LeBron As Coach: The Cavs Are Up 2-1 Because Of It, But Few Understand It

It was one of those moments when talk radio and the internet blow up.

Remember when David Blatt imitating LeBron James’s play signals was a thing? Remember when that story hit the airwaves just over two months ago, and Blatt became a pinata — again — for the masses?

Make no mistake — the optics of that moment didn’t look good. Moreover, it’s clear that Blatt did encounter a moment of profound embarrassment (he’s lucky it wasn’t worse… and if officials had noticed, it would have been) when he tried to call a timeout the Cleveland Cavaliers didn’t have at the end of Game 4 of the second round of the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls.

It was easy to think at the time that David Blatt was in over his head as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Let’s not re-write history: The inclination was a reasonable one in early April. Blatt was the one who threw Kevin Love under the bus. Blatt was the one who had no answers in the first 40 games of the season, before the trades by general manager David Griffin that turned the season around.

You could perhaps say that Blatt’s oil-and-water relationship with the press did not improve public perception, and that’s a sidebar story with some truth to it, but there were plenty of on-court reasons why the Cavs didn’t inspire a lot of confidence at various points in the season. When the whole “LeBron is the coach of this team!” refrain rang out after that story about the play signals, Blatt looked small, and it was understandable to view the first-year coach with skepticism.

Now, after Game 3 of the NBA Finals and another display of excellent lockdown defense against the Golden State Warriors, we have to re-evaluate the dynamic between Blatt and LeBron. We also have to make clear that LeBron James is very much coaching the Cavs… it’s just that Blatt is as well, and doing a damn good job of it.


Cleveland general manager David Griffin, mentioned above, joined our Crossover Chronicles podcast with co-hosts Sean Woodley and John Cannon before the Finals began. (He appeared midway through the pod, which lasted just under 50 minutes.)

Griffin said something simple but profound in that podcast: He noted how LeBron has been a tone-setting leader for everyone in the Cleveland organization. Bron is no longer a part of a Pat Riley system, with Erik Spoelstra providing detailed preparation and Dwyane Wade being a previously-crowned champion who helped him to understand what it took to get to the top. This version of LeBron is a fully ripened and realized leader. LeBron has undergone that necessary process of self-actualization which great people — great leaders — need to experience before they can truly take others under their wing. 

LeBron had a support structure in Miami — Riles, Spo, D-Wade — which gave him an education. LeBron — as another recent podcast guest, Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated, told Sean Woodley on Monday — didn’t refer to Miami as his college years for nothing. He really did receive what essentially amounted to his professional training with the Heat. (In his first go-round with Cleveland, he had Mike Brown and Boobie Gibson. It’s hard to develop when you’re surrounded by that.)

In early April, when that play signal story went viral, it was easy to see “Coach LeBron” as an indictment of Blatt. Now, though, it should be just as easy to see that Blatt isn’t nearly as limited as once thought. Now, much as many national pundits are busy re-writing and re-calibrating the overall themes of this series — with Cleveland having dictated the tempo in all three games — the NBA commentariat is also readjusting its views of Blatt, the way the Cavs operate, and the extent to which they stack up against the Warriors, which is — to this point — very, very favorably.

The epiphany should be clear to most observers by now, if not all of them: LeBron SHOULD be allowed to coach these players. He SHOULD be allowed to have such an expansive say in what goes on in every aspect of Cleveland’s preparation. Bill Russell won a title as a player-coach with the late-1960s Boston Celtics. LeBron’s understanding of basketball might not be greater than Russell’s was, but it’s certainly not inferior. LeBron has become a complete student of the game; it’s not that he didn’t have a keen sense of what to do in his first Cleveland go-round, but that he had not yet grown as a person and teammate.

The Miami years enabled LeBron to marry his radically advanced understanding of the sport with a hard-earned personal maturity, an eye-opened awareness of how to coexist with other people. LeBron learned how to be managed, and how to manage, how to dish out advice, and how to take it.

Remember this about Blatt: He was hired as Cleveland’s coach before LeBron decided to return. Blatt, having coached so successfully on the other side of the pond, was the new guy in Cleveland. LeBron had been there before. LeBron owned the working institutional, structural and emotional knowledge of the NBA; Blatt did not. Naturally, LeBron SHOULD have taken the lead in coaching this team, thereby helping Blatt to navigate this first (and unexpectedly pressure-packed) NBA season. However, guys such as Dion Waiters didn’t buy in, and it was only after rearranging parts — and having LeBron ensure that J.R. Smith kept his head on straight — that the pieces finally fit with the Cavs.

It should all make sense now: David Blatt has given LeBron the voice and centrality of a coach. That might have seemed like a manifestation of weakness two months ago, when “Play Signal Gate” hit the airwaves, but it was nothing less than being smart and using one’s most important resource in a first season as an NBA head coach.


Let’s conclude with this point, and use the Finals to affirm it: LeBron might be the only highly-important player on the floor (though James Jones has certainly been solid) with previous Finals experience, but first, that’s one player more than Golden State has. Second, when that one player is essentially a second coach, it makes a world of difference for the Cavs’ role players. LeBron as coach is anything but a knock on Blatt; it is a core reason Cleveland has a 2-1 lead in the series and can take complete control in Game 4 on Thursday.

This is the essential reason Matthew Dellavedova is playing so well. He’s not doing this in a vacuum. He has LeBron James giving him the right encouragement, and he has Blatt giving him — and the rest of the Cavs’ players — outstanding defensive plans against a Golden State offense whose own role players plainly hung their heads in the words of head coach Steve Kerr during a third-quarter timeout in Game 3. (Kerr said in a huddle, “We’re too good to hang our heads,” an indirect acknowledgment that his players were doing that very thing.)

Don’t view this series as one in which Steve Kerr is failing as a coach; view it as a series in which David Blatt is handsomely succeeding as a coach.

We’ve said a lot about LeBron’s leadership, but the final word after Game 3 belongs to Blatt: Great leaders know when to entrust responsibility to the people they work with. Blatt has had the wisdom and the vision to allow LeBron to lead so centrally. Don’t doubt for a second that Cleveland’s two coaches — the one wise enough to cede some power for the good of the team, and the one skilled enough to be a coach on the floor as a player, to great effect — have given the Cavs’ supporting cast the resources it has needed to take a 2-1 lead on a 67-win team in the NBA Finals.

About Matt Zemek

Editor, @TrojansWire | CFB writer since 2001 |