Steve Kerr, front-runner for NBA Coach of the Year for guiding the Golden State Warriors to the top of the Western Conference, calls David Blatt “a fantastic coach.” In fact, during the past off-season Kerr wanted to hire him as his No. 1 assistant, but Blatt was offered the head coaching job at Cleveland.
Now it’s looking like Blatt is better suited to be first mate than captain. His Cavaliers, with the game’s greatest player, LeBron James, and one of its best big men, Kevin Love, were the Las Vegas favorite to win the Eastern Conference championship.
Instead, they’re struggling with the .500 bar, and Blatt is under scrutiny.
To be fair, any coach would have difficulty assembling a cohesive team when 10 players and all the coaches were somewhere else a year ago. Blatt was coaching in Tel Aviv.
As with any underperforming team, the Cavs are damaged by injuries. Starting center Anderson Verajao is out for the year, and James, one of the most durable of athletes, is not at full health.
James has played 11,000 minutes in the NBA, more than anyone at age 30 has ever played. He’s showing some wear on the tires. A strained left knee, along with a sore back, put him out of action for eight games, seven of which the Cavs lost.
With James out, Love was expected to step up. His production rose from 17 points per game to 21, but still far from the 26.1 he averaged at Minnesota last season. It could be Love is another Dwight Howard, better as a lone star on a bad team than as a complementary piece on a championship contender.
For whatever reasons, Love is not very involved in Blatt’s offense. Not only are his scoring and shooting stats down from last year, his assists have dropped from 4.4 to 2.3.
Nor is Love absorbing much of Blatt’s defensive scheme. He’s been so ineffective as a stopper that Blatt benched him for the entire fourth quarter of two games.
Brad Daugherty, former star center for Cleveland, said on ESPN that “Love doesn’t fit.”
Naturally, Blatt is drawing blame for Love’s disappointments. And for the team’s disappointments. Mostly he’s faulted for being a wuss, unable or unwilling to exercise authority over the players.
Video is out showing players looking elsewhere when he’s huddling with them or shouting out plays from the sideline. Another video shows LeBron shoving Blatt, who was arguing with a ref. James said he was only trying to prevent the coach from drawing a technical. But it never looks good for the player to be more composed than the coach.
Also embarrassing are incidents of assistant coach Tyronn Lue calling, “Timeout!” literally behind Blatt’s back. Lue and Blatt both say this was the assistant suggesting a timeout, both aware that only the head coach has the power to call one.
But add to the fact that Lue was runner-up to Blatt for the top job and that owner Dan Gilbert is paying him a salary of $1.4 million, the suspicion arises that Lue is gunning for Blatt. Gilbert said Blatt “will remain our coach,” but he didn’t say for how long.
Daugherty: “Coach Blatt has to take control of this basketball team. I don’t care if you’ve got LeBron James – he’s a great basketball player and all that – he (Blatt) has to be the leader and take command.”
But respect, trust and obedience must be earned. There are reports of Cavaliers discussing Blatt’s deficiencies with players on other teams.
One example: James telling Chris Paul, “David Blatt is a bleeping moron.”
LeBron’s own performance has been spotty: laziness on defense, clumsiness and lack of focus on offense. In Los Angeles on Thursday his missed alley-oop dunk brought a burst of laughter from Kobe Bryant. Still, the overall performance by James was solid: 12-of-24, 36 points in a 7-point win over the gasping Lakers.
The Cavs won their next two, against the Clippers and Bulls, with James scoring 32 and 26 but committing 15 turnovers.
Clearly, Blatt’s future depends on James playing better and respecting him more. James may not fully appreciate his being the most successful coach in Europe. Though born in Boston, Blatt is the first NBA head coach with solely European experience. So James does not know what to make of it.
It’s possible the team would respond better to Lue, who played 11 seasons in the NBA.
In Europe the coach is an autocrat whose decisions are rarely second-guessed by players or press. Blatt is perplexed by the questioning of his competence. He may not understand that in the USA the franchise player has more to say than the head coach.
Blatt claims the reports of dissension are exaggerated. “Things are great amongst our staff and in the locker room,” he insists. He denies he has a problem other than not winning a lot of games. Which is problem enough to put a coach on the hot seat.