NBA Saturday: Blatt is Right Hire for Cavaliers

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Blatt is Right Hire for Cavaliers

Nine-year NBA veteran Anthony Parker wanted to make something clear before we started our conversation about David Blatt, the new head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two men go way back, since Blatt was the assistant coach who recruited Parker to Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2000 and coached him during some of the most successful years of his professional basketball career.

“I’m one of his biggest fans, so you’re not going to hear me say anything negative about him,” Parker said with a laugh. “If you’re looking for a balanced view of David Blatt, I’m the wrong guy to talk to.”

It’s understandable that Parker would sing Blatt’s praises and fully support his former coach. But after spending the last 24 hours talking to individuals familiar with Blatt – including those who have played for him, competed against him, worked alongside him or evaluated him from a distance – it turns out that Parker’s sentiment is the general consensus around the basketball world. Every single review of Blatt was glowing and finding someone who is willing to say something negative about the 55-year-old is nearly impossible since he is one of the most respected coaches on the planet.

Cleveland hired Blatt to become their new head coach on Friday, inking him to a four-year contract with an annual base salary of $3.33 million and incentives that could increase his yearly pay to $5 million. Some fans were confused by the decision to hire Blatt, as they had never heard of the international coach since he hasn’t played or coached in the NBA. However, the reaction from those in the know was overwhelmingly positive.

Over the last two decades, Blatt has established himself as one of the game’s best overseas coaches and he has a trophy case packed with international championships, Olympic medals and Coach of the Year awards to prove it. He turned around Russia’s national team, winning the 2007 Eurobasket championship and taking home a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. The word “genius” often gets thrown around when Blatt is being described, as he has a reputation for being an offensive mastermind and one of the best coaches in the world when it comes to game-planning and making adjustments.

Now, he’ll have the opportunity to coach on basketball’s biggest stage, leading a talented Cavaliers team that seems poised for success at some point in the very near future. Blatt explained his decision to coach in the NBA now as saying that it’s “the only challenge I have left.”

Parker, who played for the Cavaliers from 2009 to 2012 several years after leaving Maccabi Tel Aviv, is confident that Blatt will be able to duplicate his success in the NBA.

“I’ve gone on record as saying that he’s the best coach that I’ve played for,” Parker said of Blatt. “I also played for Larry Brown and Doc Rivers, but I don’t really count them in that just because I was on the bench and in street clothes for most of my time with them (laughs) so I never really got to play and experience that. But as far as everybody else, I’ve had great experiences with David. He has a great basketball mind and he’s very creative. I think one of the things that is special with David is his adaptability. You hear about coaches that have a specific style, where they go out and they need certain players to fit their style, but David is really able to adapt to his roster and kind of adjust and tailor the philosophies and strategies to the types of players that he has on the team. He’s had success with the Russian national team, with the teams in Israel, Russia and Italy and with the Olympics. He’s dealt with all kinds of different environments and competitions and rosters and cultures and stuff, but he’s successful. It’s because of how he’s able to adapt and create relationships and get players to buy in to his vision of the team. He’s done well.

“Some coaches have the ability to do the X’s and O’s, the strategies and the philosophies and they have that all ironed out, but they can’t really relate with the players, they can’t really communicate with the players and get them to buy in. Then, there are other coaches that are player coaches who can get players to buy in and have great relationships, but kind of fall short on the X’s and O’s side of things. What makes David unique, and what he has in common with a lot of the great basketball coaches in the world, is that he can do both. If you look at a lot of the coaches who have had long-term success, that’s something that they’re able to do. I think that’s his strength, that he’s able to do both of those things.”

In recent days, Cleveland had narrowed their coaching search to Blatt and former NBA player Tyronn Lue, who has spent the last four years as an assistant coach under Doc Rivers on the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers. A number of teams were trying to hire Blatt as an assistant coach, including the Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves, but he wanted to take the reins of his own team. When Cavaliers general manager David Griffin approached Blatt about the head coaching vacancy, he was determined to land the job.

