NEW YORK • LeBron James has fired back at critics who say he orchestrated the firing of David Blatt as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers to have his own choice, Tyronn Lue, hired for the job.
"It does suck that people want to throw my name in dirt for no particular reason, because of speculation or whatever the case may be," the National Basketball Association superstar said on Wednesday, hours before he scored 21 points and made nine assists in the Cavaliers' 115-93 win over the Phoenix Suns.
Four-time NBA Most Valuable Player James returned from the Miami Heat to Cleveland in 2014 only weeks after Blatt's hiring with a vow to make the Cavaliers a championship club.
They made last year's NBA Finals, losing to the Golden State Warriors, but Blatt was discarded last week after two wins following the Cavaliers' 98-132 home loss to the Warriors.
It was the first time in NBA history that a conference-leading club fired their coach.
James denied any knowledge about the firing before the team was told. But the sacking of Blatt, an Israeli who led powerhouses Maccabi Tel Aviv to a European title, was taken especially hard by Israeli NBA fans, who hold James responsible and have labelled him a "coach killer".
"LeBron James is now the most hated person in Israel," Israeli sports journalist Sharon Davidovitch said.
James said his superstar status combined with a contract that makes him a free agent after this season in order to maximise his salary benefits from a new NBA television contract do not mean that he makes the team's major decisions.
"I've never, in my time since I picked up a basketball, ever undermined a coach, ever disrespected a coach," he said. "And I'm not the owner of a team, I'm not the GM of a team. I'm the player of a team."
James said he was wrongly accused because of a history of being outspoken with former coaches Paul Silas, Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra and Blatt, who had never coached in the NBA before taking over at Cleveland.
"People get it so misconstrued because I'm a smart basketball player and I've voiced my opinion about certain things, which I did when I was here my first stint with Paul Silas and Mike Brown," James said.
Possible undermining of Blatt by James has been an issue since last season, when there were clear signs of friction between the two men during the Cavaliers' Finals run.
On an Israeli radio station, Miami Heat minority owner Raanan Katz said James made it clear during his tenure in Miami that "he wanted to dump head coach Erik Spoelstra".
The Heat denied that was the case and Katz said the Hebrew to English translation was incorrect.
James denied that he even knew the property developer and said outside perception is not reality inside a team or an organisation.
CLEARLY A NO-BRAINER
What do you guys want me to do, turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ?
''LEBRON JAMES, who is exasperated over perceptions that he has a major say on team matters.
"What do you guys want me to do, turn my brain off because I have a huge basketball IQ? If that's what they want me to do, I'm not going to do it because I've got so much to give to the game," he said.
"You can't worry about it too much. I got 14 guys here. I got a fan base here and a fan base all over the world that loves what I do, and they respect what I do, and I can't worry about a select group of people that wants to use their negative energy to take away my positive energy. I can't allow that to happen."
Whatever was James' role, the Cavaliers' rout of the Suns on Wednesday ensured Lue's ticket to the All-Star Game.
Just three games into his new coaching job, Lue and the Cleveland coaching staff will now be in charge of the Eastern Conference team next month in Toronto against the West.
Under NBA rules, the team with the best record after Jan 31 is selected to coach their conference's All-Star team - a status Cleveland clinched with a 115-93 victory, in which Kevin Love matched James' 21-point contribution.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN