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Friday, January 22, 2016

Timing of Blatt Firing is Odd

David Blatt is not an NBA championship level coach. I said that from the start:

"How could he be? He has spent his whole career coaching basketball on the other side of the world, with different rules and inferior players. Blatt is a very good FIBA coach. That does not mean that he possesses either the strategic acumen or the right personality to lead a team to an NBA title."

Therefore, I cannot criticize the Cleveland Cavaliers for firing Blatt. However, the timing and the context are strange. The Cavaliers have the best record in the Eastern Conference and have won two games in a row after their embarrassing 132-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors. We have not learned anything about Blatt in the past week--or in the first half of the 2015-16 season--that we did not already know. General Manager David Griffin said that he replaced Blatt with lead assistant coach Tyronn Lue--who has been given the job outright and does not wear the interim tag--not based on the win/loss record but because Blatt is not creating a championship culture. If that is really the reason that Blatt was fired--and it is a legitimate concern--then Griffin should have fired Blatt after the Cavaliers blew a 2-1 lead in the 2015 NBA Finals.
 
Brendan Haywood, an NBA commentator who played for Blatt's Cleveland Cavaliers last season, gave a very insightful interview today in which he stated that Blatt is a nice man and a good coach but all of the players knew that he could not help them win a game against the likes of Gregg Popovich or Steve Kerr. Blatt does not understand NBA substitution patterns and he struggles to design effective end of game plays. Haywood said that the Cavs ultimately had to scrap Blatt's offense and run sets that Lue learned from his time working as an assistant for Doc Rivers. Blatt simply does not know the league well enough and, to compound the issue, he is very stubborn and stuck in his ways because he thinks that decades of minor league coaching in Europe qualify him to run the show in the most sophisticated basketball league in the world. Blatt is overmatched and anyone who understands NBA basketball could see it. Haywood also noted that Blatt would not call out LeBron James during film sessions but would criticize mistakes made by other players. Great players want and need to be coached hard and to be pushed. Julius Erving and Tim Duncan are two examples of great players who did not bristle when their coaches yelled at them, because they understood that if they were coachable then everyone else on the roster would fall in line. 

If Griffin had fired Blatt last summer then he either could have replaced him with a veteran NBA coach or, at a minimum, he could have given Lue the opportunity to have a whole training camp to put in his system. I don't know if Lue is an elite NBA coach or not. Lue was a heady role player during his NBA career and there is a precedent for heady role players becoming championship coaches (Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Steve Kerr immediately come to mind) but Derek Fisher was a heady role player who hardly has taken the league by storm as a head coach.

Lue has been on Griffin's radar since Griffin made Lue the highest paid assistant coach in the NBA less than two years ago. If Lue is really a championship level coach, then the Cavs should have hired him in 2014 or 2015; a year and a half of cleaning up Blatt's mistakes has hardly made Lue any more prepared to run the show than he already was. Throwing Lue into the fire in the middle of the season looks like a panic move as opposed to a well thought out decision--or, it looks like a move made to appease the man who really runs the show in Cleveland: LeBron James.

Griffin's defiant assertions that he does not take polls before making decisions and that he did not seek LeBron James' opinion/approval are equally disingenuous and unsurprising. The Cavaliers don't change the toilet paper in the bathrooms at Quicken Loans Arena without having James' approval--and they don't have to ask his opinion about anything because James, through his minions, makes his wishes very clearly known. It is no secret that James does not respect Blatt and it is no secret that James signs short term deals with the Cavs to maximize his leverage based on the very credible threat that he will flee town if he does not get his way. James has every right to conduct his playing and business careers as he sees fit--but his greatest success as a player came in Miami when Pat Riley insisted that James respect his coach and did not let James' crew run roughshod over everyone in the organization.

James says that he left Miami to bring a championship to Cleveland but it is not a stretch to suggest that, after winning two rings in Miami, James grew tired of having to follow Riley's rules and preferred to return to a situation where he knew he could call all of the shots--and that is what he has done: LeBron James the general manager wanted Kevin Love instead of Andrew Wiggins and he wanted reserve forward Tristan Thompson signed to a huge deal. James the general manager wanted Tyronn Lue as head coach. James is the only player in the NBA who checks himself in and out of games on his whim without consulting his coach and that practice is likely to continue with his hand picked man/puppet on the bench.

So, when the Cavaliers are eliminated from the 2016 playoffs, if James blames the general manager for how the roster is put together or the coach for playing him too much/too little, let us hope that the talking heads who keep trying to put James in the same class with Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan make it clear that the blame belongs with James.

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posted by David Friedman @ 10:45 PM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Saturday, January 23, 2016 1:48:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why are the Cavs so willing to appease Lebron? Didn't they learn from last time?

Sure, he's the biggest star at the moment. However, I am looking at the boxscores from this year and last year, and the year before that, and I am starting to have doubts that committing to him long-term would be a prudent move for them. There have been too many 15-point games this season, he's 31, so who knows -- this might be him temporarily "taking a break", as he has in the past, or he might be past his peak and on the right-hand side of the curve. If that's true, it might be in fact good for the Cavs that the contracts are short. But giving him so much power while he's there -- I really don't understand that.

