A disconnect with LeBron James forced the Cleveland Cavaliers to fire David Blatt and promote Tyronn Lue.
In good times and bad, LeBron James and David Blatt were reading from different books.
The Cavaliers fired Blatt on Friday, ending his stint as coach after just 123 games, a year-plus stretch that produced a Finals trip in his first season and an East-leading 30–11 record this year. But Blatt was never James’s coach: he was hired prior to James’s second “Decision,” he stood by as James regularly called his own plays and checked himself in and out of games, he watched as Tyronn Lue became one of the most active and engaged assistant coaches in the NBA and now he departs without ever winning over James and with Lue stepping into his job.
Lacking NBA experience, and regularly sniping at media members who pointed out that fact, Blatt was never able to close the leverage gap with James and he was never able to prove himself indispensable. In fact, quite the opposite.
During last year’s second-round series with the Bulls, Blatt nearly spoiled Game 4 in Chicago by calling a timeout he didn’t have and then he compounded that mistake by drawing up an inbounds play that called for James to pass the ball in rather than take the final shot. In these pressure-packed moments, Blatt was saved first by Lue, who physically pulled him off the court to save the technical foul, and then by James, who overruled Blatt’s play call and then buried the game-winning, series-altering jumper.
If coach and player had been on the same page, or even on good terms, what happened next never would have taken place. There, in his moment of triumph, James seemed to care less about savoring his shot and more about setting the record straight.
“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it,” James told reporters. “I just told coach, ‘Give me the ball. We’re either going to go to overtime or I’m going to win it for us.’ It was that simple.”
Blatt, of course, hadn’t mentioned this exchange during his own postgame press conference. And, in the moment immediately after James’s shot hit net, he walked awkwardly away from the dogpile with his hands in his pockets, rather than celebrating the moment with his team.
“I was supposed to take the ball out," James continued, laying the whole thing out one more time, for the sake of total clarity. "I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.’ I told him, ‘Have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball, and everybody get out of the way.’”
The King had no problem stripping the emperor of his clothes. In fact, he seemed to enjoy it. Blatt, in James’s own telling, had been one more obstacle on his path to saving the day. At this very important moment, Blatt had been a road block in the strategic discussions and then a bystander to the jubilation. For all his success in helping to recast an injury-ravaged Cleveland team on the fly during the postseason, Blatt appeared almost extraneous, the embodiment of all those wisecracks about James playing GM, coach and superstar.
Cavaliers GM David Griffin pushed back on that idea during a press conference Friday, taking full ownership of the decision to fire Blatt and shielding James from a central role in the move.
“LeBron doesn’t run this organization,” Griffin told reporters. “He is about this organization and of this organization. … This narrative that we’re somehow taking direction from him just isn’t fair.”
There is a big difference, however, between accusing James of being an out-and-out coach-killer and being naïve enough to think that he played no role in Blatt’s departure. One needs only look to Cleveland’s recent humiliating loss to Golden State, and its aftermath, to see evidence of the fissure between coach and superstar.
The Warriors obliterated the Cavaliers 132–98 in Cleveland on Monday, a loss so bad that it defied all spin, especially coming after recent road losses to Golden State and San Antonio. After trailing 70–44 at halftime, James seemed to detach himself from the action in the third quarter. He never displayed the type of abandon he’s shown when trailing big in the postseason—when his pride is truly at stake—and he didn’t take a shot inside the three-point arc until more than seven minutes into the period. Later in the game, television cameras caught him in an animated grumbling session with Lue on the sideline.
The detachment and frustration were understandable, given the wide gaps in quality, talent and cohesiveness between Golden State and Cleveland. James couldn’t save this one, and he knew it. In his eyes, and in the eyes of most observers, the Cavaliers might have been on top of the East, but they weren’t nearly good enough to win a title.
At 31, with a 2–4 Finals record and a need to deliver Cleveland’s first championship to solidify his standing historically, James unsurprisingly spoke about urgency after the loss, and he posted a quote on Instagram about being “obsessed” with winning.
Blatt, meanwhile, took a wholly different approach, chiding the media for overreacting to the loss and suggesting, per ESPN.com, that the Cavaliers “have done pretty well” and that his team was “in pretty good position.”
Much like in Chicago, this was a case of two men with two distinctly different messages. James, in pursuit of the all-important “one for The Land,” wanted to charge harder—much harder. Blatt, on the other hand, seemingly wanted to focus on the positives during what has been an injury-plagued season. Maybe he was scrambling for a way to show his team he had its back, maybe he was simply trying to find a way to boost morale, maybe he was trying to buy his guys some time, given that Kyrie Irving has been on the court for only one month and June is still a long way away.
Whatever Blatt’s motivation, Griffin directly rebuked his message.
“Frankly, ‘pretty good’ is not what we’re here for,” Griffin told reporters, as he mentioned Cleveland’s championship commitment and owner Dan Gilbert’s heavy spending.
James couldn’t have said that better himself, could he?
So the Blatt era ends in a puff of smoke, undone not by insane expectations but by the fact that Blatt and James never truly saw eye-to-eye on the important stuff. Griffin acknowledged a “disconnect” and a “lack of spirit” in the Cavaliers’ locker room, even after wins, which is more evidence that Blatt never solidified his most important relationships.
Dumping Blatt won’t automatically help Cleveland’s “Big 3” find a perfect balance on offense, it won’t immediately fix Kevin Love’s many defensive miscues, it won’t guarantee consistency from J.R. Smith and it won’t magically reverse Timofey Mozgov’s declining play. But the firing just might lift James’s spirit by simplifying what had been a muddled chain of command among James, Lue and Blatt.
While a happy James still might fall short of a third title, an unhappy one, detached and willing to settle for jumpers, wasn’t going to stand a chance.