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David Blatt’s turbulent and successful first year in Cleveland

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back, analyzing David Blatt’s year is difficult, mainly because his first season with the Cavs was broken into at least three distinct chapters.

I. The team he started with was widely looked upon as his golden ticket, an easy way for him to glide into NBA. But, things weren’t that simple. The chemistry wasn’t there. LeBron didn’t look like himself, as he developed and carried a nagging injury. The young, inexperienced players in the spotlight looked like young, inexperienced players in the spotlight. Dion Waiters did his best impersonation of a Dementor from Azkaban, sucking the collective soul of the team, shooting 37.1 FG% / 23.1 3P% in the month of November, with a 23.7% usage rate, according to NBA.com.

Talent-wise they were almost ready to be an elite team, but, with the way the roster was, the big three couldn’t exceed the sum of their parts. Blatt was essentially handcuffed until moves were made. He tried to get somewhat creative/do damage control, sliding Marion or Miller into the starting two after only a handful of games, to gain defense or spacing — while hoping Waiters would develop into a second-unit leader — but the two veterans weren’t the answer, mostly because age fully exposed their weaknesses. And when Varejao went down, the front court rotation wasn’t really a rotation anymore. The Cavs had three shiny superstars and the same problem as LeBron’s first tenure: they had seriously limited depth. Sure, there were times when Blatt could have been more creative with Kevin Love or been harsher with his young players, but it’s still hard, especially in hindsight, to pin the start-of-the-season dumpster fire on him.

II. Enter David Griffin, who essentially turned Waiters and a future first round pick in Shumpert, JR and Mozgov, providing the spacing/defense/athleticism dynamic that was needed at shooting guard and the rim protection and depth needed at four and five. The Cavs started ripping off wins and everyone collectively (kind of) eased up on Blatt. When things balanced out, it became obvious that Blatt wasn’t necessarily a foundational problem.

III. The playoffs. For me personally, the Celtics series is when I started to really believe in Blatt. The ball was moving and the chemistry seemed to be at an all-time high. The 2014/15 Celtics weren’t conference contenders, but they were well-coached and more fundamentally sound than they probably should have been, and while a sloppy series from the Cavs still would have resulted in advancement, there probably wouldn’t have been a sweep. When Kelly Olynyk awkwardly — and perhaps quasi-purposely — pulled Love’s shoulder out of place, the team’s identity began to shift, and then even more so with Kyrie’s lingering and ultimately season-ending knee problems.

They went from turbo-charged space-and-pace playmakers with multiple options to gritty half-court scrappers slickly controlling possessions (LeBron isolations, offensive rebounding) while forging a focused defensive mindset. It wasn’t ideal, but the players and the staff reshaped the plan on the fly, which got them to the Finals and shook the Warriors a bit. Blatt deserves some credit for that. And, through all the turbulence, he seemed poised and collected during the playoffs, generally making good decisions, with, of course, a few exceptions — most notably almost pulling a Chris Webber during the Chicago series, trying to call a timeout with none left. (Although, since it didn’t affect the game, in hindsight, I’m glad it happened for two reasons: 1) When you embarrass yourself with that sort of mistake, it’s usually something you learn from. 2) The reactions on Bulls Twitter and the Chicago fans in my Facebook feed were hilarious.)

So, in one of the most successful, strangest and most pleasantly (?) frustrating seasons in Cleveland Cavilers history, how do you judge David Blatt? There were so many moving parts. So many absurd narratives. So many tough takes. So many uncontrollable hypothetical "ifs" you can run back, especially and most importantly in the playoffs. And there was still a finals run. Of course, the lion’s share of that success can be attributed to LeBron going into god mode, averaging 30.1 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.5 assists throughout the playoffs. But, the point is, a season broken into inconsistencies has given us a flurry of small sample sizes; both in terms of when his team severely under-performed and dramatically over-performed in given scenarios. Essentially, I think next year will — during what will hopefully be a more cohesive season — provide a better display of his value and talent. So, in the meantime, here are three things I think he could improve and three things I think he did well:

Possible Improvements

Creativity with Kevin Love: Yes, Kevin Love’s numbers dipped below his career averages, but that’s to be expected when you go from number one option on a bad team to joining a contender with two other all-stars. They’re not earth shattering, but averaging 16.4 points per game and 9.7 rebounds isn’t bad. That said, I think that Blatt could be more creative with Love. I understand the value of primarily either getting him easy looks in the paint or stretching the floor with him standing at the three-point line, creating spacing and lanes for LeBron and Kyrie, but, as the league changes with teams going smaller, life is going to be harder for the stretch four, and easy looks will be harder to come by without off-the-ball movement. Getting him going with good looks in the paint early is important, a trend that seemed to take a while to develop.

But, I think that feeding him the ball on the elbow and running the offense through him a little more would be an option to consider, or possibly running a high screen pick and pop with Kyrie to force a point guard to switch on him — similar to what the Warriors do with Curry and Green. Love could be dangerous in those scenarios, not only because of his ability to shoot, but because he’s an underrated passer and decision maker. I don’t think this is a major problem, but I think Blatt needs to figure out how to unlock Love’s full potential.

Develop a secondary facilitator: As long as LeBron is in the picture, he’ll probably be the primary ball handler (the only exception I see is years away), but it’s imperative — not only this year, but moving forward in general — that the Cavs are able to create smart offense and easy looks without him on the floor. Or, at least, without the ball in his hands. Kyrie will probably always be a score-first attacker. And that’s fine, because, as David pointed out earlier this week, he did it at an elite level. He certainly has the ability to score in bursts and systematically looks like a robot programmed to drive through traffic in the paint and make shots at seemingly impossible angles.

For being a secondary ball-handler, and a heavy iso player, he still averaged 5.2 assists per game, but he can still definitely improve as a half-court facilitator, which will help everyone around him develop within the team puzzle, as well, especially Love and Tristan, who, as the Fear The Sword Twitter account point out earlier this week, ranked third in the league last year in the pick and roll, as the roll man. They can make each others lives easier. (It’s also worth noting that Mo Williams averaged a sneaky 6.4 assist in 41 games last season.) Take this with a grain of salt. This is an offensively elite team. But, a great team never stops developing. And, as the Warriors showed us last season, having multiple players that are able to hurt you in multiple ways makes your team hell on wheels.

Rest LeBron: The overall point of the first two suggestions and a luxury he didn’t really have last year. But, Blatt has to find ways to keep massive minutes off LeBron’s legs during the season. The team needs to ponce on the conference early and strategically schedule some nights off for LeBron throughout the year.

Things He Did Well

Weathered the early storm: It was a rough start, but it didn’t dismantle the team. Coaching a professional sports team is a brutal business and throughout the year Blatt was given many reminders of this. But, nothing ended up becoming unfixable.

Handled the drama: It’s kind of the nature of the current media landscape, so, in a way, all the strange narratives, sketchy reports and hot takes have to be expected, but Blatt was given a particularly heavy dose. Whether it was about Kevin Love’s displeasure with the team, Blatt’s fractured relationship with LeBron or that he got in over his head with the NBA and the Cavs, he rode the wave. All things considered, it was a successful season. And, more importantly, the core of the team stayed together. Both things help his case.

Got to the Finals: Important players went down, they still made the finals and went six games with a historically great team. You could argue the weakness of the Eastern Conference. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, that a healthy Cavs team may have beaten the Warriors. More reasons why it’s difficult to analyze David Blatt’s first season.