 
At Saturday, January 23, 2016 4:39:00 AM, Anonymous Yogi said...

"but it is not a stretch to suggest that, after winning two rings in Miami, James grew tired of having to follow Riley's rules and preferred to return to a situation where he knew he could call all of the shots--and that is what he has done."
So true. This is why I really dislike LeBron. I don’t think Blatt ever got a chance to actually coach that team - once LeBron returned to the Cavs, Blatt was a goner.

 
At Sunday, January 24, 2016 3:06:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree with you that subtle signs of aging are showing up in LeBron's game.

However, the Cavs do not have anyone in the organization like Pat Riley who is stong-minded enough and/or accomplished enough to put LeBron's ego/entourage in check. So, as long as LeBron can score 25 ppg he will run the show in Cleveland--but, unlike guys like Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan who have been loyal to one franchise and who have won multiple titles for that one franchise, as soon as LeBron is not a dominant player he will have to put his ego in check very quickly or he will be out of the league. Dan Gilbert will be a billionaire for the foreseeable future but LeBron's leverage is based on his productivity, which has a finite shelf life--and LeBron has not won anything in Cleveland, so when he is averaging 15 ppg but still trying to run the whole show that is not going to fly.

On the other hand, if LeBron wins even one ring in Cleveland all will be forgiven and forgotten.

 
At Sunday, January 24, 2016 3:49:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

I am not convinced that Blatt is a championship level NBA coach but I agree with you that once LeBron came back he was not going to get a fair shake.

If Blatt had been a little savvier about the NBA, though, he could have lasted longer. He did and said a lot of strange things that did not win him allies in the organization. When he won his first NBA game and his players were congratulating him, he brushed it off by arrogantly saying that he had already won 700 games so he was not a rookie. I'm sorry, but minor league wins don't count and he was a rookie.

When Tristan Thompson recently became the active leader in consecutive games played, Blatt mocked the record by saying that he (Blatt) is leading the league in field goal percentage. When a media member pointed out that this is not really correct since Blatt has not taken any shots, Blatt countered that he is leading the league in fewest shots missed. If this was Blatt's attempt at humor, then he is even worse at comedy than he is at keeping track of how many timeouts he has left.

Blatt was essentially Roy Rubin, with the difference being that Roy Rubin's best player was Fred Carter while Blatt had the league's best player, two other All-Star caliber players and a good cast of role players.

Coaching matters in the NBA. Put Phil Jackson on the Cavs' bench during last year's NBA Finals and the Cavs win game four to go up 3-1 before eventually closing out the series. Blatt did not have a perfect team or the most coachable, dependable superstar but he had enough parts to win a championship. You need talent to win but that talent also needs to be coached properly. Blatt was not the right man for the job, but LeBron James did not cover himself with glory in terms of how he treated Blatt. Ultimately, this falls on Dan Gilbert and David Griffin, because their timing in terms of hiring and firing Blatt has done the Cavs no favors.

LeBron deserves blame, too, because instead of undercutting Blatt every step of the way he should have publicly supported Blatt while privately trying to help Blatt get up to speed about the NBA game. Pat Riley was not Pat Riley from day one, nor was Billy Cunningham; those guys had organizations who supported them as young coaches and they had superstars who worked with them instead of undermining them (they were also NBA vets who did not face Blatt's steep learning curve but that is all the more reason for LeBron to not throw Blatt under the bus). If LeBron just felt that there was no way to win a ring with Blatt at the helm, then he should have communicated that to Gilbert after the 2015 Finals so that the Cavs could have a new coach before this season--but LeBron wanted to fire Blatt without being blamed for firing Blatt.

Speaking of which, if Brian Windhorst is going to keep touting the party line that LeBron knew nothing about the firing and had nothing to do with the firing then he is going to lose any credibility as an NBA reporter. I understand that he wants to retain his access to LeBron and LeBron's entourage but is it worth looking like a fool to do that? If you believe that LeBron had nothing to do with Blatt's firing you are an idiot or a patsy.

LeBron started firing Blatt last year. Did LeBron really need to tell the world that he, not Blatt, designed the game-winning play versus Chicago in the playoffs? That is pure ego by LeBron. I remember stories about Julius Erving after big games telling the media that they needed to talk to Larry Kenon or Bobby Jones because those guys had played a big role in the win. Bobby Jones told me how much it meant to him that Erving was always an "encourager."

 
At Sunday, January 24, 2016 4:00:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yogi:

Thinking about LeBron's role in all of this gets me fired up, so I will add a few more thoughts.

I don't care how many assists LeBron averages or how much ESPN hypes him up as a great teammate; LeBron is not a championship-type leader and that is why, despite all of his personal talent and all the talent he has had around him, he has two rings while guys like Bryant, Duncan and Jordan have won five or more. I would rather go to battle with a fiery leader like Bryant or Jordan or an encourager like Erving or Duncan as opposed to LeBron, who is going to score 30 ppg during the regular season and monopolize the ball but then decide to hardly shoot at all in certain random playoff games while proclaiming himself to be the best player in the world.

