In the third week of January the Cleveland Cavaliers were on pace to win 60 games, coming off of a sound and nationally-televised 13-point win over the Los Angeles Clippers. With Chicago and Atlanta fading, and Toronto not quite there yet, the team was the overwhelming favorite to take the East’s top seed and represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals for the second consecutive year.
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For the Cavaliers’ front office, however, this presumption wasn’t enough to live on. Head coach David Blatt, who as an NBA rookie was in charge of 2014-15’s Finals participant, was let go in favor of lead assistant Tyronn Lue. Lue, like many at the time and even now, thought the whole switch was a little more than effed-up, but with LeBron James having just turned 31 a few weeks before, the franchise apparently thought it couldn’t waste time as James and Blatt’s relationship slowly developed.
The Cavs responded with a similar success rate under Lue and a breeze through the Eastern Conference and back into those Finals, which could end with Thursday’s Game 6. Blatt, having recently been hired to coach in the Turkish League, understandably isn’t keen on watching his former team do work just five months after it let him go
“It was hard for me watching the last games. I can't watch the finals. So I just don't watch the games and I settle reading the results on the internet. The playoffs I would still watch, but not more than that.”
Last year with Cleveland you have reached the finals with an excellent record. Why did they choose to part ways with you?
“I can't think of any reason in the world. Maybe for them, thinking forward, I wasn't the person to lead. It hurt me very bad. It surprised me, I didn't feel well, but you move on. There are disappointment in life, the question is what do you do when you take a blow. I could have coached in the NBA next season. It's more about timing. Sometimes great coaches have to sit outside.”
Where were you in this equation? You have taken Cleveland to its highest point, you didn't failed.
“I didn't fail in my job, I failed keeping my job”.
Blatt isn’t off in his assessment, in ways similar to the Cleveland Cavaliers not exactly acting “off” in firing a guy who had won 97 of his first 137 (including playoffs) games as an NBA head coach.
All of this could be a little off in its translation, but taken literally it’s easy to understand Blatt’s rearview points. He struck some as brusque and a little above things, and in light of interviews like these that image isn’t going to change, especially with his comments about declining to take assistant coach gigs in the wake of his Cleveland dismissal.
The NBA, for all its modern-as-tomorrow thinking, still asks its coaches to pay their dues. LeBron James’ previous coaching combatants – the unsuccessful Mike Brown and the eventually-successful Erik Spoelstra – visibly worked their way to NBA head coaching spots via the tape room, the end of the bench, and then the seat next to two coaching stars in Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley.
Neophyte hires like Doc Rivers, Mark Jackson, and Jeff Hornacek? They played deep into spring on NBC every year. Uniform-to-bench types like Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher? They worked deep into spring most years while on ABC. Tyronn Lue? The star of the 2001 NBA Finals on NBC, longtime NBA vet and quite visible Los Angeles and Cleveland assistant worked up a job-earning amalgamation of all three backgrounds.
David Blatt was the rookie that didn’t want to be called a “rookie,” somewhat understandable considering his brilliant international coaching past. And though those in the press and in the coaching and scouting ranks thought the world of him, for good reason, NBA players still had to head over to his Wikipedia page for background, rather than falling back on the sense memory of, say, the 1998 Eastern Conference finals.
Tough stuff, but that’s how this league works sometimes.
It would be easy to lob criticism on Blatt for not wanting to tune in to cheer on his former guys, but that’s just tough stuff from the other side.
LeBron James wasn’t on the Cleveland Cavaliers when the franchise hired Blatt two years ago. Anthony Bennett was, Andrew Wiggins was about to be, and Kevin Love was still a few months away from becoming a Cavalier. J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov wouldn’t be acquired until midway through his first year – about a year prior to the date of his firing – and Channing Frye has never played a minute for a team coached by David Blatt.
That sort of turnover, remarkable when you consider the two-year turn that doesn’t even have an anniversary until June 20, doesn’t exactly breed the familiarity nor lasting friendships that would survive an abrupt dismissal.
And, unless you’re angling to make Tyronn Lue or Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s staffs for 2016-17, you can bet just about all the unemployed head coaches fired during 2015-16 (nine, to this point, not counting Blatt as he’s taken residence in Turkey) aren’t really lording over these Finals either. Even if you were let go all the way back in November, it’s probably too painful
That’s how breakups go. The Cleveland Cavaliers are two games away from the NBA championship, currently, just as they were under David Blatt last season – and yet this breakup still feels like it was the right move for both sides.
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