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View From Pluto: The Challenge of Coaching Arguably the Best Player in the History of the NBA

For Lue, the balance is how much is too much -- and too little -- LeBron.
For Lue, the balance is how much is too much -- and too little -- LeBron.

Cavs coach to Tyronn Lue recently said he has one of the hardest jobs in the NBA. WKSU sports commentator Terry Pluto isn't buying that, but he says there are special challenges when it comes to coaching one of the best players in the history of the NBA.

"The hardest job is if you’re a coach in Orlando or Brooklyn, ... where the entire NBA is looking at it as if you have no chance to win.

“It’s kind of like you feel like a lobster dropped into a boiling pot. At some point, you’re not going to get out alive. The best that can happen is you get fired and still get paid.”

That being said, Pluto says coaching LeBron James means “you have the most scrutiny and the highest expectations. I think any coach of LeBron James entered into a realm that no other coach has been in.”

“You are coaching a guy right now who’s in the discussion of the greatest player of all time. ... And you can’t win a title? And not only that in the case of the Cavaliers, you have an owner with the highest payroll in the NBA, a pretty good general manager in David Griffin. They’ve given you Kyrie Irving, who’s an All Star, Kevin Love, who’s an All Star, and some pretty good role players.” So the thinking is, “Why do you lose any games?”

Pluto notes that the NBA is the ultimate players’ league. So when it comes to coaches, “Many players when they sit around and talk, ‘this is a guy in a nice suit and three years from now it will be another guy in a nice suit.’"

Pluto says the exceptions are elite coaches with their own brands, and Lue is not interested in making his public image into one of those.

“The thing that I think hurts Lue sometimes ... is the perception in the national media he’s so unassuming." in fact, Pluto says Lue hates the public attention. “He’s not interested in any commercials ... he doesn’t have any particular catch phrases."

"His feeling is your players should be able to play, but I need to put you in certain situations. He’s very good with Xs and Os.”

But he’s applying those Xs and Os in the national spotlight that has followed LeBron James since he played high school ball at Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s -- and who has developed his own sense of how plays should develop.

“So you’ve got to kind of watch that and once in a while tell him to just shut up ... and other times say that’s a good idea.“You don’t want LeBron to feel as if his opinions are irrelevant. But you also don’t want the players to think LeBron’s coaching the team.”

What happens when cold sets in?

For now, Pluto says every decision Lue makes seems to turn out right. But cold streaks hit coaches as well as players, and he’ll have to watch the tendency of any coach to lean too heavily on James.

“The bottom line is when your offense is standing around watching your star dribble ... defensively you’re stiff” and your whole game is off.

Pluto likens it to an orchestra when a solo goes too long. “Now they’re supposed to get back in the flow again. Well, it can sound a little out of tune.”

The balance for a coach, Pluto says, is always “How much LeBron is too much, how little LeBron is too little?” 

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M.L. Schultze
M.L. Schultze came to WKSU as news director in July 2007 after 25 years at The Repository in Canton, where she was managing editor for nearly a decade. She’s now the digital editor and an award-winning reporter and analyst who has appeared on NPR, Here and Now and the TakeAway, as well as being a regular panelist on Ideas, the WVIZ public television's reporter roundtable.