Two of last year’s conference finalists have now fired their coaches midseason. Houston, which dismissed Kevin McHale in November, made some sense, if a particularly desperate kind. Seven losses in the Rockets’ first 11 games had created enough pressure to oust the most easily jettisoned core element of the operation, even if he wasn’t the party responsible. The latest is far stranger: Cleveland, which has been far and away the East’s best team, fired David Blatt as head coach on Friday and promoted Tyronn Lue to be his replacement.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter much at all whether Blatt is a good basketball coach. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first coach in NBA history to be fired while his team ranked first in its conference. Cleveland held the third-best record in the NBA and the fourth-best net rating despite injuries to two starters. Flaws and all, the Cavs have been so definitively better than their Eastern Conference competition that their return to the Finals seemed preordained. Blatt was fired not because the team wasn’t successful in the general sense, but because enough key figures within the Cavs organization were displeased with his process and had the political capital to make a change.
Cavs general manager David Griffin was one of them, and he punctuated his press conference on Friday with a rather clear indictment. This was not a decision made lightly.
David Griffin reading off a statement: "When you have the clarity of purpose that we have as a franchise, these decisions make themselves" — Dave McMenamin (@mcten) January 22, 2016
Griff on stability of rest of staff: "I feel like we won’t miss a whole lot, but we’ll gain a lot in areas that are critical to us." — Jason Lloyd (@JasonLloydABJ) January 22, 2016
LeBron James was another. Already there are credible reports insisting that James was not directly consulted in the decision to fire Blatt. This is likely true. All the same, when the Cavs’ organization on the whole operates in James’s interests, an actual consultation isn’t needed. Team officials have seen how James interacts with Blatt and have heard his complaints, both veiled and overt. The internal dynamics of this team were as such that Blatt’s job was rumored to be in jeopardy during the NBA Finals. Those rumblings persisted into the summer and never fully quieted. It’s shocking Cleveland chose to make this move now, in the heat of a contending season. It’s not as surprising Blatt was fired in a more general sense, given that his job had never seemed secure to begin with.
Perhaps Blatt will soon find the kind of opportunity he signed up for in the first place. Cleveland hired him to mold a young team in need of structure and guidance—one that despite its lottery talent had failed to make the playoffs in every season since James’s initial departure. Within a month, James announced that he would be returning to the Cavs as a free agent. Another month later, Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett were sent to Minnesota in the deal to acquire Kevin Love. Everything that the Cavs were and aimed to be changed in the span of a summer, leaving Blatt to reconfigure his approach in a way that would appease three star players.
No one weeps for the coach who happens to add LeBron James to his roster. Yet the moment he decided to return put Blatt on the hot seat almost immediately. The two never quite seemed to click in a way that could foster a fruitful working relationship, setting the stage for the coach's potential clash with a homegrown, homecoming superstar. The Cavs spent the next year swatting away rumors of their discontent only to have TV cameras capture terse moments between Blatt and his players while journalists emerged with whispered gripes from the locker room. Bold as the timing of this move was, Blatt has long seemed to be headed toward this end. He is not blameless in the circumstances that led to his firing and is not solely at fault for all that ails the Cavs.
Cleveland moves on. It remains to be seen exactly how Lue might differentiate himself from Blatt in terms of strategy, though immediately he brings a shift in rapport. Blatt has a tendency to rub some people the wrong way. Lue, on the other hand, reportedly has a good relationship with James and is trusted by the core players of this team. That alone won’t solve the Cavs’ tactical problems against the Warriors or their talent deficit to the Spurs. It might, however, get a capable roster to buy in a bit more fully than it did under Blatt. Regardless, the decision to install Lue immediately as a full-time head coach (with a new contract in hand) eliminates any interim limbo for a hopeful contender and sidesteps the otherwise inevitable link to possible big-name candidates. The post is filled, which is for the best given that Cleveland needs to get itself in order as soon as possible. Lue, who has no head coaching experience but was party to Cleveland’s season thus far, will do his best to facilitate the transition.
Clear in all of this is the fact James seems to have full ownership of his Cleveland legacy. The coach he never quite got along with has been removed from office. His replacement may as well be hand-picked, even if James never said a word on the matter. He didn’t have to; James’s power can be wielded more subtly, exercised in the mere threat of his displeasure, brought about for the sake of making this team as comfortable as possible. It’s his right, in a way, as one of the most valuable basketball players in the world, and it’s shaping the Cavaliers’ franchise before our very eyes.