What's behind LeBron's shift in leadership strategy

LeBron James has been much more supportive publicly of Kevin Love this season. Elsa/Getty Images

SAN ANTONIO -- If you didn't know a thing about the Cleveland Cavaliers' roster and simply listened to LeBron James' public statements this season about the principal characters who surround him to inform yourself of the Cavs' makeup, you would probably come away thinking his team is even more stacked than it actually is.

The player he starts alongside in the frontcourt? James called him the Cavs' offensive "focal point" and claimed the team would "ride his coattails." Sounds like he's talking about a dynamic point producer like Kevin Durant, right?

The coach who runs practices and calls plays in the Cavs' huddles? James said: "He does his job as great as any coach can do in this league." "He" could be Gregg Popovich or Rick Carlisle roaming the sideline in Cleveland, based on a quote like that.

The floor general who sets the tempo and distributes the ball among one of the most expensive collections of talent in league history? "He's, if not the best, one or two best point guards in our league along with Steph [Curry]." James said. Take those words verbatim and James is saying the Cavs are just as well off with their point guard situation as they would be if the league's reigning MVP was suiting up for the wine and gold.

The actual subjects of those compliments doled out by James are, in order, Kevin Love, David Blatt and Kyrie Irving. All three came under the scrutiny of the four-time MVP at times last season either privately (as in Irving's case following an early-season loss in Portland) or out in the open (James' infamous "FIT-IN" tweet about Love and his "I don't pay no bills around here" non-endorsement of Blatt).

"I think it's him and everyone else in the program recognizing that we were very, very close [last season]. Perhaps the next step is that confidence in one another and that trust in one another." David Blatt

Considering the history there, the question becomes: Is this just lip service from The King, or has something genuinely shifted in the dynamic between James and the rest of the Cavs' power brokers?

"I mean, it's what we got," James told ESPN.com when asked about his motivation behind the statements he made about Love, Blatt and Irving. "It's what we got. I only speak the stuff that I feel and that's accurate."

While James is adamant he believes in what he said, each statement had its own specific timing that served an ulterior motive in the moment it was uttered, other than to simply be congenial.

Lauding Love

Months after Love and James met for their much-publicized meetings in L.A. during the summer, James set the tone for the Cavs' supposed third wheel at the team's media day at the outset of training camp. "I expect big things from him this year," James said at the time. James would go back to the Love well time and time again through training camp and the early part of the season, pumping up Love's place in the Cavs' hierarchy and proclaiming that the stretch 4 will be an All-Star again this season after not being selected last season.

Asked to reflect on his reasoning, James set the scene.

"Early in the season, with Ky being out and me trying to get back into my form, we needed to ride Kev," James told ESPN.com. "That was the situation at hand."

While Love's numbers have dwindled since storming out of the gates -- he's averaging 13 points in December and January after averaging 19.8 points in October and November -- James' statement at the time served its purpose. Love played a larger role than he had been accustomed to in Cleveland, and the Cavs won at a substantial rate, even though Irving and Iman Shumpert were sidelined and James was easing into things after receiving an anti-inflammatory injection in his lower back during training camp.

Bolstering Blatt

After the Cavs lost two games in a row in mid-November in poorly executed performances against Milwaukee and Detroit, James was asked about Blatt's hand in their outcomes. "Coach got on us pretty well, rightfully so, which he should have," he said, further crediting Blatt for showing his team all of their mistakes during an extended film session.

It was a tenuous time. Sure, the Cavs were 8-3, but they were an unproven commodity, playing down to the competition in two wins against Philadelphia and two wins against New York that padded their record. Plus, Houston had just fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the season, with the Rockets at 4-7. The Cavs finished last season just two games away from a championship, but the Rockets were the next runner-up, losing to Golden State in the Western Conference finals.

The feeling throughout the league was that if McHale could be on the chopping block that early, just about anyone could -- including Blatt.

That's when James stepped in to call him "as great as any coach in this league" and get in front of a potentially hazardous storyline to his team's development, the "will he or won't he be fired" theme that seemed to swallow up the first half of the season during James' first year back in Cleveland.

"I think every game is another learning experience for Coach Blatt," James told ESPN.com. "There's coaches with more tenure in our league, obviously, and there's guys with a better résumé than he has. But one thing he tries to do is just put us in a position to win and then it's up to us."

James then pointed to the recent AFC wild-card game between the Cincinnati Bengals and Pittsburgh Steelers, which saw Cincy relinquish a late lead thanks to a string of penalties from Vontaze Burfict and Adam Jones, to illustrate his thoughts about Blatt.

"What's funny -- which is totally off topic -- but as much as I'm a fan of Big Ben [Roethlisberger] and James Harrison, being from Akron, and Antonio Brown, seeing Cincinnati lose that game, it kind of hurt to see Marvin Lewis go through that," James said of the Bengals' coach. "Because I think he put those guys in position with a second-string quarterback to win that ballgame. And those guys kind of blew it away.

