Before the season started, every carbon-based organism in the Universe said David Blatt was a basketball genius. Articles abound calling the Blatt signing a great move for the Cleveland Cavaliers. In the time since his arrival in Cleveland, he has now become one of the most divisive coaches in basketball.
It's hard to figure out what to make of the man, but we here at Fear the Sword thought, "What the hell? Let's try anyway." What follows is the account of two beautiful Midwestern men and one Canadian discussing all things Blatt.
Clearly, the jury is still out on Blatt, but I like him. I attribute a lot of his struggles early on to an incomplete roster (that is now complete) and a period of figuring out the NBA. From the start, he had a difficult task in front of him. I'm not sure if I've ever seen a situation before where a team of all new players were thrown together with an all new coach and expected to win from the start. Certainly not with a first-year NBA coach.
I think a lot of Blatt's critics expected perfection from the start despite literally everyone on the team saying it would take time. It took time to become the level of elite they are now, and it'll take more time to reach their full potential. I came into this season thinking the Cavs would be great this year (they now are) and a whole different level of awesome next year.
The team has continuously improved, and I'm not sure how much better another coach would have done in this same situation. He's not perfect, and this team isn't perfect, but it is now playing up to my expectations for this year. I can't ask more than that.
I think Blatt is fine, and somewhat a victim of expectations more than anything else.
Everything about the Cavs this year was thrown together. EVERYTHING. Blatt is a new coach, not just to this particular team but to this league altogether. Specific personnel, traveling, game length, 82 games, all of these things are new to him. On top of that, so are his assistant coaches. A lot of the time you'll see a coach surround himself with guys he is accustomed to as a way of getting comfortable, but Blatt didn't have that luxury. Is that to say that anyone made an error in assembling Blatt's staff? No, I actually quite like it, but he was basically working "without a net" from the start.
I'm not sure how many teams have had the circumstances the Cavs have. Two stars learning new roles, best player on the planet thrown in the mix, 10 new players total, and two young high picks who are trying to fit in, find their way AND get paid. Add in the fall off of older guys like Miller, Marion, and Varejao, and it's a complete cluster.
I think the 26-6 record since LBJ got right and the Cavs got some pieces that fit their team a little better is a lot more indicative of Blatt than the rough start, personally. He has his issues, but they are producing an all-time offense and playing acceptable defense, so.....
I think fine is the right way to characterize the job that Blatt has done to this point.
As Ryan pointed out, the circumstances surrounding this team were absolutely insane, and to not expect some sort of an adjustment period would be silly. The Cavs have out-of-this-world talent, but so does the entire league. These are all pros who have spent a lot of time together in most cases. The turnover the Cavs faced, plus the injuries they suffered were bound to result in early losses, especially when you compound things with how incomplete the roster was early on.
I'm never comfortable playing armchair coach, because it's nearly impossible to determine what in-game decisions were set plays from the coaching staff, or improvisation from the players. We don't know what responsibilities each member of the coaching staff has. To top things off, there is very little practice time available for NBA teams. So a seemingly minor adjustment may be nearly impossible to implement in a timely fashion.
You can, however, get a sense of the offensive and defensive schemes over a healthy stretch of games. There were glaring issues with how the Cavs defended the pick and roll that seemed to be a combination of outdated schemes and poor personnel to execute. Adjustments have been made, but it's still too early for me to tell how much of the turnaround is due to coaching, or a massive influx in talent that fits perfectly with a core that was already playing at an extremely high level during the time the team struggled.
My biggest issues with the team have been the rotation management. But again, we don't know all the factors going into those decisions. Does the decision to rest Kevin Love late in games have as much to do with his health and ability to play that night as trying to match what the other team is doing? If not, why does Blatt feel the need to go away from deploying one of the league's best five-man lineups just so that they are able to switch in their pick and roll coverage? I think the fact that the team is winning is stopping a lot of these questions from being asked. But the most successful teams are always focused on the process rather than the result. I think the Cavs process isn't where it needs to be yet.
I won't shy away from the fact that Blatt's rotations have been problematic. Of the things that are completely under his control, this is where he has struggled the most. On one hand, it's a small problem because the Cavs are so talented across the board they can usually overcome it. On the other hand, his rotations create missed opportunities.
My biggest issue with benching Kevin Love at the end of games is the Cavs haven't played a ton of close games since they started on their firebombing of the NBA. They're going to play a lot of close games in the playoffs. Even if there are real basketball reasons to sit Kevin Love at the end of games, he should be out there anyway so these guys can figure out how to play together in clutch situations.
During fourth quarters, Blatt usually plays Tristan Thompson over Mozgov, and I cannot account for that either. I'd also like Dellavedova to play next to zero minutes since he effectively plays shooting guard most of his time out there anyway.
