The Cleveland Cavaliers went “all in” with David Blatt, to borrow a phrase that their marketing department borrowed from 9,000 other people. General manager David Griffin sat next to Blatt and said there was absolutely no reason to fire him, which means Griffin will either a) keep Blatt, or b) fire him and say “Reason? Who needs a reason?”
The Cavs would look like a clown parade if they fired Blatt now. But their LeBron James/David Blatt problem is real, no matter how much Griffin denies it. And there are real repercussions. Consider this sequence of playoff events:
May 10: Needing a basket in the final seconds to avoid overtime in Chicago, Blatt draws up a play for someone other than James. James changes the play, says he will shoot himself, and hits the game-winner to tie the Bulls in the Eastern Conference semifinals, 2-2. James then tells the whole world he overruled his coach.
June 4 and June 7: Needing a basket in the final seconds to avoid overtime in Games 1 and 2 of the Finals, Blatt hands the ball to James on isolation plays.
Those incidents were dissected heavily on their own. But they should be evaluated together. After what happened May 10, what was Blatt supposed to do in the Finals? He had to let James take over. James had left him no choice. Blatt could not risk having James overrule him again, or the wrath of James if another player missed the shot.
Did this cost Cleveland a championship? Doubtful. With Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love injured, the Cavs went as far as anybody could reasonably expect them to go. If those two were healthy, Cleveland might have beaten Golden State, and nobody would be asking Griffin to defend his coach.
Of course, if Earnest Byner hadn’t fumbled, or Edgar Renteria had struck out, or John Elway had signed with the Yankees out of Stanford… Cleveland fans know the power of the word if. The fact is, the Cavs did not win the championship, and it’s fair to wonder if Blatt is the best coach for the Cavs in 2015-16.
Blatt is a very good coach. He has proven that over many years in numerous leagues. And now that Blatt has coached in the NBA for one season, it’s fair to assume he will be a better NBA coach next year.
And yet, from the beginning, this was an awkward marriage. The Cavs hired Blatt June 20—six days before the NBA draft, and two weeks from the free-agent season. By that point, the Cavs had to know what they would do with the No.1 pick in the draft (they took Andrew Wiggins) and of course they knew they wanted James to pick them in free agency.
Why hire a coach then? Why not wait until James made his decision, then make sure he approved of the new coach? That may sound backward—giving James even more input than he already has. But it would also make James accountable. It’s harder to distance yourself from the coach when you were on board with his hiring.
Besides, at that point, Blatt was not the best choice. He had never coached in the NBA. He had earned his chance with some NBA team, but why hand the keys to a title contender to somebody who was new to the league?
James pretty clearly bristled at Blatt for much of the season, but he has done that, in the beginning, with other coaches. That’s his way (It was also Michael Jordan’s way). In Miami, James had to work with Erik Spoelstra, because Pat Riley stood by Spoelstra, James had a long-term contract, and James was so unpopular nationally that he could only go so far with his rebellion against the coach. Eventually Spoelstra won him over.
Cleveland’s situation is a bit different. Griffin said he expects James to opt out this summer, but that’s just a financial play. James cannot realistically bail on Cleveland any time soon, and he won’t. He will stick around even if Blatt does. But it’s also clear that, if the Cavs fail to win a championship, blame will go to Blatt. And if the James-Blatt relationship does not improve next year, that could hurt the team again.
A decade ago, Griffin would have had an easy solution to this: Hire Phil Jackson. Nobody ever coached superstars better. He could have finished the job in Cleveland the way he did in Chicago once and Los Angeles twice. But Jackson is not an option now that he is busy steering the Knicks with one hand and claiming that three-pointers are overrated.
If I were in Griffin’s spot, I would have made one surreptitious phone call to Mike Krzyzewski. It was a long shot, but one worth taking.
NBA teams have tried to lure Coach K for 25 years, back to when the Boston Celtics tried to hire him in 1990. He said no then, and said no again when Kobe Bryant asked if he wanted to coach the Lakers. He has been pretty clear that he expects to retire at Duke.
And yet: This is a very unusual situation, and for various reasons, Krzyzewski is the ideal coach for the Cavs. He has already coached the Cavs’ three big stars—James and Love in the Olympics, and Irving at Duke and with USA Basketball. He is a master at convincing people to do what a team needs, and a wildly successful recruiter. He also publicly endorsed the trade of Andrew Wiggins for Love before it happened. When the Cavs make their pitch to Love this summer, there is nobody I’d rather have in the room than Krzyzewski.
When things go south next season—and they will, even if it’s just temporary—Krzyzewski would have been the best person to handle it. And unlike Blatt, Krzyzewski would have escaped finger-pointing because he has such credibility with the public, and because the Cavs would have already fired one coach in the second James era. If the Cavs needed two points to win a playoff game, Krzyzewski would have called whatever play he wanted—and convinced James he was right. He has that kind of power to persuade people.
Blatt does not have that kind of personality. Yet the Cavs are apparently betting that Blatt and James can make this work. They may be right. They better hope so.