Tuesday, June 3, 2003
Is Silas right coach for LeBron James?
By Steve Wilstein
AP Sports Columnist
Paul Silas either just won the jackpot of coaching jobs or he set himself up for a big fall. Which way it comes out will depend on LeBron James.
For all James' talent and all his millions of dollars, he is still an 18-year-old stepping into a man's world, a high school player with no concept of defense, a big guard who isn't ready to handle that role in the NBA.
James has been hyped as part Magic Johnson, part Michael Jordan. Toss in a little Kobe Bryant and Larry Bird and that about covers the ground for the expectations on James when he dons a Cleveland Cavaliers uniform next season as the NBA's top draft pick.
Saviors sell tickets, and they're going fast in Cleveland.
In the gold and green "LeBron James" magazine, a slick $9.95 "collector's edition," no less an authority than Bill Walton gushes that James could one day be in the company of Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
If James, who's already signed a $90 million deal with Nike, lives up to all that, Silas will join the ranks of other coaching geniuses who have had the grand fortune of working with truly great players. But it's a two-sided proposition. If the prospect goes bust or the team doesn't mesh, the coach suffers.
Coaching in the NBA is the least secure of jobs. Not even a pair of 50-win seasons and last year's Coach of the Year award provided safety to Detroit's Rick Carlisle. Coaches have been dropping everywhere lately, moving around, circling each other, trying to click with a different set of players. Larry Brown fled the Allen Iverson show in Philadelphia a week ago and landed in the lap of the Detroit Pistons on Monday, a couple of hours before Silas said hello in Cleveland.
Silas had a good run with the Hornets, from Charlotte to New Orleans, and now he has the kind of challenge that can make or break a coach's career. He is charged with guiding James along a path through the pros that will seem like a circus at times, a media swarm wherever they go.
Learning the NBA game is sometimes easier than dealing with the NBA life. Silas seems perfectly suited to help James and the rest of the young Cavaliers with both.
"There's going to be an equal amount of pressure," he said, "only his is going to be enormous, like 90 million reasons why. That's going to be something we'll have to deal with, in terms of how we bring this young man along.
"A lot of guys are going to shoot at him - right now - to show him he's not deserving of all the hoopla being heaped on him."
Jerry West saw Pat Riley work with Magic Johnson and several coaches take on Kobe Bryant before Phil Jackson got the most out of him. West would have had James on his Memphis Grizzlies if they had won the draft lottery instead of the Cavaliers.
"These are uniquely gifted players, and LeBron certainly would be in that category," West said Monday at his office in Memphis, just as Silas was being introduced in Cleveland. "They set such high standards for themselves and they have such great work ethics and their talent is so great that they're going to get to a certain place in their career.
"The thing that's more intriguing in my mind is that they happen to play for the right coach who gets them to understand the nuances of the game, gets them to that high level."
Riley and Johnson found "a meeting of the minds," West said, that produced Showtime. Jackson got Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal to play on the same page and win championships.
Silas learned all the nuances in the game as a two-time All-Star with the Boston Celtics and helped develop Hornets guard Baron Davis and forward Jamal Mashburn into All-Stars. The big, burly Silas, who will be 60 next month, can stand eye-to-eye with the 6-foot-8 James and command respect immediately.
"Paul is a tough guy, but he's fair, and I think LeBron will be very comfortable and very happy with him as his coach," West said.
Money aside, James' game would have been better off if he had chosen to go to college for a year or two, playing for a big-time school with a coach who could groom him to run a team from the backcourt and teach him how to play defense.
That now falls to Silas, a forward when he played but a solid teacher of the whole game. The first lessons will be about defense, a foreign language to James.
"He's going to take a lot of nurturing," Silas said.
That's exactly why the Cavaliers hired Silas.
The key points, general manager Jim Paxson said, were Silas' reputation as a teacher who held his players' respect, saw them get better in the second half of each year and ran a system that worked.
"I know that I can get players to play," Silas said. "I've done it through very difficult times, and we've always risen."
Silas saw James play only once but came away impressed that he has "a pro body" and a good feel for the game. Whether James can move right into a backcourt spot or start out as small forward, Silas is less certain.
West, for one, doesn't think it matters.
"He's a basketball player," West said.
Silas can only hope James turns out to be one of the great ones.
Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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