With news yesterday that Tom Izzo will not leave Michigan State to coach the Cleveland Cavaliers, it seems more likely than ever that LeBron James won’t be in Cleveland either. No, not because Izzo had some secret source that told him LeBron ain’t returning (personally I don’t think LeBron’s made a decision yet). Nor is it because LeBron really, really, really wanted to play for Izzo and is now greatly disappointed. It’s because in order to retain James’ services, Cleveland needs to show him that there’s some reason things will be better next year.
It was owner Dan Gilbert, a Michigan State alum, who was truly in love with Izzo, but word out of LeBron’s camp was that he was good with the hire. As has been reported, the King isn’t looking to name his own coach, but each franchise’s coach will be a factor if he doesn’t have faith in them. In fact, it may hurt New York’s chances since Knicks’ coach Mike D’Antoni is only a middle-of-the-pack defensive coach, and LeBron’s a big believer that defense wins championships. Versus his other options all have solid defensive coaches: Tom Thibodeau in Chicago, Avery Johnson in New Jersey, Eric Spoelstra in Miami, and Rick Carlisle in Dallas.
Not only did the Cavs have an early playoff flame-out for the second year in a row, almost all of their players have plateaued or are declining (the lone exception being JJ Hickson), so there’s no reason to believe this team will do any better next year unless something changes. Unfortunately, with Danny Ferry’s recent departure, their front office is in a bit of disarray too. The Cavs don’t need to hit a home run with whatever coach they hire, but they can’t strike out.
Supposedly the next person in line who might be offered the job is Byron Scott. However, if he’s smart, for the same reasons as I wrote for Izzo, Scott will wait to commit until LeBron makes a decision one way or the other. Other options are Milwaukee assistant Kelvin Sampson and former Atlanta coach Mike Woodson. But considering Atlanta followed the same sad route as Cleveland (great regular season followed by a spectacular collapse in the playoffs), you have to assume Woodson would be a huge turn-off for LeBron. And maybe Kelvin Sampson could be good, but he’s unproven so there’s no reason to think he’d be able to take the team to the next level.
The Cavs are caught in a Catch-22. Any top coach who LeBron would play for, they won’t commit until they know he’s gonna definitely be around. And the only coaches who would commit without knowing would be assistants or coaches with unimpressive resumes. In some ways, the idea of going after Izzo was brilliant. Izzo has shown he can win, but since he’d never coached in the NBA he might’ve been intrigued enough to give it a shot regardless of what happened with James.
If Scott won’t commit right now, the Cavs shouldn’t just hire someone to have a coach in place. Their best bet, if they hope to retain James, is to talk to Scott or say Jeff Van Gundy and get them to say that they’ll coach IF James comes on board. That way they can go to James and say they’ve got someone solid for him should he return. And if James bolts, it’ll probably be best for everyone involved if rather than spending $6-10 million on a coach of Scott or Van Gundy’s stature for a team that will struggle to make the playoffs, that they instead go for a Sampson or Woodson. Of course there’s a danger that should Phil Jackson and/or Doc Rivers leave their teams before LeBron makes a decision, then the Lakers/Celtics might be able to snag Scott or Van Gundy first.
These are delicate situations which new GM Chris Grant, thrown in head-first, must navigate. All while simultaneously making roster upgrades and convincing LeBron a change is coming, that ooh, child, things will be better. That’s a ton of pressure and work for even the most experienced GMs in the league. If Izzo had said yes, at least one huge burden would be off of Grant’s shoulders. Instead, him and Gilbert now have three buttloads of work to do, or LeBron will go bye-bye.