ESPN.com has produced a piece of exceptional reporting on Cleveland’s run through the NBA Finals, with reporter Marc Stein coming away from the series with a notebook stuffed full of telling details about how LeBron James not only dragged a raft of corpses within touching distance of a championship, but performed many of the basic coaching duties that typically fall to the staff while doing it. It’s an up-close accounting of one of the more remarkable performances in NBA history, and the only problem is that you have to tease this reporting out from a turgid lump of dogshit.
Here’s the meat of what Stein has to report about what LeBron did in the Finals:
And we likewise saw LeBron emasculate David Blatt in ways that are simply unbecoming of a player of James’ legend-in-the-making stature.
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 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.
First, this is hilarious, but more important, this is precisely what LeBron James should have been doing.
Stein argues that LeBron really shouldn’t treat Blatt like this “no matter how inept he might think the coach is,” which is a really remarkable statement. Winning is all there is, the implicit reasoning goes, and winning requires falling into line, and LeBron’s is therefore not to reason why. The issue here is that this functionally prioritizes Blatt’s feelings and/or image over the Cavs’ chances of actually winning.
The typical genuflection in sports to the chain of command stems mainly from puerile military metaphors. (These are what endow coaches with enough fake battle-scars for the little shits to feel empowered to talk mess about actual matters of military concern, as though fronting the high post against N.C. State can meaningfully inform opinion about a ground campaign against ISIS.) But it’s also premised on the idea that the coach, on some level, knows best. Outside the field of play, more aware of the broad scope of the contest, he’s best positioned to process information into tactical plans. Usually, this is true.
The problem here is that LeBron James is a supercomputer. When the league turned over to the next-gen player-tracking SportVU tech, the Raptors showed Grantland’s Zach Lowe a program that tracked where defenders were on a play, and where they ideally would be. Mathematically perfect ghost players would zip around the court, and the defenders who kept up were typically the most effective, except for one. LeBron had the speed of observation, diagnosis, and ass to hustle ahead of the ghosts. “LeBron basically messes up the system and the ghosts,” Toronto’s analytics director told Lowe. “He does things that are just unsustainable for most players.” He outplays the machines.
So snap back to that third-quarter play in Game 5, on which LeBron was so vociferously shaking his head in disapproval. What possible reason would we have to think that LeBron telling Blatt to get that bullshit out of his face wasn’t the correct call? To think that LeBron’s insights into the league he’s owned for the last decade shouldn’t have taken primacy? The only reason for him not to speak up if Blatt was wrong would be to preserve the fiction that Blatt is in charge. That’s not very compelling when set against meaningfully improving the team’s chances of victory.
Incidentally, it would be nice here to know what play was actually called there. LeBron, after all, probably had it right.
David Blatt arrived stateside to a wave of fawning pieces about his tactical genius abroad, but in Cleveland, the high-ISO drive-and-kick stuff that made his Maccabi Tel Aviv teams fun never materialized, and within his first few months he had defaulted to leaning on single-use scarecrows like James Jones in crunch-time rotations rather than finding a way to turn Kevin Love—an obviously flawed but immensely talented player who operates best in space—into something other than an overqualified pick-and-pop role player. I don’t know how much this speaks to vocational ineptitude (at least a bit, you’d have to think), but it definitely speaks to a basic unfamiliarity with NBA schemes and personnel. Meanwhile, LeBron was engaged in a dogfight with Andre Iguodala based on things like How did Dre guard me on an inbounds play from this spot last year, and how’s he going to adjust to my adjustments?
There’s a grudging acceptance of Bill Belichick being an evil old fucker when he does something like go out of his way to cut the 51st man on the roster the week before the Super Bowl. This is inhuman and stupid, the thinking goes, but it’s necessary to squeeze all the little edges by the nuts. Belichick would have no problem telling his offensive coordinator to get the fuck out of his face if he thought the guy was shitting the bed. He’d be right to, as well, since his job is to improve his team’s odds of winning, not to make some sad sack feel good about himself or look good in front of the public, and since he does that by acting like what he is—the best and most qualified person to make the calls. If you buy that, and everyone does, the conclusion that anyone (other than Marc Stein, apparently) could have drawn from watching these Finals is the only one to come to: LeBron James is too damn good not to behave this way.
Photo via Getty