The case of Bill Russell for LeBron as Lakers player-coach


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“You want the job, Russ?” Celtics offered retiring head coach Red Auerbach in 1966.

“Under no circumstance!” Bill Russell replied.

“After what I saw you do? The failure with the judges, the timekeepers, writers, fans, all that stress,” Russell wrote red and me“I don’t want to know anything about that!”

Russell would eventually accept the job as player-coach for his final three seasons, winning two titles despite an aging Celtics roster and an unfamiliar role as an outsider.

Similarly, when the idea for LeBron as player-coach comes up for reasons similar to Russell’s, the most common first answer is a variation of “hell no.” On an ESPN showAlong with Jay Williams, Max Kellerman and Keyshawn Johnson, one caller suggested LeBron was “the perfect coach” for the Lakers “right under your nose.”

While Williams called the idea “a train wreck,” Max disagreed. “I actually like that idea,” Kellerman said. “It eliminates a big problem for the Lakers. You could have a player-coach, why not?”

Yes why not?”

Williams disagreed with the extra workload and autonomy, adding, “This isn’t the 1960s with Bill Russell.”

But why can’t it be?

LeBron’s former teammate Javale McGee also likes the idea.

“I used to hear things like Bill Russell was a player-coach, and I was like, ‘How are you a player-coach?'” McGee asked in one appearance Club Shay Shay with Shannon Sharpe last September. “‘How is that a thing?’ But after going to the Lakers, I understand how a player can be a player-coach.”

There is also loose evidence that some people in Lakers leadership circles considered the idea. On his On the ball podcastRic Bucher explained a text he received in November:

“It was said that Jeanie Buss, the Lakers’ governor and majority owner, had been proposed to take over LeBron as player-coach.” While Bucher couldn’t say how seriously the proposal was taken, he added that he “would like to see if it happens [for] nothing but the spectacle and its historical value.”

Those are two great points for NBA media and fans. There is a third reason. Like Russell, as a player-coach, LeBron can probably give the Lakers the best shot at winning another championship.

Here are four reasons why.

1. LeBron IS already a player-coach

When he’s injured or resting, LeBron can often being seen from the sidelines when coachingbut Javale McGee explained how LeBron is also an on-court coach:

“When LeBron is playing the games, he’s also thinking about the game and he’s also cautiously thinking about two other players,” McGee said. “Like ‘Oh you have to be there, and you have to be there, we have to do that if we’re going to win this series, we have to change that.’ And he has a big part in that. So I definitely think he’s more of a player-coach than just a player when it comes to just the cerebral part of the game.”

LeBron’s cerebral part of the game supported by a photographic memory. Both former coaches and players rave about it about LeBron as a basketball genius.

“It’s incredible,” said former Cavs teammate Iman Shumpert. “You’re talking about someone who knows the playbook, knows where everyone is supposed to be, who knows the playbook and the coaching style of the other team coaches. LeBron is one of them.”

LeBron’s spirit is this generation’s Bill Russell. Former Knick, Rhodes Scholar and Senator Bill Bradley calls Russell “the smartest player that ever played this game.”

Giving LeBron full control simply expands that coaching autonomy and reduces strategy conflicts. LeBron probably has three good years left, just like Russell did in 1966.

2. LeBron would have 10x more coaching support in the game than Russell ever had

Speaking on ESPN, Jay Williams expressed his concerns about LeBron’s extra workload chasing championships.

Both Auerbach and Russell initially had exactly the same concern. They felt that the player-coach model compromised the player and the coach, so it wasn’t the first option.

Auerbach had promised Russell he would not hire a coach without his “100 percent approval” and both men initially preferred hiring retired Celtics, but for various reasons Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey and Tommy Heinsohn all turned down the job away. After turning down some head coach names suggested by Auerbach from outside the organization, Russell accepted the offer.

Concerns about double workloads are not new. Assistant coaches are new in the NBA.

In 2022, Lakers head coach Frank Vogel had eight of them, including two former head coaches.

In 1966 Coach Russell had none.

And it showed early on. As he adjusted to his new role, Russell made early coaching mistakes that would make Skip Bayless’ head explode if it were LeBron today.