“I feel strongly about my fit for the job and this team’s potential,” Blatt said in a statement. “This is an opportune time to join the Cleveland Cavaliers. We are going to work extremely hard to achieve the kind of results we all expect and know are possible.”

As Blatt pointed out, this was perfect timing for his transition to the NBA, since he’s coming off of an outstanding year. Blatt and Maccabi Tel Aviv completed the triple crown this year (winning the Euroleague, Israeli-League and State Cup), and he was named Coach of the Year as a result.

Former Florida Gators star Alex Tyus played for Blatt and Maccabi Tel Aviv last season. The 26-year-old, who was the MVP of Euroleague for the month of April and made the Israeli League’s All-First Team, wasn’t shocked that Blatt was able to use his success as a springboard for an NBA job.

“We had one of the best seasons in European history,” Tyus said. “We won the triple crown – we won the Israeli Cup, the Israeli League Championship and the Euroleague – which was an amazing experience. It was not a bad year at all (laughs). We won everything.

“I wasn’t surprised to see him become an NBA coach. I’ve never had a coach like him before; he’s just different in terms of how he is off the court and as a player’s coach. He has a totally different approach and it makes you comfortable as a player. I know a lot of guys struggle overseas with different coaches and the European mentality, but he’s definitely different. Even when I look back to high school and college, I think he probably relates to players better than any other coach I’ve ever had. I’m not surprised [he’s getting this opportunity]. I could really see him doing well in the NBA. I’ve always thought of him as an NBA coach.If you’re all in and you’re willing to do anything to help the team win, you’re one of the guys that he really likes and he’s the best coach. He garners a lot of respect from players, and from everyone in Europe. He’s won at a high level in Europe for a long time, and he connects very well with players. He understands our mindset. He can relate to players, and I also think he’s a great guy. He cares about his players and if you’re one of his guys, he’ll really go to bat for you and help you out a lot.”

Around the NBA, many executives applauded Cleveland’s hire and felt that bringing in Blatt is a dare-to-be-great move that could really pay off for them in the long run.

“Cleveland deserves a lot of credit for hiring a guy that a lot of other teams have always liked, but have been afraid to take the plunge on,” said a Western Conference executive. “It’s also a smart move because if Blatt had become an assistant coach with the Warriors, after one or two years he could have become a guy who would have his pick of jobs. He is a brilliant and competitive coach who will definitely be an improvement over Mike Brown. But, of course, there will be challenges as part of the transition process. For example, he is maybe the best game-planner in the world, but now he has a lot more games to worry about and much less time to plan for them. There is a lot of work to do in Cleveland, to fix the culture, which would be a challenge for anyone. The upside though is that if they become a playoff team, Blatt has proven to be the rare coach that can outcoach his opponent when he has time to prepare. In the NBA, this could make him a coach that can steal a playoff series.”

Although hesitant to make the following comparison because he didn’t want to put too much pressure on his former coach, Parker feels that Blatt is very similar to San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich.

“I think the best comparison is Popovich,” Parker said. “I hate to say that because of the timing of it after the kind of year that the Spurs had and what they’ve done for almost two decades now. But in terms of the coaching style, I mean his teams move the ball, they pass, there’s spacing, they keep it open and, like I said, David tailors his offense based on his roster, similar to what the Spurs have done and the evolution that they’ve kind of undergone since Tim Duncan has been in the league. You see him kind of getting on guys and holding guys accountable, but you won’t ever hear those players saying anything bad about Pop. I think that David is able to walk that line as well. I just hesitate to say Popovich just because of everything that comes along with saying that name and comparing the two. It’s almost like when people are comparing players and say, ‘Oh, he’s the next Michael Jordan.’”

Like Popovich, opposing players dreaded having to face Blatt’s teams.

“I never played for him, but I played a lot against him and I think he has all the abilities to be successful in the NBA,” Dallas Mavericks guard Gal Mekel said of Blatt. “He won every title possible in Europe, he has a great basketball IQ and he always gets the most out of his players.”

