David Blatt arrived in Cleveland with a certain swagger. While he’d never coached in the NBA before, he’d won most of the major European trophies you can win over the course of two decades overseas. Once he came to the NBA, it quickly became clear that Blatt thought of himself as an established coach with a proven track record of success, not as a “rookie,” and he wanted everyone to know it.
When Grantland’s Zach Lowe asked him whether he’d use LeBron James as a “stretch 4” in one of his first interviews as Cavs coach, Blatt responded, “Stretch 4s became popular in the United States because of Europe. If anyone knows that style of play, it’s probably me.”
Stretch 4, you say? Well let me teach you a little something about the stretch 4.
But it was another quote from that same interview that would prove more prophetic.
“There are coaches that have their system, and they are gonna use that regardless of what the team makeup is,” he told Lowe. “And there are coaches that are adaptive, and take their roster, and play according to their skill set.
“I’m more from the adaptive school, with a few principles that are consistent throughout my career. But we have to see what the team looks like before I can tell you exactly how we’re gonna play.”
No coach — or player or executive, for that matter — has had to compromise more this year than Blatt. The things he has had to give up, willingly or not, are fundamental to his job. He has scrapped his offence and allowed LeBron to take extraordinary power over the on-court direction of the team. He has endured the indignity of an assistant literally calling timeouts behind his back, and a player changing his play call on the most crucial possession of the season.
Blatt said he would see what his team looked like and then adapt, but he couldn’t have imagined he’d have to give up this much.
The offence that Blatt was forced to scrap (largely, it’s assumed, because LeBron and others wouldn’t buy into it) was actually getting rave reviews in the preseason. Mike Miller called it “borderline genius,” LeBron famously mastered it immediately, and veteran Brandon Haywood paid Blatt the ultimate compliment by calling the offence “Spurs-esque.”
“There’s great ball movement, which is very key in the game of basketball,” Haywood explained. “There isn’t as much of one-on-one.”
Nine months later, that offence is gone and the Cavs are basically a one-on-one team.
Cleveland ran more isolation plays than any other team in the NBA during the regular season. Things have only gotten worse in the playoffs, where injuries to Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have forced LeBron James to try to win games by himself. During the regular season 11.4% of Cavs possessions ended in isolations — that number has jumped to 16.5% in the playoffs.
It’s ugly and horribly inefficient at times, but the Cavaliers have been able to win with it thanks to offensive rebounding and some weak competition in the Eastern Conference.
David Blatt knows it’s not ideal. In a new interview with Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, Blatt said, “What you learn in coaching is — and I knew this before, but it’s a lot truer here than it is over there — what you learn is that you have to do in the short-term what works, not what you want to do necessarily.”
In the same interview Blatt admitted that the learning curve in coming to the NBA was steeper than he thought.
“I know I said many times the game is the game. Well, it’s not. It’s different. It’s different in many, many ways,” he said.
The LeBron-Blatt relationship has been generally awkward this year. Beyond the simple abandonment of the planned offensive system, there was LeBron inserting himself at point guard without asking permission, LeBron taking play-calling duties, and LeBron telling the team to run a different play at the end of a playoff game. When Blatt says NBA basketball is different from basketball in general, this is part of what he’s talking about.
Blatt is doing what works. And now (unfortunately for him and the way he’s perceived) what works is letting LeBron James largely run the show.
This is an admittedly kind interpretation of the job Blatt has done this year. You could argue that any offence is better than the offence the Cavs are running right now, and that letting LeBron dribble around the perimeter before driving to into a double team and chucking up a shot every time is coaching malpractice.
But no matter how bad the East is, you don’t get to the Finals just by showing up. You don’t seamlessly incorporate three key pieces into your team halfway through the year without some coaching. And you don’t quietly build a playoff-best defence on the fly if your coach is really just an empty suit.
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