Chris' Corner
Issue   |   Wed, 10/07/2015 - 00:30

Whether LeBron James likes it or not, he has a lot of influence on the management of the Cleveland Cavaliers, both in terms of player personnel decisions, and in terms of in-game strategy. General manager David Griffin and coach David Blatt know that if LeBron makes it clear that he doesn’t approve of their performance, they’ll be out the door.

Lately, however, LeBron appears to have embraced that responsibility rather than dancing around it. In several instances, he’s made public statements that, with a little close reading, look like directives to the Cavaliers to do one thing or another.

He’s also structured his contract so that he has the option to leave Cleveland after every year, a move which many have interpreted as designed to maintain as much leverage over Cavaliers management as possible. It would be an exaggeration to say that LeBron is behind every front office and coaching move the Cavs make, but it is certainly true that they can’t do anything without his approval.

So, how has he done in his role of de facto general manager/head coach? Obviously, making the finals in his first year as a Cav is no small accomplishment, but their success might be due to LeBron’s superior talent as a player and the Eastern Conference’s weakness.

Let’s look at the key decisions, both front office and coaching, that the Cavs have made since James signed, considering the impact James may have had on them, and how they have worked out.

The move: Soon after James decided to sign, the Cavs traded for Minnesota forward Kevin Love, giving up 2014 first-overall pick Andrew Wiggins and 2013 first-overall pick Anthony Bennett.

LeBron’s role: James announced he was returning to Cleveland in a letter published in Sports Illustrated. In the letter, he mentioned several Cavs he was looking forward to playing with — Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anderson Varejao — but not Wiggins or Bennett. LeBron also met with Love to push the idea of the power forward coming to Cleveland. Taking into account both gestures, it’s safe to say that LeBron wanted to bring Love to Cleveland, and that, in his eyes, giving up Wiggins was not too high a price.

The aftermath: Love looked uncomfortable playing a supporting role for the Cavs. His total per game numbers dropped sharply, as you would expect from a player going from being a first option to being a third option, without any corresponding increase in efficiency. His defense, which was never good in Minnesota, did not improve in Cleveland, and he was often the subject of trade rumors.

Still, even with the serious dip in his numbers, Love was one of the best offensive power forwards in the NBA. Toward the end of the regular season, things seemed to be coming together for him and the Cavs — or they were until Kelly Olynyk dislocated his shoulder in the first round of the playoffs. The fact that the Cavs rolled into the finals without him, and gave the Warriors a serious challenge doesn’t look good for the case that Love was an essential piece.

Verdict: A bad move, but not a disastrous one. From a long-term perspective, Wiggins is a better asset; he will be a better player than Love soon, and his rookie contract is easier on the salary cap. On the other hand, LeBron may not be that interested in the long-term.

The move: In early January, the struggling Cavs made two moves: In a three team trade they gave up Alex Kirk, Louis Admundson and Dion Waiters, in exchange for Iman Shumpert, JR Smith, and a protected first round pick. Then they turned around and packaged that pick with another first rounder for Denver center Timofey Mozgov and a second rounder.

At the time, the Cavs were a disappointing 19-16, but they went on to finish 53-29, with the second see in the Eastern Conference.

LeBron’s Role: LeBron supported trading for Smith, despite the shooting guard’s history of clashing with coaches. At a press conference, James said, “For me, as a leader of a team, you always just want to try to give someone an opportunity. With the talent this guy presents, I knew the man he was, and I didn’t really care about what everybody else thought about him.”

The aftermath: Mozgov, Smith and, to a lesser extent, Shumpert, played key roles in this turnaround, and in helping LeBron take the Cavs to the finals. Thanks to injuries to Love and Kyrie Irving, the trio were three of Cleveland’s best six players by the end of the playoffs. Meanwhile, Waiters floundered in Oklahoma City, and the Thunder missed the playoffs.

Verdict: A very good move. Mozgov was the rim-protector that the suspect Cavs defense needed, while Smith and Shumpert seemed to be rejuvenated just by leaving the disastrous Knicks. It’s hard to see how the Cavs could have made the finals without making these trades, and all three players will be back for another run this year.

Overall, LeBron’s “GM” record is good; the excellent Mozgov and Smith trades easily outweigh the suspect Love/Wiggins trade. But LeBron’s “coaching” record is more suspect. If anything, LeBron has even more influence over David Blatt than over Griffin. This became especially obvious in game four of the Cavs’ second round series with the Bulls. In a tie game with under a second left, James overruled Blatt’s play call — which had him inbounding the ball — and demanded the ball for himself. He made the game winner, tying the series at two. James was right in this case, but what about other times when Blatt ceded authority to his star player?

The move: The most obvious instance of this involves the type of offense the Cavs ran. Blatt — who is on his first NBA coaching job after being very successful in Europe — wanted to run a motion offense in which the ball moved around quickly, similar to the one LeBron played in for Erik Spoelstra in Miami. And Cleveland did run a motion offense, for the preseason and a few games at the beginning of the regular season. But when the Cavs started to sputter, they defaulted more and more to giving to ball to LeBron — or occasionally Kyrie Irving — and watching him dribble the ball at the top of the key.

LeBron’s role: Later in the season, there was speculation that this was LeBron’s plan all along, and that the reason he left Miami was because he wanted to dominate the ball more.

The aftermath: This LeBron-centric, stagnant offense worked well enough, but it was definitely a less than optimal for a team of Cleveland’s talent, and it often left Love without enough touches to get a rhythm. However, in the playoffs, considering the injuries to Love and Irving, it was the only viable strategy, and James played heroically to take the Cavs as far as they went.

Verdict: Inconclusive. LeBron was wrong to dominate the ball so much in the regular season, and it led to his worst efficiency numbers in years. On the other hand, he needed to dominate the ball in the playoffs because of injuries to Love and Irving. Still, if the Cavs are going to be a real contender, they need to utilize Kevin Love’s offensive abilities more, which means LeBron getting rid of the ball faster. If James is too stubborn to allow Blatt to implement his motion offense this year, he will be making a mistake.