“He’s a great dude, he’s literally a genius and he has a lot of ambition,” CSKA Moscow guard Aaron Jackson said. “He is on top of the world – deep young team with the number one draft pick and Kyrie Irving.”

Blatt will inherit a Cavaliers squad that won just 33 games last season, missing the playoffs in the depleted Eastern Conference. However, the roster features young talent such as Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, Sergey Karasev (who played for Blatt on Russia’s national team) and whoever the team selects with the No. 1 overall pick in next week’s draft.

“If anyone can [maximize Cleveland’s potential], it’s him,” Parker said. “I think one of the key things with David is he’s able to relate to players and get them to buy in. With the Cavaliers, I think there’s definitely talent on the roster, but getting players to buy in, believe in the vision, come together and play as a team is the key, as it is anywhere. But I think it’s a good situation for him because he definitely has talent to work with there. It’s not a situation where he has to wait for two or three years to get players to be able to do anything with. I think that he’ll hit the ground running there and they have the ability to make some noise, so we’ll see.”

“I think he’ll do a great job regardless of who’s there,” Tyus said. “He does well with what he has to work with. He’s the type of coach, especially playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv, where management always had a lot of say on the players that they brought in, so he always had to work with guys that he maybe didn’t necessarily want. That’s a whole European thing; I don’t know if NBA teams work like that too. But he’s always done a good job of having good teams and getting the best out of his players, regardless of who they are and I think that that’s something that’s going to help him out a lot right away playing with Cleveland. He does a great job of adjusting. We played a lot of four-out, one-in [last season], and I know in the NBA that’s something that works sometimes. But I think he’s really good at adjusting to whoever his personnel is, so I think he’ll do well.”

While Blatt has drawn praise for his offensive strategies, Parker and Tyus feel that he’s a well-rounded coach who is equally effective on both ends.

“I think most people, maybe from the outside looking in, would say that his strength is on the offensive end of the ball,” Parker said. “I think that he gets a lot of credit for a lot of the innovative things that he has done offensively and some of the offensive sets that he’s put in that have worked out. Those get a lot of the attention, but he’s a defensive coach as well. I think he’s balanced. I don’t think that he’s light on either end.”

“You just have to be able to make an impact on the game in different ways; that’s something that Blatt really looks for,” Tyus said. “I would say that he’s really good at both offense and defense. He has a good balance. Defensively, he definitely wants his players to be able to guard their man and make plays because those are obviously the most important things defensive wise. And then on offense, he has a lot of good strategies and can use players to their strengths.”

The Cavaliers decided to think outside the box by hiring Blatt, making him the first NBA head coach to come straight from Europe. Only time will tell if Blatt can duplicate his success in the NBA, but the move certainly seems promising today.

Bulls Pursuing Magic’s Arron Afflalo

One name to keep an eye on this summer is Orlando Magic shooting guard Arron Afflalo, who may be traded before the start of the 2014-15 season.

The Charlotte Hornets had previously been mentioned as a potential suitor for Afflalo and now the Chicago Bulls are pursuing the veteran shooting guard as well, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

Orlando is clearly rebuilding, which is why the 28-year-old is “very available.”

The Magic had a number of conversations about Afflalo prior to last year’s trade deadline, but ultimately held onto their swingman.

The Magic have the No. 4 and No. 12 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft, but they could be open to acquiring additional picks or young assets.

Chicago has the No. 16 and No. 19 picks in the draft, which could make them an intriguing trading partner for the Magic.

Last season, Afflalo had a career-year in Orlando, averaging 18.2 points per game on 45.9 percent shooting, which is why his trade value is at an all-time high.

His contract is also very attractive to teams, as he’ll make just $7.5 million in the 2014-15 season and then has an early termination option the following year or can opt in to another $7.5 million salary.

Chicago really struggled to score and shoot the ball last year, so their interest in Afflalo makes a lot of sense.