Our own Ken Berger outlined for you the totality of what LeBron James is condering in his free agency courtship ritual that starts Thursday. But lost among the discussions of weather, teammates, finance, marketing, wine, women, and song is that somewhere in there, he's got to play actual basketball. And while the roster certainly plays a part in that, what about the potential head coaches he'll be leveraging a system with? Let's be clear on this, his new coach's system will be molded to fit James' game, not the other way around (ironic, since James is the one free agent with the most versatility of this monstrous class of 2010). So what exactly is he going to be examining starting Thursday at 12:01AM EST (yes, yes, we know, he's already looking at those things. Play along, will you?).
Chicago: Tom Thibodeau. Thibodeau is coming in as a blank offensive book. He's been focused on defense for the past ten years, and there's been scare discussion of what exactly Thibodeau has in mind. One thing we do know is he wants to initate the offense with Derrick Rose , capitalizing on his speed and strength. The question for James is if he's prepared to play off-ball and be set up to use his incredible array of talents, or if he wants to run the LeISO sets, as they were called in Cleveland, where he single-handedly orchestrated the offense. Certainly in crunch time those are the possessions you want, with your best player with the ball in his hand. But if James recognizes that Rose's dribble penetration and mid-range game can open up more opportunities while saving his energy, Chicago could become a lot more attractive.
New York: Mike D'Antoni. If James has visions of wanting to challenge for averaging a triple double, New York is where he needs to be. Seven Seconds or Less will boost anyone's stats, and when you examine what Shawn Marion was able to do (21.8 points, 11.8 rebounds) with a lesser skillset under the 'stache, James' numbers could be through the roof. It's the defensive side of the ball where James is likely to be hesitant. If there's one thing his playoff failures have taught him, from Detroit to San Antonio to Boston to Orlando and then Boston again, it's that defense wins championships. He's had that mantra pounded into him from the day the Cavs made the playoffs, and all his most succesful teams have been built around defense. It would take a dramatic departure for James to embrace D'Antoni's style, which would defensively result in more highlight breakaways off of turnovers, but would also make life much harder for him against the Eastern elite. Numbers aren't everything, and the team defensive numbers are likely to matter more.
Miami Heat: Pat Riley's pitch is going to be simple. Talent matters, and if you play with Dwyane Wade, everything else is irrelevant. The problem is that while Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has made the playoffs with the Heat and won consistently, the offense has been a bit of a disaster. Too often Spoelstra has surrendered command to Wade and not induced enough off-ball movement and against playoff schemes designed to converge on ISO players (like, say, Boston), the Heat's strategy has wilted considerably. Spoelstra's defensive components should be sound, and he's well liked by the players and organization. Miami could be an attractive option if James decides he wants more control over the offense, since a simpler system will have fewer principles for him to crack.
New Jersey Nets: Avery Johnson has experience with creating offense. His Mavericks teams were good on both sides of the ball, but under Johnson they were versatile behemoths, slayed primarily because of a series of bad matchups in the playoffs. Johnson had success using Devin Harris as a drive and create guard, and circling the offense through Dirk Nowitzki in the high post. We heven't seen James operate much in the high post, curiously, as he usually either attacks from the perimeter or sets up in the low block. Using James as a Josh Howard/Dirk Nowitzki hybrid could yield some explosive results under Avery, and his commitment to man-defensive principles could appeal to James' simplistic concept of defense without as many of the help systems he adhered to under Mike Brown.
The Clippers and Cavs currently don't have a coach. The question is if that's a good thing or a bad thing for them as they attempt to lure James. It could be good from the perspective of giving James the option of selecting his own coach from a series of candidates. But it could also look like the organization doesn't have their house in order. Both candidates the Clippers are exploring do have head coaching experience, but aren't considered top rung. And the longer the Cavs get jerked around by Byron Scott waiting on the Lakers, the worse it looks for them, especially with Danny Ferry out.
As Berger said, there's a world of things James will be considering, and he'll be the final one making the decision. Coaching in the NBA isn't the most important thing, but it's certainly a factor. And in a competition where you're judged down to the minute detail, because James simply has the luxury of examining you to that degree, things like coaching will matter. What James decides to go with will say a lot about what he thinks of his game, and where he thinks his future is best invested, system-wise.