LeBron James is the player who’ll most define this generation of NBA basketball, and usually generational players have generational coaches (Magic Johnson with Pat Riley, Michael Jordan with Phil Jackson, Gregg Popovich with Tim Duncan, etc.).
But coaching James seems like a fool’s errand, considering the lack of credit his coaches have received through the years, as managing James seems like the best way to describe the duties of the men on the sidelines.
But there’s one surefire Hall of Famer and some decent coaches among the seven James has played for in his 17 years as a pro. Here are his top five coaches:
1. Erik Spoelstra
The most unlikely coach is the best one James has ever had. Depending on who you believe, James wanted Spoelstra replaced by Riley early in the Big 3 era, and later that season, Rick Carlisle outcoached Spoelstra in the NBA Finals. But over the next three years, Spoelstra unlocked the best we’ve ever seen of James by making the most of his gifts and efficiency while ushering in the small-ball era the rest of the league has since copied. With four Finals appearances in four years with two titles, Spoelstra balanced handing the keys to James while giving just enough to Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to keep things afloat until James headed back to Cleveland a made man.
2. Tyronn Lue
In Cleveland during James’ second run, there was chaos, and Lue kept things together with Krazy Glue to maximize a second Big 3 — with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — led by James. Not only did Lue keep the Cavs’ 2015 playoff run alive by stopping then-head coach David Blatt from calling a timeout they didn’t have in the final moments of a critical playoff game against the Bulls in the East semis, he took over for Blatt the next season and insisted — while being down 3-1 in the NBA Finals against the 73-win Warriors — that he had the better team. He challenged James in Game 7 in 2016 to play better defense and helped engineer the historic comeback, cementing his place on this list and in NBA history.
3. Mike Brown
If there were ever a coach to get the most out of the least on this list, it’s this guy. James was growing into a superstar but not yet a champion. The Cavaliers’ early rosters with James were not Finals-ready. But Brown’s stifling defense and decision to give James the freedom to be great enabled the 2007 Cavaliers to upset the standard in the East, the Detroit Pistons, in the conference finals. His 2009 and 2010 versions came up short, but Brown helmed 60-win teams with underwhelming rosters outside of James, who won MVP both of those years.
4. Frank Vogel
Vogel seemed like a marked man as soon as he was hired, but he makes the list for what he did against James. Those Miami Heat runs through the East weren’t cakewalks. They were wars, and Vogel’s Indiana Pacers were at the front of the line. They gave LeBron’s Heat all they could handle from 2012-14, the last two meetings in the conference finals. One would think Vogel earned James’ respect, especially how Vogel helped Paul George flourish with the Pacers.
5. David Blatt
Someone had to be fifth, and with apologies to Paul Silas (James’ first coach), Blatt gets the nod because at the very least, he was the head coach when the 2015 Cavaliers made the NBA Finals without Kevin Love and, late in the Finals opener, lost Kyrie Irving. He was the butt of a lot of jokes with his approach (Remember the fighter pilot thing?), but the Cavaliers did take a 2-1 lead on the eventual champion Warriors with Matthew Dellavadova as perhaps James’ second-best player. That in itself is a feat. He didn’t see it through the next season, overwhelmed by the situation and eventually being replaced by Lue.
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