Editor's note: We are thrilled to add Joe Mastrantoni to the team at Fear the Sword. He has spent time covering the Cavs for waitingfornextyear.com, among other places, in the past. Here is his first post. - dz
Hallejuah, the NBA Playoffs are finally upon us. At 3:00 PM on Sunday this new edition Cavs team - LeBron: The Sequel, will make its first meaningful debut in front of the nation on ABC. The playoffs are frequently jokingly referred to as "The Real Regular Season" because often times it feels like they are all that truly matters to the basketball public. This adds to their levity and appeal. They feel unique to any other sports' postseason. I can't help but think of them as a two month long series of athletic chess matches where one team must survive four unique match-ups in order to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy. Everything you hate about your team some opposing coach is about to try and point out.
Furthermore, in few other sports are titles and postseason success as great a factor in its cast's legacy than in basketball (at some point during the playoffs Kenny Smith will join Shaq mocking Charles Barkley for not having a ring and somehow it will be okay). The ups and downs are just beginning and each individual on the Cavs has something personal at stake. In the next week we're going to take a look at who has what to gain - and what to lose. We start with David Blatt.
David Blatt: Born on the chopping block
I'm not going to claim to know what David Blatt can and cannot do and in many ways I feel like that is all he really wants. Much of the American media has been openly skeptical that his European success can translate to the NBA. Early season failures had all the fingers pointing Blatt's way despite the Cavaliers possessing a top-heavy roster that consisted of an only semi-committed LeBron James, a still-perhaps-too-reckless Kyrie Irving, no real depth at the wing positions, a pair of PFs moonlighting at center in Tristan Thompson and Andersen Varejao, and perhaps the most knuckle-headed basketball player of all time, Dion Waiters. With the help of David Griffin, Blatt has weathered it all and rounded off the regular season in style.
New slings and arrows will be pointed his way though with the advent of the playoffs. Luckily, in many ways Blatt would seem more prepared for the postseason than he ever was anything else. The grind of the NBA regular season and the distractions that its length creates is nothing like Blatt endured in Europe. Much of his success was associated with his acumen in knockout tournaments where the importance of game planning for individual team match-ups is heightened. Theoretically the playoffs are where Blatt should shine, but will he? Does he have the answers to the Hawks, Bulls, and Celtics resting in his back pocket? And even if he does, can he get the players to memorize those answers?
There has been a lot of criticism thrown his way over rotations, particularly in the 4th, supposedly not making the most of Kevin Love (which we'll get to in a later edition), and the Iso ball that sometimes takes over late in games, but we're all probably nitpicking. Blatt's initial self-stated goal early on was just to find success anyway possible. He knew only once successful could he start imprinting himself on the team. Coaches, especially more unknown quantities like Blatt, rarely can approach a group of players, particularly one of with a player of LeBron's pedigree, and have their respect right off the bat. A coach's legitimacy with his players is built on the back of time and success. Blatt has had his moments this season and they started relatively early.
There was a game in December against the Knicks where the Cavs were up 88-87 with less than thirty second to go. Kyrie dribbled the ball at the top of the Knicks key sizing up the defense while planning his next move when with 9 seconds left on the shot clock, 16.8 on the game clock, Blatt calls a timeout. Kyrie reacts immediately in frustration to the decision. He probably had seen something he wanted to attack in the Knick's defense and didn't want the stoppage. He yells at Blatt on the way back to the huddle, lets him know he's pissed.
This moment would be used to further fuel the fire that was/is "the players are against Blatt". But coming out of that timeout Kyrie was able to get a layup to help seal the game out of the timeout, driving past Iman Shumpert no less, and immediately credited Blatt in his post-game interview with David Aldridge for the call. LeBron acted as a decoy in this set to clear up the left side of the floor for Kyrie's drive. It is moments like these during the course of the season where Blatt earned more influence on the game through contributing to the team's success. The question will remain how much influence does he have left to earn and does LeBron feel like he has something to learn from his newest head coach?
When David Met Brad
Blatt's first round match-up is with Brad "He's so hot right now" Stevens. Although Stevens doesn't represent the penultimate test for Blatt, it is an intriguing match-up of coaches when taking into account the general perception of each across various media outlets and across the interwebs. I'm sure if you asked the average pundit they would judge Stevens a better coach than Blatt at this point. I'm not here to claim he isn't, but to even posture as if to know right now does feel slightly absurd.
Complicating any comparison of the two is that the Cavaliers roster is definitely a much better arsenal to be loaded with and thus the Princeton alum will always enjoy a smaller slice of his team's success than Stevens. Worth mentioning, too, that if the weight of expectations on the two coaches were gravity then Blatt would be on stuck lying face-down on the hardwood of Jupiter while Stevens would be pile-driving thirty foot high dunks on Mercury.
Stevens can get swept out of the playoffs and his stock will not drop. If the Cavs sputter even a little the media and fans will be quick to pile back on Blatt and blame him for the Cavaliers' failures. Whether that perception is reality or not might not even matter. Up until now he's handled the weight of these great expectations and managed to is captaining the hottest team in the NBA. It isn't enough; as always in the NBA there's only been one way to silence the non-believers.
Don't stop winning.