultimate test of their working relationship. They have to figure out how to play without Love and Irving, which forces them to confront the same issues of responsibility and decision-making power that they have grappled with all year.
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