While LeBron and Cleveland continue to figure things out with new coach, steady San Antonio remains the same as ever
POSTED: Jan 30, 2016 11:06 AM ET
Tim Duncan has played for one coach during his NBA career while LeBron James is now working with his sixth.
CLEVELAND — It's a sneak peek at the matchup of coaches who'll be working the sideline at Toronto's Air Canada Centre two weeks from now in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game.
Except for, y'know, the seriousness of purpose, the significance of outcome and the statement on two ambitious organizations' relative stability folded into San Antonio's visit to face the Cleveland Cavaliers Saturday night at Quicken Loans Arena (8:30 p.m. ET on ABC), as opposed to the style-over-substance showcase Feb. 14.
One team tonight will be heeding and learning on the fly from newbie head coach Tyronn Lue, veteran of a whole four games as his squad's primary strategist. The Cavaliers are 3-1 under Lue, who got named to coach the East All-Stars thanks mostly to the 30-11 record David Blatt posted through the season's first half before he was fired last week. Lue, hired by Cavs management (not by Blatt) as lead assistant, slid over one chair on the Cleveland bench.
The other team will be coached by Gregg Popovich, same as it ever was.
That's how it has been for the past 20 seasons, anyway, dating back to Popovich's assumption of San Antonio's coaching gig in 1996-97. He took over for Bob Hill and steered the Spurs to their 20-62 finish and lottery-luck reward of Tim Duncan in that June's draft.
From his start till now, Popovich has coached 1,784 NBA regular and postseason games (1,213-571). He ranks eighth in regular-season victories (1,061) and third in winning percentage (.690) among head coaches who have worked at least two full seasons. Three times Popovich has been named NBA Coach of the Year, and his trek to Toronto will be his fourth stint as coach of the West All-Stars.
Admittedly, Popovich, who turned 67 Thursday, had a head start of more than 28 years on Lue. But that's all part of it. If showing up really is 80 percent of life, as Woody Allen purportedly said, being allowed to show up again tomorrow might be 80 percent of NBA coaching.
That success-rate list cited above? Drop the threshold from at least two full seasons to a minimum of 100 games and Blatt ranks sixth at .675 (83-40). But the proud and successful coach of international champions in Europe and Israel wasn't permitted to show up for the second half of 2015-16 or make a playoff run for what might have been his and the Cavaliers' second straight Finals appearance.
Lue Installs Changes
NBA TV's Leigh Ellis talks with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and head coach Tyronn Lue about the changes he has installed.
General manager David Griffin was troubled by what he saw as the Cleveland's team lack of cohesion and joy, most notably in good times, and didn't trust that chemistry to minimize and see them through the bad. Though Griffin has said he did not consult LeBron James prior to firing Blatt, most folks flipping through the 123-game case file could see the distance between superstar and coach, the absence of connection, the passive-aggressive comments and body language James deployed to keep Blatt guessing and uncomfortable.
Blatt reportedly did himself no favors by not holding James or even Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love accountable on the court (and in the video reviews) the way he did other Cavs players. He didn't seem to have built bridges any stronger with Irving and Love, either, hard as that had to be in a locker room with pressure to choose -- James or Blatt.
Bottom line, the player most responsible for the quick success on Blatt's NBA resume was the player most responsible for his dispatching. And even if it's sloppy shorthand and not really accurate to talk about James as a "coach killer," we've yet to see the league's greatest talent fully invested as a coach booster.
From Paul Silas in James' rookie season through Mike Brown for five years, from Erik Spoelstra for those four-Finals-two-rings years in Miami to Blatt upon his return to "The Land," James has run on mostly parallel, occasionally intersecting tracks with his coaches.
Undeniably, it's a personality trait, something inseparable from his greatness as an athlete. It's confidence and basketball savvy and leadership, and a trust in the other four or 11 guys in uniform with him more than an older authority figure in a tie or warmup suit. It isn't going away, either, lest the Lue camp gets its hopes up.
"People get it so misconstrued because I'm a smart basketball player," James told reporters Wednesday after practice, "and I've voiced my opinion about certain things. Which I did when I was here my first stint with Paul Silas and Mike Brown. Which I did in Miami with Coach Spo. Which I did with Blatt and I'll do with T-Lue. And at the end of the day, they'll still have their final call.
"What do you guys want me to do, turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ? If that's what they want me to do, I'm not going to do it because I've got so much to give to the game."
Lue on Team Spirit
Tyronn Lue says the Cavaliers' spirit is not right and needs an adjustment.
It ought to give James pause, though, to have rattled off that many names. He hasn't had a Red Auerbach the way Bill Russell did or found his Phil Jackson like Michael Jordan first and Kobe Bryant later.
Churning is the way of NBA life and neither James nor the Cleveland franchise has been any different. Since the start of the 2002-03 season, one year before James arrived, the Cavaliers have had seven head coaches and four general managers (working backward, Griffin, Chris Grant, Danny Ferry and Jim Paxson).
Why choose that particular season? That's the year San Antonio set in stone the core that has endured ever since: Popovich as coach, R.C. Buford as general manager, Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker as cornerstone players. Others have come and gone around the edges but that level of continuity and stability is unmatched.
Over the past 14 seasons, the Spurs have lost more than 28 games only once, when they went 50-32 (.610) in 2009-10. It took James until his seventh NBA season to reach that .610 mark with the Cavs. And as good as his four years in Miami were, they required a dramatic veer from what he had been doing in Cleveland. And they didn't last.
In their four years as teammates, James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh appeared in 229 games together, went 168-61 and won two championships. Meanwhile, in their 14 seasons together, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker have played 730 games as a trio, going 565-165 with four titles.
James' current group, with Irving and Love? Seventy-nine games out of a possible 127, with a 61-18 record together.
Intangible or not, rare as it is, it's hard not to attribute a fair amount of San Antonio's success to its steadiness of purpose and personnel. Identifying, hiring and acquiring the right people, turning them loose in their jobs and then respecting their roles. If what often gets said about NBA coaches is true -- the league's stars either allow themselves to be coached or they don't -- the elders of San Antonio's locker room culture have done that for Popovich with barely a ripple.
Just as our own Fran Blinebury wrote a few weeks back on the day the Spurs and Cavs met for the first time this season -- what if James had played for Popovich? -- one could flip now as they play for the final time (pending any Finals showdown): What if Blatt had been able to coach Duncan, Ginobili and Parker?
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