How David Blatt plans to survive – and ultimately thrive – in NBA's toughest job
LOS ANGELES – Basketball's most besieged coach retreated to a quiet corridor of the Staples Center and moved to reject the caricature of himself as the victim of some sort of coup, a floundering spirit in a murky cesspool. David Blatt is a believer, forever betting on himself and there's something about this struggle that's emboldening the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Everyone's coming for him now, including the most powerful player on the planet. So it goes for the European coach thrust into the biggest coaching burden the NBA's witnessed in a long, long time. Everyone else awaits the validation of a Blatt basketball vision so far unseen, so far unrealized on a .500 team.
"They haven't witnessed it yet, and I readily recognize it," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "But they will. The ways of the NBA are very ingrained in guys here. Before we take them out of their comfort zone, we better find a team comfort zone winning basketball games.
"It's tough to make the kind of changes that I think we can and will in the future before we gain credibility as a team, and the belief of everybody of what we're doing."
The Cavaliers had ended a six-game losing streak on Thursday night, a 109-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. When it was over, Blatt sounded like a coach fighting back the natural human inclination to retreat, to respond to a relentless barrage with a backpedal over a forward lurch.
[More Cavs: Blatt takes team bowling in L.A.]
This has been on his mind, and as the Cavaliers start to stabilize and LeBron James reestablishes his dominance and Iman Shumpert soon joins the lineup, perhaps people will start to see more of the coach's true disposition. As Blatt gains confidence in his understanding of the NBA, his understanding of his own personnel, his voice has to rise over the noise and be heard.
"I've deferred a little bit more than I normally have, yes," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "I can do a better job than I've done with that. I have done less in the interest of trying to find the right way to reach guys. At the end of the day, it's probably not the [right] way."
In the end, the job, the chance for staying power, comes down to this: How does David Blatt reach LeBron James. And truth be told, how does James allow him to do so? Once James stops resisting, it becomes easier for everyone else to follow him and begin the business of chasing something significant together.
In the end, that possibility starts with this, too: the support of owner Dan Gilbert and general manager David Griffin, which has been sweeping and unimpeachable so far. "There is not even a thought of replacing him," one high-ranking Cavaliers official told Yahoo Sports.
Blatt has played it level and cool with James, it seems, letting the superstar dictate the terms of the relationship. Blatt hasn't tried to overreach, nor battle him in public or private. It is a fight no one coach could win, nor survive. Blatt's strategy seems simple: Over time, sell James – sell all these Cavaliers – on a vision for victory.
"It is a process," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "It really has to come first from the professional side. Man to man, we're OK. We don't go out drinking together, but we're fine man to man. But professionally, LeBron wants to win. And he wants from me, from any coach, a vehicle to help him win.
"Sometimes, it's tougher. Sometimes, it's less so. He's one of the great players of all time. He's been in the Finals four straight years and five times overall. He's got his own opinions and he expresses them. At times, he can be stubborn. But what I know from him, what he wants from me, is a vehicle to help him win. And beyond that, nothing else is really important."
At times, would Blatt prefer to see James more engaged in timeouts and huddles?
"I do," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "But I've had players do that before. But the answer to that is just winning. This isn't a perfect world. This isn't utopia. In the NBA, it's different. Every glance, twitch, gets glorified and magnified. I just let it go. There's nothing I can do about it."
For all the criticism, all the verbiage that's come Blatt's way, only one truly troubled him: the idea that his top assistant, Ty Lue, had been calling timeouts behind the head coach's back. First of all, Blatt delegated to Lue the authority to originate the call for timeouts when the staff deemed necessary. Of course, an assistant coach cannot call a timeout in the NBA. The suggestion Lue has been disloyal and undermining can be puncturing to a young coach's career, and Blatt had one word to describe the assertion: "Horse[bleep]."
"Just like Doc [Rivers] gave the defense to Tom Thibodeau [in Boston], I did the same thing with Ty Lue when I brought him in," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "I convinced him to come here. I wanted him on my team. I'm happy I did it, and I believe in him greatly. I gave him a major role on the team, in charge of the defense – most of the elements of it, anyway.
"During the games, he's an active, vocal guy. I'm used to guys yelling and screaming on the bench. I like it. What was said, that was harmful and hurtful to Ty. He's been great."
Among those in the NBA who know Lue well, know this: Lue's no back-stabber, and that's so much of the reason Blatt could be convinced the runner-up in the Cavaliers' head-coaching search could become the highest-paid assistant in league history on Blatt's staff.
For this franchise now, there's a moment of truth that comes with how it handles what has had all the seedlings of a superstar coup on the head coach. Blatt's beyond grateful of the backing that Gilbert and Griffin have afforded him, the certainty thus far amid all the uncertainties.
"They have been so supportive, so great," Blatt says. "I've never been involved with such a good group of people, and I've been in a lot of places. That's one of the things that keeps me strong."
Nevertheless, Blatt knows there are no guarantees about his future here, except this: He has to win games, and has to win them sooner than later. That's the reality everywhere, but never so illuminating than with LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love on the roster.
As Blatt confesses, "My learning curve has not been easy [to the NBA]." But he's going through this league a second time now, and Blatt believes it's all coming clearer for him. Now, he has to make his players believe it, too. That's the job. That's always the job.
"Listen, I'm not a good loser," Blatt says. "I don't like losing games, and I'm certainly not used to it. That's tough. Does it test my own confidence? No. Does it challenge my inner-resolve? No. It only heightens it. I know we're going through the process like a lot of people are, and believe in the way, believe in my way. And ultimately I believe we'll win out, like I always have.
"But if we don't, it won't be from a lack of trying, or lack of belief in myself."
If David Blatt is going down, he's determined of this: He'll do it lurching forward, not falling back.