CLEVELAND – Thirty-three years away, and Cavaliers coach David Blatt comes with a confession: He's a little lost here. It isn't coaching in the NBA, but immersing himself back into these United States. All those years, all those seasons in Israel and Russia, and Blatt's still searching for his bearings in America's Rustbelt.
"It does not feel like the same place it was when I left," Blatt told Yahoo Sports on Wednesday morning. He was sitting inside his Quicken Loans Arena office, a few blocks from his downtown apartment. Everywhere he goes here, people have been gracious and encouraging and that makes everything easier.
Nevertheless, Blatt says, "It's a readjustment to be back, yes, but the biggest change is in me. I see the world differently. I no longer see the world through the eyes of simply an American kid growing up here. I see them through the eyes of a worldly man who has experienced new sets of surroundings and made me look now at the world and the USA that I live in again, in a whole different way.
"I left the United States at 22, and I eventually found myself living in the former Soviet Union, the place that I viewed at one time, as a child of the Cold War, as the enemy to be feared, the threat to the U.S. and the world. After experiencing post-Soviet Union Russia, and living there, I had a totally different view of the place and the time period that I lived there. It changed my whole mindset about things. Now, when I'm looking at international events here through the eyes of an American again, I'm seeing it a lot different."
The game is different too in the NBA, and Blatt has immersed himself in learning the league: From the opponents, to the officials, to, yes, coaching the best player on the planet. After Cleveland's 92-90 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night, Blatt had to live with the second-guessing that comes with expectations, that comes with a sluggish start to the season, a 5-5 record born of an inevitable struggle.
Why did Blatt burn through his timeouts and leave LeBron James to take the ball 94 feet in the final seconds, only to watch him lose his dribble and lose a chance at a final shot? Why did Joe Harris, a rookie guard, play 17 consecutive minutes to close the game?
On these nights, Blatt's treated like a Euroleague coach floundering in the NBA's deep end, but he's a student, a voracious learner, and you probably won't see him repeating mistakes. Blatt's finding his way, but he's a Hall of Fame coach, forever adaptable, forever learning, and he'll keep acclimating himself to the nuances of the NBA game.
History suggests the core of James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are too talented to fail together in the long run, that Blatt has the pedigree and purposefulness to ultimately deliver them into championship contention. Blatt will learn the NBA, learn LeBron James, the way that he's learned everything else.
He wishes he could experiment sometimes, push out of NBA norms, but it is a risky proposition. The games keep coming in the NBA, night after night, and there's only so much, so fast. After the Cavaliers' back-to-back victories, Blatt naturally gave them a day off on Sunday. That's how it works in the NBA. Nevertheless, the Cavaliers played horribly on Monday, losing to Denver, and, yes, Blatt wondered: Could they have been sharper with some kind of an activity on Sunday?
Only, he doesn't dare. Not yet, anyway. Not so soon.
"Because of the body of work I've already had, I do trust my instincts," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "But I do also recognize that to come in and change the entire landscape is neither realistic, nor is it palatable to the people that I'm working with. It's got to be a process. It's got to be something that happens over time; something built on trust, built on belief – and hopefully built on some modicum of success.
"You have to be creatively realistic."
As much as anything, Blatt has to learn to coach LeBron James. They had moments together on Wednesday night, talking as co-coaches on the bench, taking the time to address breakdowns and missed opportunities with Cavaliers players. If James wants this to be a partnership, it'll be one. If not, it'll make success impossible for Blatt. Together, they have to incorporate Love into the offense. Together, they have to find a defensive tenacity that'll sustain them in the postseason.
Through it all, though, Blatt hasn't let mistakes dim his confidence, his belief. He carries himself as a championship coach, and understands this: If he doesn't believe in himself, who will? "Coming in, people may say about my situation, 'He hasn't done anything,' " Blatt said. "But I've been part of 25 championships. I've been in a few situations myself where the things we've wanted to do have worked, and worked fabulously well."
For now, he's gone a long way to fit into the NBA, to indoctrinate his core beliefs into conventional wisdoms of the league. He understands this: The players are the stars in the NBA, and he has the biggest on the planet. For years in Europe, people could count upon Blatt to speak out on social issues and politics and the Middle East. Everything's changed for him, and Blatt hasn't come back to the States to tell everyone how he sees the world, how it's all changed. This job's too important, his burden's too big.
"I haven't tempered my opinions, but I've lowered my voice," Blatt told Yahoo. "Listen, I work in an organization that has a wide fan base that I have to respect, that I should respect, and a team and a global vision here that doesn't necessarily lend itself to any incendiary or out-of-the-box opinions. And that's OK.
"I still express my opinion, but I don't have to do it publicly on the pages of Cavs.com."
Blatt has come back to the United States, come to the biggest pressure job in basketball now: the expectation that LeBron James' coach ought to win the title every season. Blatt's back, and he's trying to find that balance between the Euroleague and the NBA, between his code of beliefs and the realities of coaching these Cleveland Cavaliers.
David Blatt wants to try everything here, but so far, he's learned this: "Less is more in the beginning," Blatt said with a laugh, and maybe that's how you slowly, surely start one more journey.