The Bill Russell Case for LeBron as Lakers Player-Coach

It’s not usually a good idea, but Russell was the exception then, and James is now

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Image for article titled The Bill Russell Case for LeBron as Lakers Player-Coach
Illustration: Getty Images

“You want the job, Russ?” offered Celtics retiring head coach Red Auerbach in 1966.

“Hell, no!” Bill Russell responded.

“After what I watched you go through? Screwing with the referees, the timekeepers, writers, fans, all that stress,” wrote Russell in Red and Me.“I don’t want any part of that!”


Russell would eventually take the job as player-coach for his last three seasons, and win two titles despite an aging Celtics roster, and an unfamiliar role as underdogs.

When the idea for LeBron as player-coach comes up for similar reasons as Russell, the most common initial response is similarly some variation of “hell no.” On an ESPN show, with Jay Williams, Max Kellerman and Keyshawn Johnson, a caller suggested LeBron was “the perfect coach” for the Lakers ‘right in front of your nose”.

While Williams called the idea “a trainwreck”, Max disagreed. “I actually like that idea,” said Kellerman. “It eliminates a big problem for the Lakers. You could have a player-coach, why not?”

Yes, “why not?”

Williams objected to the added workload and autonomy and added: “This is not the 1960s with Bill Russell.”


But why can’t it be?

LeBron’s former teammate Javale McGee also likes the idea.

“I used to hear things like Bill Russell was a player-coach, and I was like, ‘How are you a player-coach?’” asked McGee in an appearance on Club Shay Shay with Shannon Sharpe last September. “‘How is that a thing?’ But after going to the Lakers, I understand how a player could be a player-coach.”


There is also loose evidence some people in the Lakers leadership circles have considered the idea. On his On the Ball podcast, Ric Bucher elaborated on a text he received in November:

“What it said is that it has been suggested to Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ governor and majority owner, that LeBron take over as player-coach.” While Bucher couldn’t say the level of seriousness with which the suggestion was taken, he added that he’d “love to see it happen if [for] nothing else than the spectacle and the historic value of it.”


Those are two great points for NBA media and fans. There’s a third reason. Like Russell, LeBron as player-coach can likely give the Lakers their very best chance to win another championship.

Here are four reasons why.

1. LeBron already IS a player-coach

When injured or resting, LeBron can often be seen coaching from the sideline, but Javale McGee explained how LeBron is also a coach on the court:

“When LeBron plays the games, he’s thinking the game too and he’s low-key thinking for two other players also,” said McGee. “Like, ‘Oh, you need to be there, and you need to be there, we need to do this if we’re gonna win this series, we need to change this.’ And he’s a major part of that. So I definitely think he’s more of a player-coach than just a player when it comes to just the cerebral part of the game.”


LeBron’s cerebral part of the game is aided by a photographic memory. Both former coaches and players rave about LeBron as a basketball genius.

“It’s unbelievable,” said former Cavs teammate Iman Shumpert. “You talk about somebody who knows the playbook, knows where everybody is supposed to be, knows the other team coaches’ playbook and style of coaching. LeBron is one of them.”


LeBron’s mind is this generation’s Bill Russell. Former Knick, Rhodes Scholar, and Senator Bill Bradley calls Russell “the smartest player ever to play the game.”

Giving LeBron full control simply extends that coaching autonomy, and reduces conflicts in strategy. LeBron likely has three good years left, the same as Russell in 1966.


2. LeBron would have 10 times more in-game coach support than Russell ever had

On ESPN, Jay Williams expressed concern about LeBron’s added workload while chasing championships.

Both Auerbach and Russell had the same exact concern at first. They felt the player-coach model compromised the player and the coach, so it was not the first option.


Auerbach had promised Russell he wouldn’t hire any coach without his “100 percent approval”, and both men initially preferred hiring past retired Celtics, but for various reasons, Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, and Tommy Heinsohn all declined the job. After Russell rejected a couple of Auerbach-suggested head coach names from outside the organization, Russell accepted the offer.

The “double-duty” workload concern is not new. What is new are assistant coaches in the NBA.


In 2022, Lakers Head Coach Frank Vogel had eight of them, including two former head coaches.

In 1966, Coach Russell had none.

And early on, it showed. While adjusting to his new role, Russell made early coaching mistakes that would make Skip Bayless’ head explode if it were LeBron today.


