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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


Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Rest in Peace, Johnny Bach

One of the best things about getting a press pass to an NBA game is the opportunity to interview and interact with basketball lifers who truly know and love the sport; most of my favorite memories from covering the NBA revolve around the time I spent with these wise basketball lifers--and Johnny Bach, who passed away on Monday at the age of 91, is one of my most special interview subjects. I first spoke with him early in my NBA writing career and I found him to be very generous with his time and his knowledge. One interview with Johnny Bach provided enough material for at least half a dozen articles on a variety of basketball-related subjects. He spoke the truth and did not care if that offended anyone. I just read an article that suggested that when Jerry Krause wanted to trade Scottie Pippen and asked the Chicago Bulls' coaching staff to vote on it, Bach declared that anyone who thinks a vote is necessary is an idiot. Pippen was an all-time great, Bach knew it and he did not want to waste time arguing about it. I don't know if that story is true but it is believable: Bach understood basketball and he had no patience for nonsense. Krause got rid of Bach shortly after that incident but a decade later Bach had a second run with the Bulls (after the Bulls got rid of Krause) and that is when I had the great fortune to speak with Bach.

Among the subjects we discussed were the greatness of the underrated Mark Price, The Art and Science of NBA Defense and the way that Phil Jackson put Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen on opposing teams in practice, which inspired one of my questions when I later scored a one on one interview with Pippen. Bach could turn a phrase as well as any writer. Two of my favorite Bach expressions relate to Michael Jordan: the "Archangel" offense and "attack the citadels," referring to how relentlessly the young Jordan drove to the hoop.

Bach was a man in full who knew about and experienced a lot more than basketball. He served in World War II and later in life he became an accomplished painter. Sam Smith, one of the classiest and best writers I encountered during my time covering the NBA, has penned a must-read tribute to Bach in which Smith calls Bach "one of the truly great Americans of the 20th Century" and adds, "I'd exaggerate Johnny's accomplishments if I could, but I’d only end up falling short. This was truly a remarkable and skilled man, principled in his commitment to his nation and his profession, articulate and endearing, tough and scholarly with a passion for learning and sharing. Johnny reached the apex of pretty much every profession and discipline he encountered."

Phil Jackson authored a tribute to Bach as well. Jackson praised Bach's immense contributions to the Chicago Bulls' 1991-93 championship teams and concluded with these fitting words: "Tonight I'll think of him and that spirit he embodied, especially his motto after a late night on the road. 'What? You can't be tired, you can sleep in the grave.' Sleep well, Johnny."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:05 AM


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Advice for the Cleveland Cavaliers

At the halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA regular season, the Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the Eastern Conference but they are far from being a championship team. After the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals, we heard a lot of noise--at least some of which came from the Cavaliers themselves--about how much different the result would have been if Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love had been available. It is fair to assume that the Warriors took notice of those comments. On Christmas Day, during the first of two meetings between the teams this season, the Warriors proved that they could beat the Cavaliers playing a grind it out style game, prevailing 89-83 at home. Irving and Love started for the Cavaliers and combined for 23 points on 9-31 field goal shooting.

In the much anticipated Martin Luther King Day rematch in Cleveland, the Warriors raced to an early 12-2 lead and never looked back, hitting the Cavaliers with their worst home loss in a game during which LeBron James played, 132-98. James--as he has done a puzzling number of times in big games during an otherwise stellar career--was oddly passive and disinterested, posting a quiet stat line of 16 points, five rebounds and five assists in what was supposed to be a statement game. Irving and Love scored 11 points on 4-16 field goal shooting.

Meanwhile, reigning regular season MVP Stephen Curry blistered the nets with 35 points on 12-18 field goal shooting--including 7-12 from three point range--in just 28 minutes before sitting out the entire fourth quarter. Curry could have scored 50 points easily if necessary, which is just one of many reasons that statistics have to be placed in context when they are used to compare players. Andre Iguodala, who earned the 2015 Finals MVP in part because of his role in limiting James' efficiency during the championship series, scored 20 points off of the bench, Draymond Green flirted with a triple double (16 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds) and Klay Thompson added 15 points.

Too much should not be read into one regular season game. I well remember that the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls--one of my favorite teams of all-time and one of the greatest teams of all-time--lost 104-72 to the New York Knicks. Two months later, the Bulls smashed the Knicks 4-1 in the playoffs en route to winning the championship.

However, this particular Cleveland loss highlighted some things about the Cavaliers that should not be blithely dismissed. Any team or person can have a bad day but not all bad days are created the same; some bad days reveal some problems/issues that may be glossed over until adversity strikes.

Cleveland Coach David Blatt and his star player LeBron James did not ask for my advice but I will provide it anyway:

1) Committing flagrant fouls and knocking over opposing players does not prove that you are tough; it shows that you lack discipline

You show toughness by playing hard, playing smart and playing through pain. Focus on the game plan and put the team's success above your own individual glory/agenda. Those are the traits of championship teams. Look at the difference between the New England Patriots and the Cincinnati Bengals. It can be summed up simply: "Dumb gets you beat every time." The Bengals blew a playoff game against their archrival the Pittsburgh Steelers because some of the Bengals players got so caught up in fake toughness and personal agendas that they lost sight of the main goal: win the game.

