Report: LeBron James repeatedly defied David Blatt during NBA Finals
LeBron James did damn near everything for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 NBA Finals, carrying an injury-plagued roster lacking any viable supplemental shot creators through six games against the deeper, healthier, better Golden State Warriors. It was a virtuoso performance that had many wondering whether he deserved MVP honors even in defeat, which came Tuesday night in Game 6, allowing the Dubs to celebrate their first NBA championship in 40 years on James' home court at Quicken Loans Arena.
In one context, though, James might have been doing way, way too much. ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote Thursday that, on multiple occasions, he "saw LeBron emasculate [Cavaliers head coach] David Blatt in ways that are simply unbecoming of a player of James' legend-in-the-making stature."
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More from Stein:
I saw it from close range in my role as sideline reporter through the Finals for ESPN Radio. LeBron essentially calling timeouts and making substitutions. LeBron openly barking at Blatt after decisions he didn't like. LeBron huddling frequently with [assistant coach Tyronn] Lue and so often looking at anyone other than Blatt.
There was LeBron, in one instance I witnessed from right behind the bench, shaking his head vociferously in protest after one play Blatt drew up in the third quarter of Game 5, amounting to the loudest nonverbal scolding you could imagine.
Which forced Blatt, in front of his whole team, to wipe the board clean and draw up something else. [...]
How is any fellow Cavalier going to treat Blatt with something resembling reverence when LeBron treats him like a bench ornament in plain view?
How can LeBron publicly laud his own leadership, as he so often does, when setting that sort of tone?
It is worth noting, before we get too far afield, that legendary players don't always have smooth, shining, smile-all-the-time relationships with their head coaches:
Somebody ask Doug Collins & Paul Westhead if they agree that determining your coach's fate is in keeping with legend-in-the-making status.
— Farmer Jones (@thefarmerjones) June 18, 2015
Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson used the leverage at their disposal to push their organizations into going in different directions on the bench, though we tend to think about that less because ... y'know ... those pushes worked. Whether James, even if he really wanted to push Blatt out, could find a Pat Riley or Phil Jackson to put the Cavs over the top very much remains to be seen, although the inclusion of now-former Chicago Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau's name in Stein's report seems noteworthy in that regard. (There have also, of course, been plenty of other lower-intensity coach/superstar squabbles in years past — Kobe/Shaq/Phil pops to mind, though that obviously didn't result in a coaching change.)
Suggestions of a division between James, who famously returned to the Cavaliers last July after spending four years with the Miami Heat, and Blatt, whom Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert hired last June, before the Cavs had any idea they'd be bringing LeBron back, persisted throughout the season.
Amid the Cavs' early season struggles, there was James' faint "What other coach do we have?" praise, and chatter about the Cavaliers tuning Blatt out and ignoring his play calls.
That report surfaced after the looked-like-nothing-and-probably-was shove that LeBron gave Blatt to keep him from arguing with the refs in Phoenix. That was James' first game back after a two-week sabbatical, and the last game before the bowling trip and subsequent winning streak that utterly changed the trajectory of their season.
"I've deferred a little bit more than I normally have, yes," Blatt told Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski after the first win in that streak. Blatt saw that willingness to step back as part of an ongoing attempt to show James and the rest of the Cavs that he could chart the path to a championship:
"It is a process," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "It really has to come first from the professional side. Man to man, we're OK. We don't go out drinking together, but we're fine man to man. But professionally, LeBron wants to win. And he wants from me, from any coach, a vehicle to help him win.
"Sometimes, it's tougher. Sometimes, it's less so. He's one of the great players of all time. He's been in the Finals four straight years and five times overall. He's got his own opinions and he expresses them. At times, he can be stubborn. But what I know from him, what he wants from me, is a vehicle to help him win. And beyond that, nothing else is really important."
At times, would Blatt prefer to see James more engaged in timeouts and huddles?
"I do," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "But I've had players do that before. But the answer to that is just winning. This isn't a perfect world. This isn't utopia. In the NBA, it's different. Every glance, twitch, gets glorified and magnified. I just let it go. There's nothing I can do about it."
More recently, even as a retooled Cavaliers roster worked through a fantastic second half of the season en route to an Eastern Conference title, there have been the reports that James himself was calling Cleveland's offensive plays — a charge he recast as having the freedom to audible into and out of calls, a la Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — and the willingness to point toward lacking defensive coverages after the Cavs' loss to the Chicago Bulls in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
There was also the infamous finish to Game 4 of that series, which saw Blatt mercifully get away with attempting to call a timeout he didn't have before James "scratched" the play Blatt had drawn up in the huddle to "audible" into a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that evened the series at two games apiece. Even after the victory — which righted the ship and began a seven-game winning streak that landed Cleveland back in the Finals for the first time since 2007 — we wondered whether the LeBron-Blatt schism would require an offseason correction. And now, after a disappointing if expected loss to a superior and more fully armed opponent, we're left wondering again.
Stein wrote that Gilbert "hand-picked" Blatt, while Grantland's Zach Lowe tweeted Thursday that some Cavaliers higher-ups insist the owner "might be Blatt's biggest supporter." General manager David Griffin has had Blatt's back all season long; he's the one who, as the Cavs scuffled in early January before getting things together in the back half of the month, gave Blatt a vote of confidence that he insisted not be called a vote of confidence:
"This narrative of our coaching situation is truly ridiculous," Griffin said. "It is a non-story. It's a non-narrative.
"Coach Blatt is our coach. He's going to remain our coach. Do not write that as a vote of confidence," Griffin added with a touch of exasperation. "He never needed one. It was never a question." [...]
"What we've got is exactly what we talked about," he said. "Growth and development and the long haul is what this is about.
"Everybody needs to just settle down and let it happen."
For the time being, Blatt — who spoke with media in a season-ending press conference on Thursday, not long after the report went live — says he's planning on running things again come the fall:
#Cavs coach David Blatt says he will "absolutely" be back next year.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) June 18, 2015
Blatt also spoke positively about his experience in Year 1 with LeBron, and refused to add fuel to the fire about his huddles:
David Blatt calls the opportunity to coach LeBron James "invigorating and exhilarating"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) June 18, 2015
Blatt on LeBron expressing his opinion in huddles: "I think it's important he feels empowered." Says his "heart was in the right place"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) June 18, 2015
James has at times dismissed suggestions that he and Blatt aren't on the same page as noise amplified by media outlets to sell papers or drive traffic, but he's also been the one who has turned the stereo on and left the volume knob unoccupied with statements like, "I don't pay no bills around here." It's no secret that he's the league's preeminent power broker and the man who dictates the terms of the discussion in Cleveland.
Getting acclimated to that, along with early rotation issues, midseason trades and postseason injuries, has made this one hell of a first NBA season for Blatt:
David Blatt on coaching the Cavs this year: "This was a very new kind of thing for me ... I went through a highly radical learning curve"
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) June 18, 2015
It sounds like he'll get the opportunity to apply what he's learned this fall, as the Cavaliers look to defend their Eastern Conference title and perhaps push themselves all the way to the top of the mountain next time. Then again, I'm reminded of something Woj wrote back in November: "If James wants this to be a partnership, it'll be one. If not, it'll make success impossible for Blatt." We'll have to see how that partnership evolves this summer.
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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don't Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter!
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