Just over one month ago, David Blatt was hired as the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Blatt was a known commodity in NBA circles after years of success overseas, but he’s certainly not a household name among fans. He has zero NBA coaching experience, but is widely regarded as a magnificent basketball mind and has an outstanding track record in Europe.
Basketball Insiders’ own Alex Kennedy wrote great piece detailing the level of respect Blatt has from his former players and why he is a great fit in Cleveland. Now, with LeBron James returning to Cleveland, Blatt is perhaps the luckiest coach in the NBA and he finds himself in the right place at the right time.
There is no doubt that Blatt has the skills to succeed in the NBA and he may have done well with the move to a bigger stage even without James. But having the best player on the planet will certainly make his job easier and transition to the NBA smoother. On July 11, the opening day of the Las Vegas Summer League, during an early morning practice, Blatt found out that the lights were about to get even brighter in Cleveland.
“About 9:45 in the middle of my practice, the morning’s shoot around, [I found out James was coming to Cleveland],” Blatt said. “I’m not an internal optimist so I was kind of one of the last people that even wanted to believe it was going to happen, because the possibilities are so great. When I learned about it, I wasn’t altogether surprised, particularly not after reading what LeBron wrote, which was heartfelt and so indicative of the kind of person he is. That just made it all sweeter.”
It’s a shocking turn of good fortune for the new Cavs coach. Blatt will be armed with the most talented player in the game today and one the most gifted players to ever step foot on the hardwood, which he’s extremely excited about. After hearing the news, Blatt appeared just as thrilled for James, the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio.
“First and foremost, I’m happy for LeBron because he made a very difficult decision,” Blatt said. “He made a decision from the heart, more than anything else, and I respect him for it and I’m joyful for him for that. Second of all, for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the state of Ohio, and if you were around Cleveland today you would understand what I’m talking about, he just lifted a whole state by himself. I was thinking about that, and the next thing I was thinking was that I’m going to have an awfully good seat to watch the best player in the world play this year.”
Blatt is obviously grateful for the opportunity to coach James. However, with his return comes the burden of championship expectations and while it may not be fair, Blatt, from day one of the 2014-15 season, will be one of the most scrutinized coaches in the league. The city of Cleveland, a sports town far too familiar with misery, has new life with the return of their prodigal son. Blatt now faces the monumental challenge of making those championship dreams a reality. He understands the truth of the situation, but certainly isn’t the type to let it overwhelm him.
“I’ll remind you what my son wrote me not long ago; out of nowhere, great quote he sends me, 17-year-old kid, he barely talks, but he sends me this great quote – he says, ‘Danger is real, fear is a choice.’” Blatt said. “I’m going to go work with a great, great player, one of the great players of all-time. He’s a basketball player and I’m a basketball coach and we’re going to work together beautifully.”
On the other side of the equation is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins, like James, was one the most hyped high school prospects in recent memory. Expectations for him during his lone season at Kansas were impossibly high. Wiggins had his ups and downs for the Jayhawks, and showed flashes of his world-class athleticism and once-in-a-generation talent. Five days after Blatt was hired to be Cleveland’s head coach, Wiggins was selected with the first overall pick in the 2014 NBA Draft by the Cavaliers. At this point, with James not yet in the picture, Wiggins again faced lofty expectations. After the struggles experienced by last year’s top pick Anthony Bennett, Cleveland was under immense pressure to nail the pick.
Wiggins was of course in Las Vegas with Blatt and the Cavs summer league team, participating in the team’s morning shoot around, when the news of James’ return dropped.
“Obviously, we heard the good news about LeBron,” Wiggins said. “That’s a great feeling there, having the best player in the game today come to your team. It’s going to be a great learning experience for everyone to go under his wing and see what it takes.”
Like Blatt, Wiggins was overjoyed by the news and fully aware of the incredible opportunity that he was about to presented with.
“I was happy,” Wiggins said. “When the best player comes to your team, that’s going to be a great learning experience for me, to play alongside the best in the game.”
Wiggins has obviously been mentioned in trade rumors as the Cavaliers discuss a potential deal for Minnesota Timberwolves forward Kevin Love. But if he remains in Cleveland, Wiggins will have the chance start his career learning from a two-time NBA champion and surefire Hall of Famer, which will almost certainly help his growth and development as a player. This is a scenario even the most optimistic Cavs fan would have had a hard time dreaming up as their disappointing 2013-14 season wrapped up. Wiggins is ready to soak everything in from the league’s top player.
“Big mentor, he’s the best in the game,” Wiggins said. “I know he is hard worker, unselfish. Hopefully he can take all of us under his wing and really teach us what it takes to get to his level and build a championship team.”
The scenario that Wiggins finds himself in is unprecedented. Your typical number one pick finds themselves on a team in the middle of the rebuilding process, coming off of a terrible season. That pick then becomes a cornerstone for their team and is expected to be a major piece in changing the course of that franchise. Instead, Wiggins joins a title contender and gets to team up with the best player on the planet. Unlike Blatt, the addition of James will only reduce the pressure on him to produce and justify being the first overall selection. Expectations for Wiggins will still be high, but with James on the roster the need for Wiggins to be productive early on in his career is considerably reduced. With most of the focus now on LeBron, Wiggins is ready to fill a supporting role.
“The spotlight is all going to be on him – not all on him, but he has back up, me, Kyrie [Irving], Tristan [Thompson], AB, he has a lot of people on the team that can support him through whatever,” Wiggins said. “We’re going to bring it every day just like he will.”
With the return of James, the entire Cavaliers organization has been transformed. The team goes from a talented but disappointing group to immediate title contenders. For newcomers Blatt and Wiggins, they couldn’t have asked for anything more in their month with the franchise and both sound more than ready to capitalize on their time with James.