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Should David Blatt be the NBA's Coach of the Year? He has a case

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The first year coach has impressed

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Eight months ago, David Blatt was gearing up for his first NBA training camp. The rookie - yes, rookie, NBA head coach was walking eyes wide open into one of the highest profile jobs in the country. He was going to be LeBron James' coach. He was going to be LeBron James' coach as the Akron native returned home, and expectations for James-led teams are never modest.

Here are but some of the issues Blatt faced:

  • A trip to Brazil featuring shoddy basketball facilities, weird practice times, long flights, all leading to an incongruous preseason schedule. Oh, and they played James' old team down there.
  • New timeouts, less practice time, new officials, a new team, and a whole league full of new players. Did Blatt know who Markieff Morris was before the season?
  • Blatt has not, and would never, and should never publicly complain about coaching James, Kevin Love in a walk year, and Kyrie Irving. But fans and NBA observers expected the Cavs to score at a historic rate, and to do so quickly.
  • Dion Waiters publicly lobbying to start at shooting guard.
  • The task of asking Tristan Thompson to come off the bench the year before hitting restricted free agency.
  • A weird collection of young players coming off somewhat disappointing seasons in Irving, Thompson, and even Waiters (his strong six week end to the 2014 campaign wasn't quite enough to raise his season-long numbers to solid play) and players like James Jones, Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, and Brendan Haywood that toggled in and out of functionality. And, without delving too far into speculation, it's fair to wonder how fit James was; he ultimately took two weeks off as the team languished to get himself healthy.
That's all before the season began. Before Anderson Varejao went down for the season. Before Waiters, who had genuinely shown promise the previous season, played himself out of the starting lineup. Before anonymous Cavaliers admitted to lackluster effort due to frustration with the roster. Before Irving and James' relationship got off to a "rocky start".

Tell me that I'm writing this article on January 16th and I'm dismissing you as insane. That day Adrian Wojnarowski opened up a story in which he details a sit-down interview with Blatt like this:

Basketball's most besieged coach retreated to a quiet corridor of the Staples Center and moved to reject the caricature of himself as the victim of some sort of coup, a floundering spirit in a murky cesspool. David Blatt is a believer, forever betting on himself and there's something about this struggle that's emboldening the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Everyone's coming for him now, including the most powerful player on the planet. So it goes for the European coach thrust into the biggest coaching burden the NBA's witnessed in a long, long time. Everyone else awaits the validation of a Blatt basketball vision so far unseen, so far unrealized on a .500 team.

"They haven't witnessed it yet, and I readily recognize it," Blatt told Yahoo Sports. "But they will. The ways of the NBA are very ingrained in guys here. Before we take them out of their comfort zone, we better find a team comfort zone winning basketball games.

"It's tough to make the kind of changes that I think we can and will in the future before we gain credibility as a team, and the belief of everybody of what we're doing."

Wojnarowski has a notoriously interesting (Adrian Wojnarowski really, really doesn't like LeBron James) relationship with James, and the idea that Blatt would talk to him of all people seemed curious. If reaching James was the most important thing Blatt could do, well, the move to talk to Wojnarowski seemed as likely to produce the exact opposite result.

But a funny thing started happening, and it started happening a lot. Winning. Wins. On the basketball court. It happened for a number of reasons, and it hasn't quite stopped just yet. In truth, the Cavs were incredibly good whenever the Big Three had been on the court. And the Big Three was a lot healthier.

The Cavs, of course, also made moves to improve the personnel around those three. Brendan Haywood was replaced as the third big by Tristan Thompson, and Thompson was replaced as the starting center by Timofey Mozgov, who has helped cover up defensive weaknesses holding the team back early on. Dion Waiters, in a role the young player just wasn't comfortable in, had put together a true shooting rate of 46.8 this season before being dealt. His minutes have largely been replaced with J.R. Smith, with a 57.1 true shooting rate in Cleveland, and Iman Shumpert, who has helped anchor productive bench units with James and Thompson.

