Sigmund Freud once said, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," which was his way of explaining that not every single thing in life has to have a deeper symbolic meaning or metaphor.
If I asked you what cigars have to do with basketball, your mind's eye would open to a grainy image, perhaps in black and white, perhaps in Celtics green, of Red Auerbach lighting up a stogie to celebrate yet another title for Boston.
Auerbach, one of the finest coaches in NBA history, was a pioneer. He was color blind, a tactician who believed winning was all that mattered and those who cared about a player's race in forming their roster or lineup decisions were fools ripe for exploitation. He stocked the Celtics with African-Americans at a time when the notion was still controversial, and he was the first coach to field an all black starting five. Judging people on merit and not color worked out okay for Auerbach, who won nine championships as a coach and seven more as an executive after he hung up his whistle. I could be wrong, but I doubt there were too many columns written at the time that superstars like Bill Russell or Sam Jones shouldn't have to respect their coach.
That's why I was so disheartened to see both Deadspin's Kyle Wagner and SBNation's own Tom Ziller, whom I read every day, offer their rebuttals to a story ESPN.com's Marc Stein wrote, taking LeBron James to task for how James treated coach David Blatt all season long and particularly in the Finals. I believe Wagner and Ziller had their hearts in the right place, but are both missing the forest for the trees in their defense of James' passive-aggressive power play.
Wagner termed Stein's story as "a piece of exceptional reporting," before adding "the only problem is you have to tease this reporting from a turgid lump of dogshit."
The column argues that because James is such an extraordinary player that he is more qualified than Blatt to know which plays to call at any given time. It dismisses Blatt's years and years of experience and the time he and his staff spent scouting and breaking down film of their opponents.
Wagner uses an anecdote of James' supernatural defensive instincts as proof for why he should be allowed to show up or overrule his coach, as though one thing has anything to do with the other. To suggest that James doesn't need coaching misses the point. Blatt's job isn't to make him better, it's to make the team as a whole better. It's well and good that James can see three moves ahead on the chess board, but his teammates can't, so it's on Blatt to put them in position to succeed. He can't do that if the "King" treats him like a pawn.
James may well be able to figure out on the fly the best course of action for himself, but it doesn't necessarily mean it puts the group in position to succeed. A lineup is only as strong as its weakest link. A coach can scheme ways or overcome those links, whereas against the Warriors James was constantly being goaded into making decisions the Warriors wanted him to make, taking the lowest percentage of long twos or kicking it out to a suspiciously wide open Matthew Dellavedova.
For all of James' brilliance as a player, we seem to gloss over how stubbornly he's resisted being coached in the NBA. Mike Brown used to plead with owner Dan Gilbert to not coddle him so much, to not let him and his friends have run of the building, to let him be coached. Gilbert made it clear that James was to have whatever he wanted, including the run of the non-offense the Cavs ran.
James left for Miami anyway and was just as dismissive of Erik Spoelstra early on as he is of Blatt now, before Pat Riley and Dwyane Wade made it clear to him that that wasn't going to fly. Spoelstra tried to get James to play without the ball and to post up for the better part of two seasons before James finally acquiesced, and it took a humiliation against the Mavs in the Finals for him to get there.
Peyton Manning is the most prominent control-freak athlete we have in team sports, someone who believes he can analyze a game in real time better than his coaches. For all his regular season accomplishments, he has a losing record in the playoffs and but one Super Bowl to his name. By contrast, Tom Brady, who allows himself to be coached, has won four Super Bowls. Brady grew up idolizing Joe Montana, a supposed "system quarterback," who did not get along with his coach Bill Walsh off the field, but on it they worked brilliantly with one another.
Then there's Michael Jordan, the legend James is most often compared to. After butting heads with Phil Jackson for almost two seasons, he finally relented to Jackson's "triangle offense." In a completely unrelated story, the two of them led the Bulls to a string of six championships in eight seasons.
