Have you ever spent time with a couple when you just know that they had a huge argument right before they joined you? There’s nothing specific that you can put your finger on, but there’s an unmistakable tension in the air. It’s in the way that they talk to each other, about each other, in their body language. You can just tell.
That feeling occurs in sports all the time. It was like that with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal more than a decade ago. It was like that with Jim Harbaugh and owner Jed York/GM Trent Baalke right up until Harbaugh left for Michigan on Tuesday. And it is like that with LeBron James and David Blatt, who, as the Cavaliers’ coach, is James’ boss, at least in theory. It always goes the same way -- the antagonists insist that there is no friction, that it has all been overblown. But they do it in a way that makes you suspect the exact opposite.
If you parse his statements and scrutinize his body language -- and isn’t that what most of us have been doing these last few weeks as the 18-13 Cavs continue to look nothing like the championship contender they were expected to be? -- it’s hard to escape the feeling that James doesn’t trust Blatt, in his first season as an NBA coach, to run the team. When your star player says, “He’s our coach, what other coach do we have?” as James did about Blatt, it sounds like a vote of confidence wrapped around an insult.
Media scrutiny only makes the situation worse, or at least, makes it seem worse. When those lukewarm words of support from James are tweeted and re-tweeted, posted on Facebook and on dozens of other media sites, it somehow magnifies a minor slight into a major snub. When James fails to defend with his customary gusto for a play or two, or slumps his shoulders at an ill-advised Dion Waiters’ jumper, for example, the clip gets played over and over on highlight shows and Vines. We wonder, was it just a momentary lapse, or symptomatic of a deeper problem? SI.com ran a gallery a few days ago of James/Blatt photos that made it seem like the star was tuning out his coach. Or at least, it seemed that way if that’s how you chose to interpret them. Fair or not, that’s the reality. It’s hard for any fledgling relationship to withstand the close examination of so many eyes.
James, of course, is no stranger to this phenomenon. He weathered a similarly slow adjustment period when he first went to Miami, where the Heat started 9-8, and he infamously bumped coach Erik Spoelstra coming out of a timeout. Because things weren’t going well for the Heat and Spoelstra was an unproven coach, everyone wondered, was that an “excuse me” bump, or a “screw you” bump? Thousands of words were written and dozens of TV debates were launched on the subject. Four years and two championships later, it’s clear that whatever problems, if any, that might have existed between the player and coach were far less significant than they appeared at the time.
Will the same be true for James and Blatt? It’s hard to tell since for all the similarities between the Miami and Cleveland situations, one significant difference is that Spoelstra had the backing of Pat Riley, the Heat president whose five championship rings as a coach instantly earned James’ respect. There is no such proven winner in the Cleveland front office to give Blatt similar credibility, no one to convince James to stay the course, that the new coach knows what he’s doing.
Instead there are murmurings of a disconnect between Blatt and the players in Cleveland. After the Cavs' embarrassing 103-80 thumping by the 7-23 Pistons, an ESPN report suggested that in “team circles” there was concern over Blatt’s approach. It also indicated that James had taken over as the Cavs’ de facto point guard without bothering to clear it with the coach. “I can do it on my own,” James said of the role change. “I’m past the point where I have to ask.”
That’s the sort of statement that makes this situation feel different from the Kobe/Shaq feud that still resulted in three championships, or whatever early friction there may have been when James was in Miami. This is the best player in the sport, with 12 years in the league, a high basketball IQ and NBA experience that his coach does not have. You wonder if Blatt, who was hired before the Cavs knew that James was coming back, can ever gain enough credibility with his superstar to make the relationship work. During the Harbaugh intrigue with the 49ers, he said he “serves at the pleasure of the owner.” In Cleveland, it’s fair to say that Blatt serves at the pleasure of James. Can the new coach survive this?
This time, we might not look back in retrospect and see that all the so-called problems were overblown. That couple that just had a fight before they met up with you? Sometimes they never really make up. Sometimes they get a divorce.