Isiah Thomas was a terrific basketball player.
He was a score-first point guard before that was the norm. He was tough as anyone — remember that swollen ankle in the NBA Finals, and all that Thomas did on it. He was fiesty and relentless, not backing down even to Michael Jordan. He was the heartbeat of a mini-dynasty, the catalyst of the Bad Boys.
But since then?
Well, it hasn’t been great.
He was a decent head coach in Indiana by most accounts. Other than that? Failure with the CBA. Tragic failures, time after time, with the New York Knicks, where he somehow remained James Dolan’s pet. And FIU? We don’t want to talk about FIU.
Now he’s an analyst, and he’s generally enjoyable there. I’ve interviewed him, and been impressed by his breadth of knowledge. But even in that area, sometimes he slips up.
And this was a doozy,
I mean, what?
Or, in clearer terms…
The idea that James who, let’s be honest, thinks he can coach himself — and pretty much can — has been held back by his coaches is ludicrous.
First, he’s done pretty well in spite of them if that’s the case.
And then there’s the record.
He was drafted by Cleveland when Paul Silas was there; Silas may not have been an elite strategist, but he was a respected player and was well-liked by players and would have success after coaching James (remember Charlotte vs. Miami in 2001; Ricky Davis is still dunking somewhere, with Pat Riley memorably saying he was “embarrassed and ashamed” by what Silas’ team did to his).
Mike Brown? He was well-regarded as a strategist, especially on defense, at least for a while. Enough to get other gigs. And he was a branch from the Gregg Popovich tree.
David Blatt? He wasn’t suited for the role. At all. Horrible horrible fit. I was there. I know. David Griffin tapped him in Cleveland before he knew he was getting LeBron. Blatt did not take to challenges well. He made excuse after excuse (doesn’t fly with LeBron) and compared himself to a fighter pilot. He botched a timeout in a big playoff game against Chicago and the officials didn’t see it and then James’ game-winner bailed him out.
But James and his camp didn’t have to deal with him long. They had a little something to do with Ty Lue — who was doing good work coaching the Cavs defense — getting the main job. They won a title and, while it wasn’t clear Lue was all that responsible for it, he didn’t get in the way much.
Then James went to the Lakers with Luke Walton in place, so he knew sort of what he was getting (plus, Walton had posted a sterling won-loss record with the Warriors, even better than Steve Kerr’s. For what that’s worth.).
But, of course, we are in Miami, and so it’s the Spoelstra part of the Thomas take that is most wrong.
And most offensive.
Whatever you think of what Spoelstra has done the past couple of years — 2018-19 was not his best, under difficult circumstances — he did make the playoffs with Dwyane Wade and not much else before James arrived (broken down, playoff flop Jermaine O’Neal was the second best player Wade had during those two seasons; Michael Beasley was force fed minutes when he was a lackadaisical defensive liability only to justify his selection to a threadbare roster). The Heat were 15-67 the year before Spoelstra took over, with Pat Riley taking sabbaticals, and tripled their win total under Spoelstra.
So the idea that Spoelstra was being “experimented with” is farcical. He was entrenched at that point, with two playoff appearances even if they were first round exits. And recall, Wade didn’t want Riley back as the coach, for plenty of reasons. My reporting has always indicated that James didn’t either. Later, maybe. But not initially.
Then Spoelstra proved himself after a sometimes-rocky first season with the Big 3, especially on offense. But he probably wins a title even that first year if James doesn’t turn into Evan Turner Light in the 2011 Finals (and that’s even while acknowledging that Spoelstra erred badly in playing Mike Bibby over Mario Chalmers for so long).
The next season, Spoelstra won a championship in a weird lockout-shortened schedule. And then he found a perfect 9-man rotation to help propel a 27-game winning streak and a 66-16 record in 2012-13. In doing so, he unlocked James in a way no one else had, convincing him to play some power forward and designing a pace-and-space scheme around James’ otherworldly skill set. He also got buy in from James, at least enough of it, which may be the hardest thing to do in sports, because James doesn’t just think he’s the smartest basketball man in the room. He is. By far. Always.
Has Spoelstra gotten past the second round since James left? No. But look at the Heat rosters. Look at what happened to Chris Bosh. Who would have in Miami? Gregg Popovich? Maybe. Rick Carlisle? He hasn’t lately. Doc Rivers? He did masterful work this season for the Clippers, but he’s also made his share of mistakes. Riley? Not so sure. Not with the way he views basketball now, a view that is too tied to the past, while Spoelstra is always pushing to the future.
Isiah Thomas is in the Hall of Fame for his work as a player, not as anything else.
And sorry to tell you, Isiah:
Spo is joining you there someday.
Make a better argument.
Stop making excuses for LeBron. He doesn’t need them. He’s one of the two best players in history. And, with the exception of where he was drafted, he’s made all of his own choices.