In his very first game, Russell forgot to substitute an exhausted KC Jones who played 46 minutes. The Celtics still won. In another close game, he accidentally missed John Havlicek and Sam Jones in the fourth quarter. Even Sam Jones, Russell’s longtime running mate, voiced his concerns about the player-manager concept: “If you have to play Wilt Chamberlain,” Jones said, “you have to have your sanity on playing him and then nothing.”

Coach Russell made adjustments. Midway through the season, he appointed Havlicek as team captain, making him a de facto assistant coach to help with in-game decisions.

In Russell’s first year as coach, 1966-67, the Celtics were still winning 60 games but ultimately lost to Wilt Chamberlain’s 68-win 76ers, one of the all-time greatest NBA teams. No shame.

Coach LeBron would have no shortage of assistant coaches to delegate specific responsibilities and general backup patterns before games are even played. If Coach LeBron wants to deviate from these patterns because of the flow of the game, he can. He has done so many times. This time it would be with full authority assigned.

3. Bill Russell is the only viable player-coach comparison for LeBron James

NBA player-coaches have gone the dinosaur route, and it’s easy to see why.

In the 1960s, Hall of Famers like Richie Guerin, Dolph Shayes, and Bob Cousy (Cincinnati Royals, 1969) all became seasoned player-coaches but were mostly shells of their former selves. The NBA’s player-coach era was largely unsuccessful because those players couldn’t train themselves to be five years younger. If your player-coach is a replaceable role-player, it just makes more sense to just have a full-time coach instead.

As a veteran player-coach, only Lenny Wilkens continued to play at a high level (Sonics 1969-1972) but maintained a 30-win list that improved every three years as player-coach.

Bill Russell’s situation was unique. An older, injury-plagued Russell was also able to dominate.

In his final season at age 35, Russell averaged 19.3 rebounds, good for third place in the NBA and ahead of much younger Hall of Famers like Elvin Hayes, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed and Walt Bellamy.

It’s not about ‘the 1960s’ or ‘the 2020s’, player-managers are usually a bad idea in any era.

Bill Russell was an exception then, and LeBron is an exception now.

4. The Russell-coached Celtics have won two titles in the last two years – despite being underdogs

Bill Russell’s greatest player-coach for LeBron is that he’s won his last two seasons on an aging team that never won its own division.

Russell’s 1968 and 1969 Championship Celtics were not the 1957-1966 Auerbach-Russell Celtics.

Gone was the perpetual luxury of the most dominant roster and past Hall of Famer teammates like Cousy, Bill Sharman, Heinsohn and KC Jones. Russell and Sam Jones were now in their mid-thirties, leaving Havlicek as their only younger star.

Still, the 1968 Celtics became the first team in NBA history to come down from a 3-1 deficit (Wilt’s 76ers) en route to the title.

“Sportswriters later considered Boston’s surprising triumph over Philadelphia as one of the greatest achievements of the Celtics dynasty,” writes John Taylor in The Rivalry. “In the Herald-Traveler, Tim Horgan called it ‘more surprising than an American to win [Boston] Marathon.'”

The 1969 Celtics arguably put on an even bigger run, beating three teams that had home advantage, culminating in a 7-game riot against the Wilt-Jerry West-Elgin Baylor Lakers.

It’s hard to imagine these Celtics winning these titles with any new coach other than Bill Russell.

The Lakers should pay attention to history, because when an older LeBron, a healthy Anthony Davis (enter the punchline here), and key off-season roster additions have a shot at winning another title, they’ll do it the hard way, even as underdogs to do. They would have to maximize their veteran knowledge, shrewdness, and every strategic advantage to rig playoff matches against younger stronger teams.

And the most qualified coach in the world to pull this off is LeBron James.

He will be 38 next year and there is no time left for new coaching experiments.

The Lakers would have to make an offer and LeBron would have to take it.

Perhaps both parties can learn from these Celtics.

In red and meRussell cited his own change of heart after his initial “Hell no!”

“I thought about it and came to the conclusion that I had Red over a barrel and shouldn’t leave him in that position. So I called him and said, ‘Okay, Red. I’ll take the job.’

“He said, ‘You made the right choice. Who better to motivate Bill Russell than Bill Russell?’

Who better to motivate LeBron James than LeBron James?

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