Let’s be clear about two things from the outset. 1) I am not a Lebron James fan. 2) I am not a Lebron James “hater”. Some may think this position is impossible, but in all honestly, basketball is basketball and great players are simply great players. Lebron has 3 NBA championships while playing for 2 different NBA teams. He has played in the Finals a total of 7 times and has been Finals MVP in each of the 3 Finals his team won. All this is to be commended, but this blog isn’t about celebrating LBJ or hating on him. It is an evaluation of his team building style and the implications of that style in the broader, professional culture. It's discovering what we can take away from his journey toward basketball success.
Let’s first consider a few facts about the Miami Heat roster when LBJ won his first 2 NBA Titles:
-Dwayne Wade was already an NBA All-Star and Finals MVP, while being unguardable at the shooting guard spot
-Chris Bosh was already an NBA All-Star and was a walking double-double (Double digit points and rebounds each game)
-Ray Allen was already an NBA All-Star, NBA Champion and one of the greatest 3-point shooters of all time.
Now, consider a few facts about the Cleveland Cavalier roster when LBJ won his third NBA Title (last Month):
-Kyrie Irvin was already an NBA All-Star and already unguardable at the shooting guard spot (We all know LBJ was the real point guard).
-Kevin Love was already an NBA All-Star and was a walking double-double
-JR Smith as one of the most dangerous (and streaky) 3 point shooters in the NBA
Lastly, consider the Cleveland Cavalier roster in ’07 when they played in the NBA Finals with Lebron at the helm:
With this in mind, here are three important questions:
What are the obvious similarities of the teams LBJ played on as they reached the NBA Finals?
What are the obvious differences?
What do these rosters tell us about Lebron's leadership abilities, then and now?
During his first stint in Cleveland, LBJ emerged as the rising star of the NBA. His athleticism, his athleticism and did I say his athleticism, were head and shoulders above his peers in the Eastern Conference. He could run faster and jump higher than any of his peers. When coupled with tremendous instincts, this made him unguardable, but only when he chose to be, which sadly wasn't that frequent. Far too often, he deferred or facilitated to players who didn't have the skill to deliver. The unrivaled athleticism and instincts he possessed were sufficient to earn a trip to the NBA Finals where the Spurs were waiting. On the other hand these abilities were insufficient to win an NBA title against the superior skill of the Spurs. Sadly, the Cavs were embarrassed.
Point #1 - Raw ability can produce success but will always be trumped by developed skill. Talent and skill aren’t the same thing.
Point #2 Lebron James was a great individual player, but the future of the team required player leadership, of which, Lebron hadn’t developed.
With his "Decision" to sign with Miami following the 2010 season, LBJ, joined forces with two of the premier stars of the eastern conference, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Together, these three won 2 Championships while having 4 Finals appearances. Quite a feat, right?
What Lebron James did in building a triad such as this is consistent with a owning a monopoly in the Eastern Conference. He was arguably the most athletic and versatile player in the league. Dwayne Wade was the 2nd most dominant shooting guard in the league (behind the Black Mamba). Chris Bosh was one of the most versatile power forwards in the NBA, with the ability to shoot from the outside at a high percentage. And lastly, but certainly not least, Ray Allen was the most deadly outside shooter in the NBA. LBJ built an eastern conference monopoly that all but guaranteed the Miami Heat a place in the NBA Finals.
With this roster, LBJ didn't have to be "the man" night in and night out. As a matter of fact, he didn't have to be the man for an entire game. He had one 4th quarter assassin in Wade and one knock down shooter in Allen, which gave him the much more coveted role of able facilitator with flashes of athletic brilliance.
Point #3 Lebron's ability was superior in recruiting/joining already developed players, but inferior in inspiring average players to perform at a Championship next level.
Point #4 Lebron's ability to staff his weaknesses was more superior than any player during this era. Probably of all time.
In 2014 the unthinkable happened. Lebron made the decision to return to Cleveland and play again for the Cavaliers! When Lebron left in 2010, he left with the smoke of his burning jersey and the smell of fresh paint covering his Nike billboard in his nostrils. Not to mention, the voices of former fans screaming insults and bad wishes. Now, four seasons later, he's the "King returning home." LBJ was received by a fan and media base who possessed a very short term memory. He was forgiven and their basketball savior received a standing ovation. It was a carefully devised business decision, in my mind, a plan in the workings since 2010.
Back in Cleveland, things would be almost the same, literally. As mentioned above, the roster for the Cavs nearly mirrored the roster of the Miami Heat. LBJ had done a masterful job of recruiting additional players to Cleveland. Kyrie Irvin was the present star in Cleveland and it would take a little time for him to "bow" to the king. Even as this transpired, LBJ was able to get JR Smith and Kevin love resigned in Cleveland. What's this all about for Lebron? Why is he so insistent to have a roster that mirrors Miami?
