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The four-time NBA Most Valuable Player spoke with reporters after shootaround ahead of the Cavs' Wednesday meeting with the Phoenix Suns, rejecting reports that he and his representatives had deliberately undermined Blatt from the beginning of his tenure in 2014 and that he'd had a hand in Blatt's firing/his subsequent replacement by longtime LeBron friend/associate head coach Tyronn Lue. James also fired back at the insinuation that Blatt's ouster is just the latest instance in a long-running pattern of James undercutting his coaches, and that the 12-time All-Star merits one of the game's most dreaded two-word tags.
If it is your opinion that LeBron James is a coach killer, well, then, James says "that sucks."
"But what can I do about it? I've never, in my time since I picked up a basketball, ever undermined a coach, ever disrespected a coach," James said Wednesday [...]
Surely, though, LeBron can see where people might get the idea. Blatt's the third head coach of a James-led team to be fired. His first pro coach, Paul Silas, was fired before the end of James' second season in the league. The coach who took over the following season, Mike Brown, rolled up a regular-season record of 272-138 over the next five years, with five straight playoff appearances and one trip to the NBA Finals, but the Cavaliers canned him following the 2009-10 season, reportedly in part because they believed James wanted Brown gone as a condition of his return in free agency.
Despite Brown's firing, James left to join the Miami Heat, where, according to comments made by Heat limited partner Raanan Katz in an Israeli radio interview on Tuesday, LeBron "made it clear that he wanted to dump head coach Erik Spoelstra" on multiple occasions. Katz later walked those comments way, way back in a chat with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, terming them merely his opinion rather than facts based on direct knowledge. A Heat spokesperson also told the Sun Sentinel that LeBron made no such request during his time in Miami.
James said Wednesday that "he never met Katz during his four years" in Miami, according to Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
“I have no idea who that is,” James said. “I don't even know if a lot of guys that actually played ever met him. I was there for four years and I never met him. … I don't think he was involved in any of the conversations that goes on with the personnel of the team or the coaching staff or anything. But it's easy to say that at this point.”
James asked what was Katz’s [objective] for speaking out. Told he was previously a shareholder in Maccabi Tel Aviv, where Blatt previously coached, James nodded.
“There you go,” James said. “There's a direct correlation right there. Makes sense.”
Even if the Spoelstra stuff's a non-story, though, James' relationship with Blatt — both the parts we could see on the sideline and the parts reported on by those close to the Cavs — always seemed a bit more than frosty, from faint praise to feigned plays, from shoves to "scratches" to subs. James, however, doubled down on his stance that speaking his mind and calling his own number is less evidence of a penchant for rebellion than it is the natural result of the growth of one of the greatest and most complete games we've ever seen. More from Vardon:
"People get it so misconstrued because I'm a smart basketball player and I've voiced my opinion about certain things, which I did when I was here my first stint with Paul Silas and Mike Brown," James said. "Which I did in Miami with Coach Spo. Which I did with Blatt and I'll do with T-Lue. And at the end of the day, they'll still have their final call. But, I don't know. What do you guys want me to do, turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ? If that's what they want me to do, I'm not going to do it because I've got so much to give to the game."
"There's no difference for me telling my teammates or telling guys how to get better with their game. If I feel I got something that will help our team, ultimately, I like to give it. It helped me get two titles."
So, too, did Spoelstra's work to recreate the Heat's offensive and defensive philosophies to better maximize LeBron's talents as a facilitator both in the pick-and-roll and out of the post, and the physical gifts that helped ramp up Miami's rotations and turnover creation to generate one of the game's most lethal transition attacks. It's inarguably true that James' knowledge of and feel for the game rank among the very best we've ever seen, but throughout league history, winning it all has required the all-time greats to work in partnership with teammates and coaches to get all the way to the top of the mountain.
The perception — in this case, at least, if not necessarily in the cases of Silas, Brown and Spoelstra — is that James was at best never really willing to build that sort of partnership with Blatt, which created the conditions for the deterioration of the overall environment surrounding the still-very-successful Cavs to the point that general manager David Griffin decided a change was necessary. In that reading, James bears responsibility, whether he pulled the trigger or not.
I'm open to the idea that someone with as brilliant a basketball mind at James doesn't need to just blindly accede to someone else's notions of chain of command. I'm open to the possibility that Blatt might not have been the coach to help LeBron and the rest of the Cavs win the 2016 NBA Finals. (Though, after watching the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, I'm not sure any coach is.) I'm even open to the argument that "coach killing" in and of itself isn't even really bad a thing. But it's LeBron's apparent unwillingness to meet Blatt halfway — and his repeated public comments about how he just works here, how he's not the owner or the GM or the coach, how he's just one of the guys rather than the most powerful decision-making force in the Cavaliers organization — that rubs people the wrong way ... which, in turn, seems to be rubbing LeBron the wrong way.
"[...] I think it does suck that people want to throw my name in dirt for no particular reason, because of speculation or whatever the case may be. But you can't worry about it too much. I got 14 guys here. I got a fan base here and a fan base all over the world that loves what I do, and they respect what I do, and I can't worry about a select group of people that wants to use their negative energy to take away my positive energy. I can't allow that to happen."
It seems, then, that James' course is clear. If you don't like what's being said, you change the conversation, and the best way to do that would be to start racking up some more Ws to add to Lue's just-started collection. If all this ends in hoisting the O'Brien in June, you'd imagine James won't be able to hear any lingering negative comments over the all-encompassing roar stretching from Cleveland to Cincinnati.
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