In all his criticism, Lebron James has been a participant in as many NBA Finals as Hall of Fame inductee Michael Jordan, whom is often considered by many to be the greatest player of all time. Despite having won two world championships, the narrative of Lebron James has often paralleled with that of the Buffalo Bills; the inability to win when it matters most. In a time unlike any other where we have the ability to connect with others worldwide in the blink of an eye, the microscope of public opinion is keenly fixed on transcendent people like Lebron James.
Is that microscopic perspective realistically fair? Probably not, and while I am not a Lebron James apologist, it was painstakingly obvious to see inefficiencies among the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
In America the average CEO earns 331 times (11.7 million USD) more than the average salaried employee. The NBA is an anomaly, where often times there are players who earn more than their leadership. Because of this, the NBA has truly earned its title as a “Player’s League.” That being said, when compared to the median salary of the general workforce, NBA leadership like their corporate counterparts earn significantly more. That leadership is disproportionately compensated amplifies the importance organizations attach to it.
Leadership has a dynamic effect on an organization’s trajectory. Hence, by its nature leadership comes with a higher level of risk; leaders rightfully earn more than the general workforce.
The NBA culture often creates an unnatural relationship between leadership and the players. As a “Player’s League,” typically the star player holds equivalent or greater power within an organization than their leadership.
This unnatural relationship is prevalent in many organizations, Cleveland included. It is precisely this relationship, like the one between Lebron James and rookie head coach David Blatt, which play a significant role in a season’s outcome. Lebron James and David Blatt’s relationship has been strained the entire season; this inefficiency cost them the most during the Finals. Coupled with David Blatt’s NBA inexperience and the pressure on Lebron James to bring a championship to Cleveland, an uncontainable conflict arose and this in-house nightmare unfolded before our eyes.
David Blatt is an excellent leader, and his resume while coaching in Israel confirms this. To that point, I believe he has the necessary tools to be an effective NBA coach. Nevertheless, David Blatt has not coached a globally transcendent player, let alone the greatest in the world. Without an NBA pedigree it is hard to earn the trust of its current players. Trust is essential to leadership. As a positional leader where there is a lack in trust, there will also be a lapse in the efficacy of your thoughts and ideas. The management, coaching staff, players, and most importantly the face of the NBA, whom also happens to be basketball’s most dominant player, will question your every decision.
John Maxwell alludes to this in his book, The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. Within its pages, Maxwell says, “True leadership cannot be awarded, appointed, or assigned. It comes only from influence, and that cannot be mandated. It must be earned.” While Dan Gilbert appointed David Blatt as a positional leader that does not necessarily mean that the team will accept him as their leader. In David Blatt’s defense, he was not qualified to coach Lebron James, nor was he hired with the intention of doing so. David Blatt was to coach a budding star in Kyrie Erving and rookie Andrew Wiggins, both whom still have much to learn. Lebron James, entering the equation much later during free agency immediately won the favor of the city of Cleveland, and ascertained leadership control of the organization second to Dan Gilbert. Although not intentionally done, Dan Gilbert’s free agent acquisition of Lebron James undermined David Blatt, thrusting him into a position he could not possibly be prepared for.
In The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership Maxwell also says, “Leadership without leverage occurs in volunteer organizations. This is leadership in its purest form.” While that is true, I would also add leadership without leverage occurs in industries where a linchpin directly effects marketplace power, yet is not a positional leader. This linchpin can coerce an organization to bend in favor of their will, because they have marketplace influence independent of said organization. A top engineer in the auto industry. Jay-Z. Floyd Mayweather. Lebron James. These linchpins move the needle when it comes to marketplace power.
In the NBA Finals where coaching leadership matters the most, in the case of the Cleveland Cavaliers the coach had no voice. Lebron James ran the team and David Blatt made periodic adjustments. By game four it was clear that the Cleveland Cavaliers had no direction as they were player lead. Players often do not see the whole picture, as simultaneously doing multiple tasks at high level is improbable.
Conversely, we see the exact opposite with the Golden State Warriors. Their star, Stephen Curry does not undermine Steve Kerr. They have a high-trust. This acts as a serotonin reuptake inhibitor, allowing the team to be at ease while under duress. So, when the Warriors were behind in the series Steve Kerr was able to empower his coaching staff, implement their ideas, and eventually win the championship. That is the power of trust.
If Lebron James and David Blatt had a similar level of trust, they could have won the championship, even without Kyrie Erving and Kevin Love. Lebron James’ leadership was enough to win two games, but how much more could they have won had he been open to being coached by David Blatt? Who in the Cavaliers’ organization could have predicted Lebron James would come home to Cleveland? If that were the case, and somebody in the organization did know, I doubt they would have hired David Blatt. Cleveland needed a coach with a solid NBA pedigree, one who could handle a dominant veteran champion. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers’ organization fell victim to the unpredictable by overshooting their timetable, becoming a title contender overnight. Though the Cleveland Cavaliers did not win this year’s championship, and there are clear issues within the leadership, their best days are still ahead.