Factually, LBJ needed this type roster. He isn't a threat for four quarters so he needs a guard (like Wade) who would shoot and shoot without regard for getting assists, while doing that at a high percentage. Ah la Kyrie Ervin. LBJ needed a big man who could spread the floor and knock down outside shots, while giving solid rebounding numbers. Ah la Kevin Love (who by the way was replaced by Tristan Thompson in the rotation). Lastly, LBJ needed a knockdown shooter who could be dangerous at any point in time. Ah la JR Smith.
Now, what does this roster show us about Lebron's leadership style? Very clearly, it shows us Lebron has a highly developed skill of building a team that doesn't require his ability to make the other players around him better. Now, before the haterade meter spikes, consider, everything Wade, Bosh, Allen, Irvin, Smith & Love were doing while playing WITH LBJ, they were doing BEFORE they played with LBJ. This fact reveals LBJ is arguably the greatest team building strategist of all time.
Certainly, other teams and players have done this, but no one has done this twice, in almost identical fashion and have won NBA titles in the process. You might remember Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett did this successfully, with only one Championship for the Boston Celtics in 2008. This type strategy may happen once, but not for two different teams while going to the NBA finals each year. Unheard of before LBJ!
Over the past 15 years...
-Scottie Pippen tried and failed
-Shaquille O'Neal tried and failed
-Karl Malone tried and failed
-Gary Payton tried and failed
-Dwight Howard tried and failed
Point #5: Lebron's growing awareness of his skill set, both limitations and advantages, is among the highest we've ever seen in the NBA.
Point #6: Lebron isn't among the 5 greatest players of all time, but he's the top of the list in a new category: The Greatest Strategist & Team Builder of all Time.
When we think of the greatest of performers, players, and leaders in a particular area, we certainly think of people who:
-Perform/Produce at a very high level, night in and night out over an extended period of time. When the lights came on, you knew what to expect. LBJ hasn't done this. Far too many times, in nominal and important games, we've all said, "Where's Lebron? He didn't show up tonight? Why did he pass the ball to a streaky player?
-Develop/Inspire others around them to achieve and perform at levels they would not otherwise reach without that leadership. LBJ hasn't done this. The key players on Lebron's teams were very good before they played one game alongside him and still did exactly what they've always done while playing alongside him. It could be argued the Kevin Love has played worse since being in Cleveland. The only exception, which we could probably attribute to the leadership of LBJ, is Tristen Thompson.
-Build a world-class team around them to complement their skills while providing to their audience a great overall product. LBJ has done this! Lebron is probably unmatched in his strategy to recruit players who were already developed so they could immediately complement his skill set. Arguably, he's the greatest recruiter of talent we've ever seen from a non-GM (General Manager). Simply put, LBJ IS CLEARLY CONFIRMED for the Hall of Fame, but even more so, he's earned a future role as GM (Ah-la Pat Riley).
Conclusively, any Lebron fan will certainly take me to task for some of my observations and conclusions, yet, I do not think they will vehemently disagree with my logic. On the other hand, the LBJ haters have probably stolen a few ingredients for their next batch of "haterade".
Neither of these possible outcomes are my intention. When we observe the 6 points made, I'm hoping we actually realize the true "coaching" that has happened with LBJ and we think through those implications in our own careers and leadership responsibilities. True coaching in the world of leadership isn't the same as what happens in the world of sports. The goal of leadership coaching is to produce awareness of strengths and weaknesses; assets and liabilities; opportunities and obstacles while engaging a strategy to maximize success. This is exactly what happened with LBJ.
He became aware that he hadn't developed the skill set to be dominant for 4 quarters, night in and night out over multiple seasons. He became aware that the time it would take for him to develop those skills would put him beyond his prime athletic years. LBJ also became aware that the mentality needed to play that way, even if he developed the skills, would be the hardest growth area of all and subject him to even more scrutiny.
Application #1 - Don’t ride the wave of raw talent. Invest early in developing a strong skill set in your career.
Application #2 - More important than being an individual star is the necessity of developing leadership ability so you can positively shape others.
Application #3 - Regardless of the new rules, don’t forget that inspiring people through your example to be better than they presently are will ultimately yield the highest dividends.
Application #4 - Be aware of the new rules. These rules revolve around team building and staffing your weaknesses versus spending excessive time developing your weaknesses. Know your timeline of productivity.
Application #5 - Be intentional to engage coaching relationships that will enhance awareness of your strengths and weaknesses; opportunities and obstacles; liabilities and assets.
Application #6 - Each one of us must increase our strategic planning for our personal and professional endeavors. We must not leave success to chance or coincidence.