In his very first game, Russell forgot to sub out an exhausted K. C. Jones, who played 46 minutes. The Celtics still won. In another close game, he accidentally left out John Havlicek and Sam Jones in the fourth quarter. Even Sam Jones, Russell’s career-long Hall-of-Fame running mate, expressed his concerns about the player-coach concept: “When you’ve got to play Wilt Chamberlain,” said Jones, “you’ve got to have your mind on playing him and nothing else.”

Coach Russell made adjustments. By midseason, he appointed Havlicek as Team Captain and made him a de facto Assistant Coach to help with in-game decisions.


In Russell’s first year as coach, 1966-67, the Celtics would still win 60 games, but ultimately lost to Wilt Chamberlain’s 68-win 76ers, one of the NBA’s greatest teams of all time. No shame there.

Coach LeBron would have no shortage of assistant coaches to delegate specific responsibilities and general substitution patterns before games are even played. If Coach LeBron wants to deviate from those patterns based on game flow, then he can. He already often does. This time it would be with full assigned authority.


3. Bill Russell is the only useful player-coach comparison for LeBron James

NBA Player-Coaches have gone the way of the dinosaur, and it’s easy to understand why.

In the 1960’s, Hall of Fame Players such as Richie Guerin, Dolph Shayes, and Bob Cousy (Cincinnati Royals, 1969), all became veteran player-coaches, but were mostly shells of their former selves. The NBA’s Player-Coach Era was mostly unsuccessful because those players couldn’t coach themselves to be five years younger. If your player-coach is a replaceable role player, it just makes more sense to just have a full-time coach instead.


As a veteran player-coach, only Lenny Wilkens still played at a high level (Sonics 1969-1972), but was given a 30-win roster, which improved all three years as player-coach.

Bill Russell’s situation was unique. Even an older, injury-plagued Russell could still dominate.


In his final season at age 35, Russell averaged 19.3 rebounds, good for third in the NBA and ahead of far younger Hall of Fame centers like Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, and Walt Bellamy.

It’s not about “the 1960’s” or “the 2020’s”, player-coaches are usually a bad idea in any era.


Bill Russell was an exception then, and LeBron is an exception now.

4. The Russell-coached Celtics won two titles in his last two years — despite being underdogs

The greatest Bill Russell player-coach case for LeBron is that he won his final two seasons, on an aging team that never won their own division.


Russell’s Championship Celtics in 1968 and 1969 weren’t the Auerbach-Russell Celtics of 1957—1966.

Gone was the perennial luxury of the most dominant roster, and past Hall of Fame teammates like Cousy, Bill Sharman, Heinsohn, and K.C. Jones. Russell and Sam Jones were now in their mid-thirties leaving Havlicek as their only younger star.


Even still, the 1968 Celtics were the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3-1 deficit (Wilt’s 76ers) on the way to the title.

“Sportswriters would later consider Boston’s come-from-behind triumph over Philadelphia to be one of the greatest accomplishments of the Celtics dynasty,” writes John Taylor in ‘The Rivalry’. “In the Herald-Traveler, Tim Horgan called it ‘more surprising than an American winning the [Boston] marathon.’”


The 1969 Celtics arguably pulled off an even greater run beating three teams who had home-court advantage culminating in a 7-game upset of the Wilt-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor Lakers.

It is hard to imagine that these Celtics win these titles with any other new coach than Bill Russell.


The Lakers should pay attention to history because if an elder LeBron, a healthy Anthony Davis (enter punchline here), and key off-season roster additions have any chance to win another title, they will also do it the hard way as underdogs. They’d need to maximize their veteran savvy, smarts, and every strategic advantage to manipulate playoff match-ups against younger stronger teams.

And the most qualified coach on the planet to pull that off is LeBron James.

He will be 38 years old next year, and there is no more time for new coach experimentations.


The Lakers would have to make an offer, and LeBron would have to accept it.

Perhaps both parties can learn from those Celtics.

In Red and Me, Russell cited his own change of heart after his initial “Hell no!”


“I thought it through and concluded that I had Red over a barrel and shouldn’t leave him in that position. So I called him up and said, ‘Okay, Red. I’ll take the job.’

“He said, ‘You made the right choice. Who better to motivate Bill Russell than Bill Russell?’


Who better to motivate LeBron James than LeBron James?