The "stat gurus" have completely warped people's perceptions about greatness. Anthony Davis had a very good season last year but it was not comparable to Wilt Chamberlain in his prime. Stephen Curry is having a great season now but he is not having the most efficient season ever (!) no matter what PER or some metric says--and no one who understands basketball is going to take LeBron at his best over Jordan or Kobe. LeBron is a great player but there is some "it" that he does not quite have. It's the same thing with the Isiah Thomas-Chris Paul comparisons. Anyone who understands basketball is taking Isiah Thomas all day, every day, regardless of how "efficient" Paul supposedly is. Paul disappears too often when it matters most, while Isiah had the uncanny ability to step up in pressure situations.

Isiah said something very interesting about Stockton. Isiah said that Stockton was a better clutch player than Malone and that Utah probably would have won a championship if Stockton had shot the ball more often instead of deferring so much. That is the kind of thing that stats don't measure but it is so true. Isiah, Jordan, Kobe--those guys know when to shoot and when to pass. LeBron and Paul are so concerned with their assist numbers and being lauded as great leaders that they lose sight of doing what has to be done to win. It's great to be able to pass but sometimes your team really needs you to shoot. I honestly don't think that LeBron is a better passer than Jordan or Kobe, as crazy as that may sound to some people. Jordan and Kobe were trying to destroy the other team by whatever means necessary and they played in a system that emphasized ball movement as opposed to one guy getting most of the assists because he monopolized the ball.

 
At Sunday, January 24, 2016 11:23:00 AM, Blogger Keith said...

David, do you think the Love-Wiggins trade was a mistake? Obviously, that was a decision the Cavaliers (Lebron) made with the goal of winning now but it seems like it is going to cost them in the long term. Especially if they can't win a championship anytime soon and Love decides to depart from Cleveland anyway.

Lebron the general manager doesn't seem particularly adept at surrounding himself with players who actually compliment him. Love is talented offensively but he is a negative currently on defense and that doesn't seem to be changing any time soon and the Cavaliers offense seems congested with players who need to monopolize the ball in order to be effective (Love, Irving, Lebron). Wiggins was obviously a rookie and did not fit into the Cavalier's "win now" scheme but he is already a better defender than Love and could be a better foundational player overall for the team as he develops and Lebron declines. It is going to be a messy future for the Cavaliers if Lebron's gambit does not lead to championship.

 
At Sunday, January 24, 2016 6:10:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

if you have a chance to get a player as good as kevin love for a unproven rookie who didn't dominate on the college level was hyped up and had a few good games and a couple of great games during that season your delusional you have to take him a. Kevin love is underrated maybe not a top 10 player but is still one the best reboumders, passers and low post players in the game if the cavs ever use him correctly they could challenge for the title i don't think this team is good enough to win versus gs/sa

 
At Tuesday, January 26, 2016 3:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Keith:

In retrospect it looks like the trade may have been a mistake but to be fair to LeBron Griffin (LeBron had at least as much to do with the decision as David Griffin, so I have combined their names) it looked like a reasonable move at the time, giving up an unproven rookie for an established 20-10 player.

I think that the larger issue is that any All-Star caliber player who plays alongside LeBron has to give up a lot of his game. We saw this with Wade and Bosh and now we are seeing it with Love. There is no guarantee that Wiggins would have blossomed alongside LeBron. LeBron wants to be GM, Coach, point guard and leading scorer--but when he does not win the championship he wants to blame everyone but himself.

We all know that Tom Brady's offensive line failed him in the AFC Championship Game but afterward Brady said that it is his responsibility to make plays and that he fell short. If he had been LeBron, he would have said, "I know that I am the best player in the world. I have spoiled the fans with my greatness. I took this team as far as I could with the supporting cast that I had."

 
At Tuesday, January 26, 2016 3:32:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

I agree that based on what was known at the time the Cavs were right to make the deal, even if it may look like a mistake now. As I said in response to Keith, in retrospect it appears that Wiggins might fit in better with the Cavs and also might be a more useful player versus the Warriors but neither of those things were obvious at the time the deal was made. Furthermore, we don't know for sure that Wiggins would flourish in Cleveland--and when the Cavs made the deal they were probably trying to match up with the Spurs, not the Warriors.

The Cavs have enough talent to win a championship but I don't trust LeBron--he quits/plays passively in too many big games--and I don't trust Lue as a championship coach until/unless he proves himself in that regard.

 
At Tuesday, January 26, 2016 5:21:00 PM, Blogger Nick F said...

"The Cavs have enough talent to win a championship but I don't trust LeBron--he quits/plays passively in too many big games--and I don't trust Lue as a championship coach until/unless he proves himself in that regard."

I don't agree with the first part of this. I just don't see how you play good enough defense to beat Golden State or SA with Irving and Love on the floor, or good enough offense to beat them without it.

 

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