"I can relate, in sports, kind of the coaches always get the worst of it. I think that was a prime example of a coach putting his team in position as best as he could. I mean, he can't go out there. He can't go out on the field and play. But he put them in the position to win, and they had their chance and they kind of blew it."

Blatt tried to be evasive when asked what James' words meant to him in November, but shared what they meant to the Cavs.

"I don't want to take it to a personal level," Blatt told ESPN.com. "It's important to me, like what I believe is important to him, is the betterment of the whole. I just think that's part of his genius that he recognizes that.

"I think it's him and everyone else in the program recognizing that we were very, very close," Blatt said, alluding to the Cavs' 2-1 lead in their Finals series with the Warriors that ended in a three-game losing streak. "Perhaps the next step is that confidence in one another and that trust in one another."

Kudos for Kyrie

On Jan. 6, Irving had recorded his finest performance since returning from a 6½-month rehab following surgery on his fractured left kneecap. The fifth-year guard scored 32 points, including a blistering 19-point fourth quarter, to help Cleveland begin its longest road trip of the season -- six games over 13 days -- with a 121-115 win in Washington.

While conducting a joint postgame interview on the floor of Verizon Center with Fox Sports Ohio's Allie Clifton, James called Irving "the best point guard in our league" when asked if Irving should be going to the All-Star Game, even though he missed so many games while injured.

James adjusted his statement in the postgame locker room to account for Curry, but it was still an overwhelmingly flattering response. And it came on the heels of him hinting that Irving, like Curry, could be in line for a league MVP someday, an opinion he shared after the Cavs' prior game when Irving scored 25 points against Toronto.

"I think with Kyrie's statement, it's just, I don't think it's even a question," James told ESPN.com. "It's just if he wants it. It's not about what everybody else says. It's just if wants it. If he wants to be better than an All-Star, he can be. And I think he does."

After hitting a clutch 3 in overtime off a James assist to beat Dallas and help extend the Cavs' winning streak to eight games, Irving was asked about James' MVP premonition.

"That's just really high praise from a great player," Irving told reporters. "I'm truly appreciative of it. I don't see it as added pressure or anything like that. His high expectations, I have for myself also. And we've been around each other almost every day for the last two years and to have that confidence, have that respect from a perennial MVP and a guy that's won in this league, it's awesome. You guys get to see the cameras in front of his face, but for me, I get to see him every single day and learn from him. And to have that respect and to garner that respect and to earn it from him, that's awesome. That's what I tried to do from Day 1 when he came and when he signed here, just tried to earn that respect."

Irving was then asked what he has learned from James along the way.

"Just being that consistent, great player every single night," he said. "And what's expected from a great player every single night. No matter who we're playing against. No matter what stage it is. It's being that for your team. And he's been that every single night for us, so I'm just learning that every single day and I'm telling you, it's a pleasure. I love that guy. He demands it out of me and that's what I need. And to have that mentorship every single day is awesome."

Familiarity is key

Love has noticed how praise has poured out of James' mouth much more readily this season.

"I think as far as him having confidence, it's big," Love told ESPN.com. "I mean, it starts at the top. He's also very hard on us. In particular, us two.

"I didn't know them last year. I can't put my trust in guys that I don't know. That's not who I am. That's not who I should be. I got to see certain things out of those guys, and I think we're still learning each other."
LeBron James

"So, when he said that right off the bat, I think he wanted to get me going. Especially when Kyrie was out. And then knowing that Kyrie was going to come back, instilling confidence in him saying that statement. And we all agree. We see what Kyrie is capable of every day in practice. He's so gifted. He loves the game and he chases it hard. So I think he expects a lot out of us, but he's also our biggest supporter -- both of Kyrie and myself -- but also of everybody on this team because he expects a lot out of us."

When asked to theorize what changed for James, Love pointed to comfort and familiarity within the team. His answer proved to be authentic when James was asked the same question.

"I didn't know them last year," James told ESPN.com. "I can't put my trust in guys that I don't know. That's not who I am. That's not who I should be. I got to see certain things out of those guys, and I think we're still learning each other. It's not going to happen automatically. This is Year 2, but we haven't been together for a full year. I don't know if you can combine the games that we've played. I don't even think we're at 82 yet. So, you know, it's a totally different thing from my first stint here when I had guys that I was with for years. We always was on the floor together. So we need to get to that point. And they got to continue to gain trust in me. I got to continue to gain trust in them."

As the trust has grown, the on-court product has improved. Cleveland is playing its best ball of the season as it prepares to play the only two teams in the league with better records -- San Antonio and Golden State, with a game against Houston sandwiched in the middle -- in the next five days.

"Every day is a learning experience," James said. "I'm trying to get those guys to understand how important this opportunity is. That's all. If I can do that, then I've succeeded. Win, lose or draw. Win, lose or draw, if I can get them to understand how important this opportunity is, then I've done my job."