But David Blatt has been a huge factor in the Cavs' ride to at least 52 wins and the East's second seed. Mozgov is a somewhat limited center who has never averaged more than 27 minutes in a game. Smith is notorious for bad shot selection and questionable habits after hours. Both have been tremendous in their limited time in Cleveland, and both have bought in to the Cavs system. Blatt has embraced the NBA's shift to the three point shot; Irving and Smith, in particular, have taken a far greater percentage of their shots from distance than they did the season before.

And for Mozgov, Blatt was flexible enough to change the team's defense:

Since his arrival, the Cavs have morphed into a solid defensive team, one that gets even better when Mozgov plays. With him on the court, Cleveland is surrendering just 101 points per 100 possessions. A major reason is that opponents are shooting just 48 percent when going up against Mozgov at the rim.


"We've changed our defense since Timo got here," Cavaliers associate head coach Tyronn Lue says. "We now scheme around always having a big man near the basket."

That flexibility extended to the freedom extended to James, one of the most accomplished and cerebral players in the NBA today, and really, historically. Blatt's motion heavy offense has provided the Cavs good looks in a number of different situations, particularly in out-of-bounds situations. But the pick and roll is the bread and butter of today's NBA, and there isn't anyone, perhaps ever, with the personnel to carry it out quite like the 2014-15 Cleveland Cavaliers. Here is but one way in which it can work:

James takes a screen from an above average screener in either Mozgov or Thompson. He has the court vision of Magic Johnson, can pull up to take an efficient three point shot, bully his way to the rim, suck the defense from his rolling big for an easy dunk (no team is in the stratosphere as the Cavs in made alley-hoops since January 15) or find former three point shoot-out winner Kyrie Irving, or former three point shoot-out winner Kevin Love, or J.R. Smith, who has more games making eight or more three pointers than anyone who has ever laced em up for an NBA team.

And so the Cavs have done that. Over and over again. The results have been an offense performing at a historically great level for several months now. Transitioning the new faces into the offensive and defensive schemes, even as they changed, was close to seamless. We don't know where Blatt's relationship with James is right now. We know they are doing better than co-existing, though. The team is 32-9 since January 15. When James, Love and Irving play in that time, they're 28-3.

Yes, Blatt gets to coach LeBron James. And Kyrie Irving. And Kevin Love. But the degree of difficulty, the pressure, the learning curve, the strength to survive, believe in himself and his system has been downright impressive. He's been prickly with the media, and has earned some of the criticism he's received because of it. He makes excuses for struggles the team has, when just owning up to a poor result feels like the route 98% of coaches generally take. But his players are prepared, know their roles, don't complain about their roles.

There has been criticism about the use of Kevin Love, who has seen both his offensive opportunities and efficiency go down this season. That falls on Blatt, to an extent. At the same time though, the Cavs offense is far from a problem, and there are probably some diminishing returns on the all-world abilities Irving, James and Love bring to the table. Love has also dealt with back issues for much of the year. To put it bluntly, in regards to the way the Cavs have scored: if it isn't broke, maybe you shouldn't fix it. Perhaps with rest for the back, and time to implement more wrinkles, Love will flourish. In the meantime, he's incredibly valuable for an unbelievably good offense.

There are a number of great candidates when it comes to the Coach of the Year award. Steve Kerr has the Golden State Warriors playing at an insane level. Klay Thompson and Draymond Green have been unlocked. Their defense is stifling and you can't guard them. He's also a rookie head coach. Mike Budenholzer has helped make Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap two of the greatest free agent bargains imaginable, and Jeff Teague just gets better every year. Gregg Popovich has a tendency to help turn the San Antonio Spurs into a flying death machine and this season is but the latest iteration.

I don't know that David Blatt would get my vote. His accomplishments this season, though, should not be overlooked.

Stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com