How David Blatt never stood a chance with LeBron James and his camp
Before David Blatt ever conducted his first training camp practice in September 2014, Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James and his agent, Rich Paul, had the coach's succession plan in place: Mark Jackson.
To become the preferred candidate of the most powerful player in the NBA – and de facto Cavaliers general manager – Jackson understood what he needed to do: Bring on James' and Paul's Klutch Sports agency as his representation, and prepare to deliver those commission fees into the King's coffers. Blatt never had a chance. He never knew what hit him.
From the beginning, the Klutch Sports campaign to puncture Blatt's standing as head coach had been as relentless as it was ruthless. James is one of the great leaders in pro sports, and he directed the Cavaliers how he wanted them: in complete defiance of Blatt.
Finally, James' camp had its way on Friday, the Cavaliers firing the coach of the defending Eastern Conference champions and runaway No. 1 seed. Over a season and a half on the job, associate head coach Tyronn Lue fought hard to stay loyal to Blatt, balancing that line of hearing out James' and Paul's barrages on Blatt and yet still urging them to give the coach a chance.
In the end, here was the problem for Klutch Sports' original plan: Cleveland refused to hire Jackson. General manager David Griffin is too well-connected in the NBA, too knowledgeable of the truths inside Jackson's Warriors regime to let that happen. So much of Griffin's job has been to manage the constant demands of James' camp and the volatility of owner Dan Gilbert. As much as anything, his job has been to bridge the chaos above and below him.
Once James' camp realized that Jackson would never be considered as coach – nor would Lue leave his representation to join Klutch Sports agency, despite overtures – Lue became a compromise choice for James' group, sources said. They started pushing for Lue to replace Blatt last season, and grew louder in those calls in recent days and weeks.
Gilbert made Lue the league's highest-paid assistant coach at $2 million-plus a year, forever considering him the head-coach-in-waiting should Blatt need to go. Ultimately, Blatt had little staying power with the Cavaliers, because James had turned Blatt's removal into an inevitability. As the games wore on, opposing players on the floor weren't only watching James constantly wave off plays from the coach – but role players feeling emboldened to disregard the head coach's instructions, too.
James had the Cavaliers existing in open rebellion for more than a season now, with no Pat Riley in the organizational shadows to scare everyone into compliance.
Despite winning 11 of 13 games – losing only to the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs – James had become increasingly vocal in his opposition of Blatt in recent practice sessions and game environments. Within the franchise, it was hard to hear anything else. LeBron James and Rich Paul never had to walk into the GM's office and demand the firing of the coach. All together, they had the capability of making everyone's life hell until the deed was done.
Blatt made mistakes in his transition to the NBA, struggled sometimes to gather the nuances of a complex game of matchups and situations. He had coached in the Euroleague for two decades, and had to sell himself on a new coaching staff, a new roster and the generation's best player.
For all the agent competitors complaining over Klutch Sports' control in Cleveland, it is the kind of leverage no agent would ever reject over an NBA franchise. Outside of his own maximum contract, James and Klutch Sports could turn the Cavaliers into one of the loose slot machines across the street in Gilbert's casinos. It worked with client Tristan Thompson, whom they leveraged into a five-year, $82 million contract. Rival agents find themselves spending more time with clients who end up with the Cavaliers, if only because Rich Paul and his associates work to pilfer players for Klutch Sports, promising the power of James' influence in contract talks with the team.
So here's what's coming now: the trickle of stories on Blatt's incompetence, the fact that no one respected him, and maybe most of all, that James had nothing to do with his firing. For all the fairytales sold on James' return to Cleveland, this was forever about business – the kind of business they couldn't do within Riley's organization, nor Erik Spoelstra's locker room.
LeBron James runs the Cleveland organization, a choice Dan Gilbert made upon the superstar's return to Northeast Ohio. There's no shame there. Nothing that needs an apology out of him. He's constructed a way to maximize his basketball and business interests on Gilbert's dime, and it is possible that James will get all that and win a championship, too.
Once the Cavaliers decided to fire Blatt on Friday, they offered Lue a three-year deal. He considered taking the job on an interim basis for the rest of the season, betting on himself, but ultimately decided on a three-year, $9.5 million contract, sources told Yahoo Sports. This is still the opportunity of a lifetime, a fabulous array of talent that gives a young coach the chance to chase championships.
Only now, Ty Lue gets to try and do something that LeBron James hadn't wanted in his final season in Miami, nor his first year and a half back in Cleveland: to be coached. They pushed David Blatt out, and found a compromise candidate. No commission fees for Klutch Sports on Ty Lue, leaving him with no choice but to win big and win now.