Ever since David Blatt became the surprising coaching choice of the Cleveland Cavaliers five months ago, he has heard some version of this question: How will a guy who has spent his entire coaching life in Europe adjust to the pressures of the NBA, which, in his case, also involves coaching the best player in the world?
And Blatt has offered some version of this answer: You don’t know pressure until you’ve coached Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he spent the last four seasons of a 21-year globe-trotting career that also included stops in Russia, Italy and Greece. Asked before his debut on Thursday night if he had ever seen such excitement and pregame hype, Blatt shrugged and said, “Quite frankly, yes.”
It’s a no-win question for Blatt. If he answers the way he usually does, NBA observers roll their eyes and say: “Boy, is he in for a rude awakening.” I heard that from more than a few voices on Thursday night in Cleveland, where the Welcome Back Lebron opener turned into a deflating what-the-hell-was-that 95-90 loss to the New York Knicks.
If Blatt takes the opposite tack and suggests that, yes, he is a babe in the NBA woods and, holy gosh, doesn’t know what to expect, he runs the risk of suggesting that he’s overwhelmed in his new job. Which he does not believe for a minute.
At any rate, Blatt had a quick immersion into NBA reality with a tough back-to-back assignment. He did fine, his first NBA win on Friday night being a memorable one, a 114-108 overtime victory over the Bulls, Cleveland’s likely rival for Eastern Conference supremacy. (Okay, it’s a little early to say that. But I just said it.)
Blatt came to the Cavs scorched with a distinctive brand, one you don’t want until you’ve been in the league for, oh, 10 years or so. He was widely considered “an offensive genius.” He was seen as someone who convinces his players to share the ball, someone who can get maximum offensive potential out of all his players, someone who can figure out a way to do more with less, someone who took his undergraduate degree in the Princeton offense and earned his doctorate refining it with selfless players in Europe. Granted, since most of the Cavs’ preseason theme centered around LeBron’s Return of the Native drama, Blatt was in some ways forgotten, which is what a rookie head coach wants. But an NBA observer in Cleveland made this remark before the first game:
“I know Blatt is supposed to be an offensive genius, but the Cavs’ offense looks like almost everyone else’s. That doesn’t mean I think he’s a bad coach, but I’m just wondering when we see the ‘Blatt system’ take hold.”
Well, if you’re looking for some kind of seismic, Europeanized alteration in Cleveland, you’ll be disappointed. You won’t see a “Blatt system,” at least not right away. The Tex Winter-Phil Jackson-(Derek Fisher?) triangle offense is a fairly structured system that manages to look distinctive, at least when its practitioners are in clear setup situations. Doug Moe’s motion offense with the Denver Nuggets in the 1980s looked distinctive because you never knew who was going to end up with the ball. Mike D’Antoni’s offense in Phoenix, engineered by a healthy Steve Nash, looked distinctive, though more for is alacrity than its rudiments. But for the most part NBA offenses come from the same family tree, though mastery of execution, obviously, widely varies.
Hint: Good teams execute well, bad teams do not. Another hint: Good-executing teams have good players, bad-executing teams do not.
Blatt has LeBron James, so he must get the King the ball, often in isolation. He has Kevin Love, so he must get him the ball on the low block and at his favored three-point spots. He has Kyrie Irving, so he must get him clearouts. He has myriad pick-and-roll combinations -- Anderson Varejao is a good P&R guy and he’s not even thought of as an offensive option -- and Blatt will use them all. Why? Because the NBA is largely a pick-and-roll/isolation league.
Yes, the San Antonio Spurs move the ball better than almost anyone in recorded history. But how many times in your mind’s eye do you see Tony Parker getting into the lane off a simple high pick-and-roll? How many times do you see Manu Ginobili receiving a handoff at the top of the key to run the 1-4 offense with the clock running down? Those are also major components of the Spurs offense. In the NBA, David Blatt has better players at every position than he did with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and if he doesn’t get LeBron James the ball as often as LeBron James wants the ball, he may be doomed to failure. He knows that better than anyone.
So what will Blatt be able to do, or, more to the point, try to do?
• Play with pace. This seems simple, but NBA players, even great ones, sometimes especially great ones, tend to slow the ball down so they can be in control, reduce the variables that would keep them from getting the shot or controlling the action.
• Do myriad things with Kevin Love. Coaches drool when they get multi-talented big men -- they are plenty of those in Europe, though not of Love’s caliber (or they’d be in the NBA) and there’s no better way to establish what Blatt calls “ball energy” than to move his big men in and out of the post. One thing he will do is encourage Love to sprint to the low box, not so much to score but to find open shooters when he gets it.
• Use more imaginative ways to get LeBron the ball, even if it ultimately leads to a familiar-looking isolation. Blatt was a master at that, using double weakside pindowns and misdirection, things like that.
• Spacing and movement. Every NBA team talks about those things, but the ones that succeed in achieving them have coaches who insist on them, talk about those principles every day. Blatt will be one of those.
But here is the key point: A preacher is only effective if the congregation is listening. So for all of Blatt’s offensive stratagems, honed over two decades of coaching players who were not LeBron James or Kevin Love, the most important aspect of his coaching will be the relationship he builds with his players, particularly James. Phil Jackson was a “genius” in large part because Michael Jordan and, later, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant believed in him. Gregg Popovich is sometimes overlooked as an X’s and O’s master because the emphasis is on how closely he connects with his players. That is a major aspect of the Spurs success, as everyone knows.
So no matter the early reviews about Blatt’s offense from his players -- Mike Miller called it “borderline genius” and Brendan Haywood called it “Spurs-esque” -- this will only happen over time. David Blatt will often simply want to put the ball in the hands of LeBron James. And you don’t need to be a genius to know that.