Rotations are an issue, and it kind of doesn't matter. Rotations shorten in the playoffs. Star players play more. Talent Darwinism takes effect. In the playoffs, we may still be complaining about Blatt playing Thompson over Mozgov in fourth quarters, but the rest should take care of itself.
In the regular season, I have to think the rotations are more about who Blatt trusts most to do what he asks them to do. Who he has connected with the most. In the long term, that matters even when Blatt is playing guys who aren't as good as other players. Clearly, he has the ear of players like Thompson and Dellavedova. They've bought into what Blatt is selling, and playing them sets a precedent for everyone that buying in means playing time regardless of talent (especially in Delly's case). LeBron James being the lone exception to that rule. On a team where Blatt has reportedly had trouble connecting with his players, rewarding the ones he does connect with matters.
I have trouble giving Blatt too much crap for early season scheming and rotations.
Was hard hedging Anderson Varejao smart? No. Would icing him have been much better? I'm not sure. Andy is a lot of great things, but his ability to change shots is among the worst there is among the league's centers. Frankly, I think he was staring down the barrel of two losing options. Now when Mozgov arrived, the scheme changed to suit his strengths, which tells me quite a bit.
Then there are fourth quarters, where we have had a variety of gripes. First there was the Delly reliance, which all but disappeared once J.R. and Shump were really integrated into the team. Then we moved on to Tristan Thompson, who it's pretty tough for me to make an argument against playing. Offensive rebounds change games, and he's among the best there is. Against the Pacers we saw Mozgov and Thompson, which gave way to Love and Thompson, but it was fine. There was some consternation about why Mozgov wasn't playing with Hibbert in, but Hibbert wasn't too slowed by him before. Against the Spurs, Love didn't play at all in the fourth and everyone was freaking out. Then he came in for overtime, played well while looking gimpy and promptly missed the next two games. I guess when the Cavs are winning 26 of 32 games and the players on the team are lauding the contributions of guys like James Jones, who has made some big shots and has been okay overall, who am I to disagree?
The playoffs are where we'll see. Let's get him in a series with a team like we have now, and see how he performs.
I agree that the playoffs will provide clarity towards the type of job Blatt is doing. When you're locked in a series you start to see the game to game adjustments that help define the perceptions we have of coaches.
I personally have no problem with Thompson getting minutes over Mozgov. The Cavs are fantastic with either of those players at center and it makes sense to try and match what the opposition has on the court in terms of size with either Mozgov or Thompson. Going really small with Thompson and Jones in crunch time has become a consistent trend even when the other team goes bigger or if Love is playing well. Like I said before, I don't pretend to know everything that''s happening behind the scenes, but it makes me uncomfortable.
The Cavs offense is fantastic, but I still feel like there isn't enough creativity and it tends to break down after the first look or two are taken away. I think the talent and fit of the team can mask a lot of these issues in the regular season, but there's still a ways to go. For that reason, I'm not ready to credit Blatt for the turnaround and I'm going to wait and see.
So there are two discussions going on here, and I'll try to address both of them.
Clearly, we are all interested in seeing Blatt in the playoffs. He came into the NBA touted as a great game planner and tactician. One of the few pre-season knocks against him was he may not be as good in the day to day grind of the NBA season when there's not as much time to plan for individual opponents nor as many practices to implement specific game plans.
That issue goes away in the playoffs where there will be time for those things. I suspect playoff Blatt is a different beast from regular season Blatt. His stellar record overseas shows that, and there's reason for optimism based on this season, too. The Cavs' record with two or more days of rest is impeccable. A lot of that is a slightly banged up team getting rest, but the team also seems to run their sets more often and better following those breaks. It's what you would expect, but it's still a good sign.
The second thing is we give a lot of credit to a talented roster where the players compliment each other well. That's fine and true. Blatt deserves a ton of credit for how well the roster works, too. The new players (J.R. Smith, Shumpert and Mozgov) are playing their roles perfectly in Cleveland. They didn't always do that elsewhere. And here the difference in their play has been night and day.
Yes, a lot of that is simply a matter of fit, but it's still easy to misuse a player. It's still hard to integrate new players onto a roster midseason. Especially two players who are thrown into the starting lineup and asked to do different things than they did before. It's a big deal, and I think Blatt deserves credit for that rather than simply saying it's a given because it SHOULD work on paper.
I do too. Like, I really do. J.R. Smith was supposed to be a nightmare. I know that, because I thought so too. He's playing some of the best basketball of his career. It's easy to say, "Well he's playing with LeBron," but still, managing egos is really hard. We saw Mike Brown fail to do it here. We have seen, around the league, guys who fail to get the most out of their teams, but Blatt seems to really be connecting with these guys.
Now, that's weird because we heard he wasn't connecting with the team at all. Is he? Was he? It's hard to say. They scrapped some of the stuff they were doing earlier this year and have gone to more of an isolation offense. Is this because the players hated it? Is it because this fits the team they have? They have a ridiculous offense, for as "basic" as it has been. There has been friction with LeBron, but I'm not sure that doesn't happen with every coach and LeBron.
