How much is trust worth?
How does LeBron James properly assign it a value?
James works with a coach who butts head with him and doesn’t care at all — at all — when James dislikes him or is mad at him. James also works with a coach who listens to him when the season is on the brink, makes a move James has requested and then lets James have all the credit for it afterward.
What’s that worth?
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The leader strong enough to stand up to a King but also gentle enough to get out of his way?
James works with a legend president and quiet owner who will hurt his feelings by sending away friend and champion Mike Miller. Financial reasons. Sorry, King. Have to discard the veteran buddy you love who spaces the floor. Cost of doing business. But James also works with a legend president and quiet owner who will run decisions by him, consulting him without giving him veto power, and then get Chris Andersen and Ray Allen and Shane Battier for him in the discount bin.
What’s that worth?
Leadership that you trust is helping even on the days when it hurts?
James works with two friends who have frustrated him at times, Dwyane Wade while sitting out one-third of this season’s skirmishes to prepare for these last two big fights, Chris Bosh while shrinking against bad matchups that push him outside. But he also works with two friends who get all the blame when things go wrong, and have made enormous sacrifices by design (Wade playing off the ball, changing his game, getting out of the way; Bosh leaving the post, to space the floor, getting out of the way) so that the King may continue his rule.
What’s that worth?
The King surrounded by both generals and soldiers who will do whatever they must to preserve his kingdom?
The making of relationships is often complicated; the making of news is often not. And we live in a fascinating time for sports coverage, high on noise, low on nuance. Sports coverage is more omnipresent than it has ever been, but it can also be as glancing and superficial as it is overwhelming — filling and delicious, yes, but empty on nutrients, like binging on Cheese Puffs.
Donald Sterling and Mark Cuban, for example, fill our televisions with outraged and easy noise while more dangerous systematic racism goes uninspected because it isn’t quite as byte-sized. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ illuminating and heartbreaking cover essay on reparations last week in The Atlantic, place that against the coverage of whatever it is that Cuban said last week, and you will feel bad about the things that get talked about in this Kardashian climate and the things that don’t.
But, in that context, what happened one night last week with James wasn’t surprising at all. The Cleveland Cavaliers yet again won the draft lottery, and this immediately set off the predictable national clucking about whether James might choose to go back home after this season. This clucking ignored a lot of things, of course.
It ignored that comic-font screed Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert wrote the day James left, calling James a coward amid burning jerseys. It ignored that, while James has been building a relationship with Erik Spoelstra, the Cavs have somehow fired the other coach James grew to trust (Mike Brown) not once but twice. It ignored that James is a very proud man who has found his adult voice in Miami on social issues, as evidenced by what he had to say about Sterling. And it ignored that basketball’s King knows his value, is about to have all the options in the world placed at his feet and that choosing the option of putting profit again in Gilbert’s pockets would make him better at forgiveness than he is at even basketball.
But a possible return to Cleveland is what we talked about because, well … because. But, when it comes to James and his decision-making, something deeper and more meaningful happened that very same night. Closer to the winning. On, you know, a court. In, you know, a playoff game. The kind of game James has been winning again and again since leaving Cleveland, and the kind Cleveland hasn’t participated in since James left, which is why the Cavs keep getting those first overall picks that trigger the national clucking about whether he’ll return.
It was late against the Pacers in Game 2. Miami was down and in danger. Lance Stephenson was, according to Jeff Van Gundy, the best player on the court during a sizzling third quarter. The angry noise that has consumed this Miami franchise for four years — a noise that has been quieter than it has ever been since Game 7 of last year — was about to return. Amid this, James told Spoelstra to put Norris Cole on Stephenson. It was an unconventional move. Cole hadn’t been very good for Miami this postseason. But Spoelstra listened. And never mind scoring again. Stephenson didn’t get inside the three-point line with the ball after that. Miami has cruised since.
“When he comes to me with something, an idea, of course I listen,” Spoelstra says. “Come on. When the best player in the world is coming to you? Our communication has been much better. I was certainly much more stubborn our first year, and he would probably be first to admit that he was much more likely to want to change things immediately if things weren’t going well. So we’ve found a common ground where there’s a give and take and much more communication about decisions.”
Real team and real trust gets built over time and turbulence. And James and Spoelstra trust each other enough … to have big fights that don’t matter at all. Spoelstra knows his job is to make people better, not make people happy. But if we caught any of their arguments on video, we would cluck about them for days on television, and we would wonder aloud if LeBron was leaving because … well, because.
“[Assistant Coach] Dave Fizdale was just reminding me of a time last year when [LeBron] was really angry at me,” Spoelstra says. “I couldn’t remember why LeBron was so upset with me during one of the huddles. I wish I remembered. It would have been a great story for you guys, but I don’t.”
You don’t care that he was angry?
“No,” Spoelstra says. “I don’t try to go out of my way to get them angry. They’re upset at me, they’re upset at each other sometimes. That’s the game, and that’s also when you are truly building a family. There are enough times when they don’t like me. If I actually cared, I don’t know if it could work.”
Spoelstra admits now that he totally failed James the first year in Miami. He feels some shame about this. But he learned. He revamped the offense around James, going position-less, and the result this year was the best offense in terms of true efficiency percentages in league history. James grew. Spoelstra grew. The relationship grew. The team grew.
“That first year, boy, that was rough,” Spoelstra says. “We’ve gone through a lot of growing pains to get to this point. All we worked on that first year was defense. Full-contact work on free days. In hindsight, no wonder our offense wasn’t smooth. We never worked on it that first year.”
Earlier in these playoffs, James was wired for sound and was caught yelling, “Big-time coaching move!” at Spoelstra. This was for putting in little-used James Jones to space the floor and hit some threes. This required taking out Udonis Haslem, the person everyone on the team fears a little bit, the person on the team Spoelstra admires most. Jones admits that, as he came into the game, he looked down at the floor to avoid eye contact with Haslem, pretending to fiddle with his short’s drawstrings.
“Oh, boy, if you wired [LeBron] for sound other times, you’d hear him say I’m an idiot,” Spoelstra says of James. “I’m dead serious. What kind of move was that? Second guessing and questioning.”
Spoelstra has no problem volunteering this, just like he has no problem admitting he failed James that first year. He knows he has the King’s trust, and that’ll make any man confident. Over in Cleveland, meanwhile, all the people with whom James built these kinds of relationships are gone. Except the owner, the author of that screed that called him a coward. He’s still there.
The world’s best basketball soon heads into an offseason of wonderful options.
There will be a lot of teams requesting his trust while making big promises.
But there will only be that has already earned it and can counter with proof.