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High drama, high stakes: Cavs fire David Blatt with NBA title in mind

GM David Griffin fired coach David Blatt with one thing in mind: An NBA title for LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

A massive photograph of Quicken Loans Arena, taken moments before a Finals game last June, hangs on David Griffin’s office wall. In the photo, the seats are full, and the fans are waving blue glow sticks. It is suggested to Griffin, the Cavaliers general manager, that this is the snapshot he wishes to relish and recreate. “No,” he replies. “I hate this picture.” Every morning, when he reports to work at the Cavs practice facility, it greets him and it taunts him. “It only reminds me,” he says, “that we lost.”

Griffin and LeBron James relate on several levels, but this is the most fundamental one: Posting the best record in the Eastern Conference is not enough. Reaching the Finals is not enough. Stealing a couple games is not enough. James did not leave Miami, and Griffin did not sign off on a $110 million payroll, to be the Warriors’ patsies.

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After Golden State beat Cleveland for the championship last year, Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa spotted Griffin in the hallway outside the visiting locker room. Barbosa, who befriended Griffin when they were both in Phoenix, wrapped him in a jubilant hug. As Griffin walked to his car, he smelled the champagne on his shirt, and made a face at the fumes. “I’m never doing this again,” he told his wife.

But that’s where the Cavaliers were headed, and very possibly, that’s where they’ll still wind up. The Cavs were probably going to fetch the best record in the East with David Blatt, and they’ll likely do the same without him. They were probably going to make the Finals with Blatt, and they’ll likely do the same without him. Yet in the past week, they were edged by the Spurs and obliterated by the Warriors, a clear signal they remain far short of the only standard that really matters.

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“I think this team is in pretty good position,” Blatt said Thursday, as he chided reporters for hyperventilating over the Golden State game. “Frankly, ‘pretty good’ is not what we’re here for,” Griffin clarified Friday, in a press conference announcing Blatt’s ouster. “I’m not leaving an unprecedented team payroll to chance.” Of course, that is exactly what he’s doing, by replacing a veteran strategist in Blatt with a rookie head coach in Tyronn Lue. If he wanted to minimize risk, he could have dialed Tom Thibodeau.

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But implementing strategy, if you ask Steve Kerr or Gregg Popovich, is not as important as building culture. That’s where Blatt fell short and Lue showed promise. Griffin, who worked with Kerr in Phoenix, kept returning to two ethereal terms at his press conference: spirit and connectedness, concepts hard to define but easy to recognize. The Warriors embody this amorphous quality. So do the Spurs. The Cavaliers do not. For months, Griffin worried that the Cavs operated without joy, even when they won. “I know what it’s supposed to feel like,” he said.

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Asking the 38-year-old Lue to change the environment on the fly, and create such esprit de corps by April, is asking a ton. But it was not happening under Blatt. Griffin swore he acted alone Friday, and obviously, no one believed him. The narrative in Cleveland, real or perceived, was set the day James returned: He makes the calls. The organization writes the checks. There is apparently no room for nuance in the player/club relationship. But Griffin is not the kind of GM who cowers behind his computer. He travels with the team, spends time in the locker room, plops down next to guys at the cold tub. “I didn’t ask anybody’s opinion,” he said. He didn’t have to.

Griffin hired Blatt from Israel in June 2014 to guide a young roster, led by Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Andrew Wiggins, that was praying for an eight seed. Three weeks later, the franchise changed, and so did Blatt’s job description. He didn’t have to develop talent. He needed to win hardware. The early tweaks from James did not help, and though he became more supportive this season, others developed different complaints. Former Cavaliers center Brendan Haywood told Sirius XM’s NBA channel Friday that Blatt lost the locker room in part because he was reluctant to confront James. Griffin, in some cases, was more willing.

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Perhaps Griffin overreacted, firing a coach who was 30–11, who won 65% of his games, who steered the Cavaliers through the playoffs without Kevin Love and the first two months without Irving. Never before has a coach atop his conference been dismissed. It was an unusual decision but the Cavaliers are in an unusual predicament, playing in a city that has not captured a championship in more than a half-century, with a megastar approaching the back end of his prime. Normally, 30–11 would warrant ovations and extensions, but the Warriors and Spurs have shrunk everybody’s margins. 30–11 isn’t what it used to be. James demands better, and make no mistake, so does Griffin. The urgency is shared.

About this time a year ago, Griffin acquired center Timofey Mozgov from the Nuggets, along with guards Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith from the Knicks. The deals, which smacked of desperation at the time, effectively saved Cleveland’s season. Again, the GM is putting himself in the crosshairs, right next to his star. Such is life with LeBron James, high drama, high stakes. Five months from now, the Cavaliers under Lue will probably end up in an identical spot as the Cavaliers under Blatt: in the Finals, against the Warriors, surrounded by all those glow sticks.

Chances are, judging by the first half, the enduring image will come out the same. But the Cavs made clear Friday they’ll do anything to change it.