I don't know, really. Guys are playing great. Guys are saying it's the best time they've had playing basketball. The team chemistry is great. I have trouble thinking that he can't connect with players and has nothing to do with this success.
All of those things are evident. But I still don't know if that can be attributed to anything Blatt did. They're running a very basic offense and having success with it because they have a ton of talent and a bunch of players who are willing passers. They're having fun because they're winning. As a J.R. apologist, I didn't think he'd be a problem because he's usually fine when he's winning (or as fine as he could be). I feel as though Blatt has abandoned his offense and is accommodating the players by facilitating the type of offense they want to play. Is that connecting with the players? Or is it getting out of their way?
The talent and unselfish attitude of the players could be hiding some problems. I just don't know if we'll know if said problems exist until later on in the playoffs.
I don't think Blatt has trouble communicating with players. He has trouble communicating with one player, and he happens to be the most important player on the Cavs. We can't really know what goes on behind the scenes between Blatt and his team, but most of the guys echo all of Blatt's key phrases (especially the "ball having energy" thing Blatt always says).
Kyrie seems to have bought in. J.R. Smith. Shumpert. Mozgov. The old guys (assistant coach Mike Miller, especially). Tristan. Delly. They all have echoed Blattisms throughout the season, and that makes me feel good.
Maybe they aren't playing perfect Blatt ball, but they seem to be listening to his basketball philosophies. That bodes well for next year when they'll have more time to develop his schemes. We can't know, but it seems like most of the team has bought what he's selling.
Now, where I'm worried and where everyone should be worried is: LeBron does whatever LeBron wants to do. I'm not convinced he's bought into Blatt. He stops the ball way too often and contradicts things Blatt says to the media way too often as well. There's a disconnect there, and it's going to be interesting to see if the playoffs bridge the gap between their communication problems, or if it nukes the gap into a canyon.
While Love has done everything on the court that Blatt has asked of him -- even to his own personal detriment -- it seems like they are also saying different things than each other in the media. But then again, Love and LeBron are, too. It's an interesting threeway of disconnect between those guys. And since LeBron, Love and Blatt are three of the four most important people to the Cavs success this year, I suppose that is a worry.
Less worrisome to me is Blatt's interactions with the media as a whole. I figured I'd bring it up while I was on the subject of media already because it seems to bother a lot of people. It's worth talking about a bit.
I find Blatt's antagonistic relationship with the media funny on one hand and misguided strategy on the other. I think he's trying to portray the media as a villain and the team as kind of underdogs as a way of creating a bunker mentality with the team. Us versus them. That kind of thing. I can't say if it's working or not, but it seems to be the route he's taking.
I'm sure one or both of you disagree with me on that. I know I'm being an armchair psychiatrist here, but Blatt is crazy smart. He's crazy competitive. He's just plain crazy. Everything he does and says screams tactic and mindgame to me.
Whether it's making the media the enemy or some of the weird quotes he's had about his players. I always think he's up to something. I just have no idea if what he's up to actually works. I know I wouldn't approach the media the way he does, but I'm not him.
I actually don't have many thoughts on the Blatt v. Media thing. I don't really care. I don't feel bad for Blatt when someone asks him a question he doesn't like, and I don't feel bad that someone decides to be the 50th guy that calls Blatt a rookie coach and gets curved.
Hyper-competitive, successful, smart people being defensive about their accomplishments against the perception of someone questioning them doesn't seem like it should surprise anybody. He could probably give more gracious non-answers, but does it really matter? If the Cavs win, several years down the line he will quote some stat to refute a question and we will all be like "CLASSIC BLATT HAR HAR HAR" just like Pop.
Blatt's interactions with the media don't concern me at all. As Ryan said, Blatt is a hyper-competitive guy who is clearly very proud of his accomplishments. Players can be standoff-ish with media. Coaches can too, and it's usually accepted when they have established themselves in the NBA. Blatt hasn't done that yet, and as I stated above, he still has a long way to go before I'm sold on him. But if that's the mindset he needs to be in, then that's fine. I get a kick out of it personally and I don't think he necessarily owes the media anything. He is very engaging and goes really in-depth when he speaks, so it's not like he is leaving them completely out to dry.
I'm not concerned with whether or not LeBron will buy in during the playoffs. LeBron is a winner and one of the most intelligent basketball minds on the planet. I think a lot of the hero-ball and laziness vanishes once the postseason comes around.
What I want to see is whether or not the Cavs will be able to make the game-to-game adjustments necessary to make a run at a title. Can David Blatt recognize what the other team is doing, come up with a counter and get the team to follow it before it's too late? Coaching in the NBA playoffs is a lot different than the single elimination tournaments he is used to.
I'm not saying he can't, but that's the kind of thing I need to see in order to get a true sense of what kind of job he is doing.