What does this have to do with the Cavaliers? When the game with the Warriors was up for grabs, the Cavaliers did not play hard or smart and they lacked focus to such an extent that they committed a five second violation, which is rarely seen in the NBA. Then, when the game was out of reach, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert started committing hard fouls. Smith got ejected after making no effort to get around a screen. Even James got in on the act, throwing Curry to the court in the first half. Those kinds of plays do not win games and do no prove that you are tough; they just prove that the other team has gotten into your head to the point that you are so frustrated you can no longer focus on the game plan.

2) Kevin Love seems uninterested in playing good defense; Kyrie Irving may not be able to consistently play good defense

One time when former Georgetown Coach John Thompson was commenting on an NBA game he made the very cogent point that Dirk Nowitzki was athletic enough to accomplish all kinds of things on the offensive end of the court and thus he was athletic enough to at least play competent defense. That was early in Nowitzki's career and Nowitzki eventually became a solid defender as he led Dallas to the 2011 NBA title. Nowitzki never became a great defender but he learned how to move his feet better and at least use his size to bother opposing shooters.

Love has the skill set to be an outstanding offensive player, so he has the necessary tools to be at least an adequate defender but far too often he looks disinterested at that end of the court.

Irving has improved on defense and at times he uses his quickness/athleticism to make some good individual defensive plays--but he lacks size and does not seem to have a strong base; the Warriors repeatedly went into the post with whichever player Irving was guarding. Irving's defensive effort is better than it used to be but he is not likely to grow, so unless he develops a better base and learns how to prevent taller players from getting good post position he will always be a defensive liability to some extent.

Therefore, it is up to the coaching staff to figure out how to either motivate Love and Irving to contribute more on defense or else put those players into defensive schemes/matchups that minimize their deficiencies.

3) The Cavaliers do not maximize the talents of their players who are not named LeBron James

It is often said that James makes the players around him better. It is certainly true that James makes his team better; James is a productive scorer, rebounder, playmaker and defender. However, it seems like the players around James have to give up parts of their games to fit in with him. Chris Bosh was a 20-10 guy before playing with LeBron James but when he played with James he was often relegated to being a three point shooter. Similarly, Kevin Love's game has regressed since he joined the Cavaliers to play alongside James. Despite all of the talk about how selfish Kobe Bryant supposedly is, consider how many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside him, ranging from the sublime (Shaquille O'Neal and Pau Gasol) to the ridiculous (Kwame Brown and Smush Parker).

How many players have had career-best years playing alongside LeBron James? The number is rather small and I am not sure why this is the case. There are undoubtedly many factors involved and I do not mean to suggest that this is all James' fault or even mostly James' fault--but James is clearly a prodigious individual talent and it does not seem like he is going to win championships at the level that Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan did. Many players had the best seasons of their careers playing alongside those guys. Jordan and Bryant had to fight the "selfish" tag, while Johnson and Duncan are lauded for their unselfishness; there is more than one way to get the job done but each of those players got the best out of their teammates while also playing at a high level individually. James almost seems like a modern-day Wilt Chamberlain; James is the best athlete in the NBA (or he was during his absolute prime) and he is going to own a boatload of records when he retires but his tally of two titles (the same number that Chamberlain won) is surprising considering that he was the consensus best player in the league for several years in a row and that he was blessed with very good supporting casts during those seasons.

4) The Cavaliers cannot beat the Warriors playing small ball

Even without Irving and Love, the Cavaliers took a 2-1 lead over the Warriors in the 2015 NBA Finals. Then, the Warriors decided to go small--inserting Iguodala in the starting lineup--and Blatt panicked, going small by slashing the minutes of center Timofey Mozgov. The Warriors went small because they were trailing in the series and could not match up with Cleveland's big lineup. The Cavaliers should have stuck with what worked in the first three games of the series; the Cavaliers may have lost no matter what they did but they had zero chance of winning by playing small ball against a team who has more good small players ("small" being a relative term, as we are talking about players who range from 6-3 to 6-8) than the Cavaliers do.

I guarantee you that if a fantasy matchup could somehow be arranged between the current Warriors and the 1980s Showtime Lakers there is no way that Lakers Coach Pat Riley would bench Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to play small ball. Obviously, Mozgov is no Abdul-Jabbar but the point is that basketball is about matchups and when you have a big guy who can score in the paint you force the other team to guard him, especially when the other team prefers to play small.

Since the Warriors are being compared to the 1995-96 Bulls, I will take this opportunity to throw in my two cents: the 1996 Bulls would beat the Warriors in a seven game series because Jordan and Pippen would be the best players on the court at both ends of the court. The Bulls would not shut down Curry but they would not let him score an efficient 30 points, either. I think that Chicago Coach Phil Jackson would keep Luc Longley in the game to be a post up threat but the Bulls could play small against the Warriors for at least part of the game: a small ball lineup of Jordan, Harper, Pippen, Rodman and Kukoc is a far cry from the small ball lineup the Cavaliers trotted out in the NBA Finals.

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posted by David Friedman @ 2:48 AM