The new year couldn’t come soon enough for David Blatt. The first-year head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers had a rough December as his team stumbled to a .500 record in its last 10 games. An ESPN report recently surfaced saying that there is a growing concern within the team that the players are no longer responding to Blatt.
For most teams, having a winning record at the quarter mark of the NBA season is enough to earn a passing grade. But the Cavs have lofty expectations with the return of LeBron James. Anything less than a trip to the NBA Finals could be considered a monumental disappointment.
A string of losses at home to the Knicks, Nuggets, Pistons and Bucks have put the heat on Blatt, who is an easy target considering he’s a relative unknown in NBA circles.
Blatt made his mark overseas, winning a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He also coached the Russian national team at the FIBA level, winning a gold medal in EuroBasket 2007 and bronze in the 2012 London Olympics.
There is no doubt Blatt knows how to coach. He’s done it at the international level. But moving from the Euroleague to the NBA is a huge step, so it is only natural Blatt is experiencing some growing pains as he figures out the NBA game. Some schemes that worked at Maccabi Tel Aviv won’t work with the Cavaliers. Blatt is smart enough to know this. He’ll figure it out.
The season is barely 30 games young, so to label Blatt a failure is a bit premature and unfair. How could you lose a locker room in 30 games? That is incomprehensible.
When the Miami Heat with LeBron, Wade and Bosh stumbled out of the gate in the 2010-11 season, some basketball experts were calling for the firing of head coach Erik Spoelstra. As it turned out, Spoelstra wasn’t such a bad coach after all. He took the Heat to four straight Finals and won the championship twice.
LeBron tried to put out the flames by giving Blatt a vote of confidence, something Cavs management did as well.
“Well, listen, man, I don’t pay no bills around here. Listen, man, I play. I’m happy with who we have at our helm,” James said. “He’s our coach, but to make it a feud between me and Blatt or the team and Blatt is just to sell. It’s just to sell and get people to read it and put something on the bottom of the ticker. That’s all it is.”
Cavs All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving also backed his coach and said the team is in “a really good place.” Now, the Cavs being in a “really good place” may be a bit of a stretch, but you get the point. LeBron and Kyrie, the Cavs’ two best players, are not completely shutting off Blatt. Not yet, at least. But they have one finger on the panic button.
“The thing about it is we can’t fault a first-year coach with getting to learn who everyone is,” Irving said. “It’s a process and just like assembling this team together, every single day we’re all developing great relationships and learning how to communication with one another.”
James recently decided to take a few weeks off to rest his ailing left knee and bad back. The timing of the injuries was a bit curious, but we’ll have to trust that James is really hurting and not pouting. James’ body broke down in last year’s NBA Finals, and he doesn’t want to repeat what happened in San Antonio when he had to be carried off the court. Blatt was regularly playing James 40- plus minutes in the first two months of the season, which may have contributed to James’ body aches.
Maybe LeBron was telling Blatt indirectly he’s tired and worn out when he wore the “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt.
Blatt’s biggest challenge to this point is to get LeBron and Kyrie to buy into what he’s selling. Scoring hasn’t been the problem for the Cavs so far this season. It’s on the defensive end that has kept them from securing more wins.
LeBron came from a Miami defensive philosophy that starts with blitzing pick-and-rolls and playing help-side defense. LeBron knows the ticket to a title lies with getting stops. The problem here is the core group in Cleveland is not exactly what you would call defensive stoppers.
Kyrie struggles against high pick-and-rolls; Kevin Love is not a good rim protector; and Mike Miller hasn’t guarded anyone since his college days at the University of Florida.
The defensive tone has to start with LeBron. Blatt can draw up all the plays he wants, but if LeBron is not buying into it what he’s preaching it won’t trickle down to the rest of the group.