Ziller's piece is problematic in a different way. Early on, there's this:
As Stein asks, who on the Cavaliers can fully respect the coach when the team's best player treats him like a substitute teacher?
Must a star be obliged to bow to his coach, though? Is respect earned or granted in the NBA?
Are those really the only options in a coach-player relationship: mutiny or total subservience?
Ziller goes on to paint the idyllic relationship of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan as "an aberration," describing it using terminology that has little to do with basketball.
No other superstar has submitted himself to a coach's control like that, and we shouldn't expect all superstars to follow Duncan's lead.
Words like "submitted" and "control" are chosen to ring alarm bells. In trying to illustrate how abstract Duncan and Popovich's relationship is from the norm, Ziller whitewashes the years of history, trust, and mutual respect that's been built between the two. The characterization makes Popovich look like a tyrant and Duncan a doormat, when in reality the former is respected across the league more for his kindness and humanity than his X's and O's, and the latter is well regarded as being one of the most intelligent and complicated souls to ever grace the league.
What makes Duncan and Popovich work is that it's a partnership, grounded in a basic understanding of the other's position. They understand they share a common goal. They understand the relationship is one way on the floor, when emotions are raw in the heat of battle, and another way off the floor, when they're just Tim and Gregg. Coach and player still bicker and argue now and again, but they always make up. Mutual respect is the key. It doesn't mean one is superior to the other or any antiquated notion like that. One man's job is to coach and the other man's job is to play. Off the floor they're not their jobs. They're just people. Friends even.
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.
Both Wagner and Ziller dismiss Blatt's wealth of experience gained in the Euro-League and his success there, or at least sympathize with James' perceived dismissal of it, as though it wasn't high-level professional basketball. Ironically, Popovich, the man whom Ziller begrudgingly allows as being worthy of a player's respect (even though he didn't play professionally either) would never do such a thing himself. The Spurs make a point of having "NBA Champions" instead of "World Champions" on their banners because they're not so arrogant to presume they've conquered the world.
Would we be as accepting of James' behavior if his coach were Mike Krzyzewski or Rick Pitino, someone we've seen prove his coaching chops with our own eyes?
Apparently all the championships Blatt won, despite often not having the best roster on paper, shouldn't mean much to James. The fact that Blatt was the first choice as lead assistant for Steve Kerr, who just led the Warriors to their first championship, shouldn't matter to him. That Kerr thought enough of Blatt's offensive acumen to have him higher than Alvin Gentry on his assistant want list, that isn't relevant at all?
Blatt's resume speaks for itself. James never gave him or his ideas an honest chance. He wasn't even willing to meet with him until well after he re-signed with Cleveland. He junked his preferred offense from the beginning. It was clear he left Miami because he no longer felt he had to answer to anyone, that he no longer needed to be coached. It's not Blatt he's disrespecting so much as the concept of coaching itself.
Which might at the end of the day be fine and good for James, but it sure isn't for lesser players at all levels who look up to him and imitate him. AAU basketball already does a poor job of teaching players fundamentals and team play. Now here's James giving a the next generation license to reject coaching, to reject the notion that someone might have valuable tactical input that they lack, altogether. It's sending a false message to impressionable youngsters that it's demeaning to listen to a man who squiggles X's and O's on a dry-erase board.
What happens to the overwhelming majority of kids who not only don't grow up to be superstars but not even professional athletes at all? The message being sent is that accepting instructions to perform a paid task is somehow ignoble. Billions of people around the world go to work and answer to someone every day, including Wagner and Ziller. Is there shame in that?
Ziller labels Duncan as an aberration, an anachronism from another time. But the generation gap between Duncan and his peers doesn't explain it all away. After being named Finals MVP, there was Kawhi Leonard, 22, hugging Popovich and telling him, "Thank you for pushing me."
There's no point in defending James by justifying his disrespect for a coach's position as though that's modus operandi for the modern superstar. Even the great LeBron James gets it wrong sometimes. Or did we not just watch him get smoked in the Finals like one of Auerbach's cigars?