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NBA Sunday: David Blatt Meets the Challenge

Behind David Blatt’s coaching, the Cleveland Cavaliers have emerged as contenders.

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Nine months ago, with Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin sitting to his left, David Blatt sat before the assembled media at the Cleveland Clinic Courts and spoke of the challenge that awaited him with his new opportunity.

Making the quantum leap across the pond and attempting to replicate his international success as a head coach in the NBA—that would be no easy task.

“It is a challenge,” Blatt said on the day he was introduced by Griffin as the 19th head coach in franchise history.

“But the game is not so different as people think it is,” he said.

According to Blatt, his leadership, his work ethic and the chasing of his dream—winning at the highest level—made him the ideal candidate to lead the Cavaliers in their genesis.

Since then, the confluence of events that have occurred in Cleveland have seemed to prove him correct.

* * *

The challenge that Blatt accepted entailed helping Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters coexist and learn to work together. He imagined Anderson Varejao being a big part of his offense. He probably imagined a few more trips to the lottery, fast breaks with Andrew Wiggins and ultimately having to try to figure out how to stop LeBron James.

Instead, roughly three weeks after he signed on the dotted line, with the ink on his four-year contract worth potentially $20 million still wet, Blatt learned that he would instead be coaching him.

This changed everything.

Immediately, there were expectations of championship contention and premonitions of grandeur.

Immediately, instead of continuing the rebuilding process that was admittedly off to a slow start, the Cavaliers were now building around James—the consensus top player in the league who was coming off of a fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.

And immediately, the wisdom behind hiring Blatt to lead the team was questioned.

The prevailing thought was that if the Cavaliers even had a scintilla of hope that James would return, the franchise would be best served by giving him some say in who it would hire to lead him. In this day and age of NBA superstars calling the shots and making roster decisions, this line of thinking is understandable. But the Cavs had already made their choice.

For Blatt, it was a blessing and a curse.

Both Jason Kidd and Derek Fisher would attest that being a first time head coach and being charged with leading veteran players is unenviable. Ideally, young coaches in the NBA want patience from their front office, low expectations and an opportunity to build with and grow with their core. In Oklahoma City, Scott Brooks has had that pleasure. On some small level, although he led the Chicago Bulls to 62 wins in his first season, Tom Thibodeau has, as well.

In Boston, that is the type of situation that Brad Stevens has waked into. The same can be said of Brett Brown and the Philadelphia 76ers.

When they met, Griffin, no doubt, sold Blatt on the idea of putting his fingerprints on a young team and developing them at his pace and in his image.

Within two months of his introductory press conference, for Blatt, it all changed.

About six weeks after James has announced his return, the decision to trade the newly drafted Andrew Wiggins for Kevin Love was effectively doubling down on the Cavaliers relentless pursuit to win, win big and win now.

Future be damned; Blatt’s work environment immediately went from “slow and steady” to “now or never.”

And since then, before our very eyes, he has proven to be exactly the coach and person that general manager David Griffin said he was on the day he announced his hire.

* * *

“David is an authentic leader,” Griffin proudly said of his head coach. It was the day before the Cavaliers would select Andrew Wiggins with the first overall pick of the 2014 NBA Draft and 16 days before James would recommit to the franchise he left in a teary and scorched jersey-filled wake.

“David is the culmination of a very long process,” Griffin said. “He truly is the embodiment of everything we sought in a head coach… He’s a guy who has passion, creativity and intelligence.

“It’s been a tremendous process and it is one that has culminated in a tremendous hire.”

All things considered, “tremendous” seems to be a fair word to describe the job Blatt has done, all things considered.

Aside from gracefully handling the acquisitions of James and Love, when the Cavaliers sputtered out to a 19-20 start, he had already dealt with months of speculation over his job security or whether or not he would make it through the entire season. In 2009, the Phoenix Suns fired Terry Porter just 51 games into a three-year contract and more recently, in 2014, the Detroit Pistons fired Mo Cheeks just 50 games into his tenure. Those are but two examples of the head coach’s increasing disposability in today’s NBA.

It is that exact principle that has helped Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski turn down repeated overtures to coach in the NBA, most famously rebuking the Los Angeles Lakers in their attempt to find Phil Jackson’s successor back in 2004.

Blatt knew what he was getting himself into when he opted to pursue his dream of winning big in the NBA and just months into his tenure, he was already dealing with questions of his demise.

JRSmithInsideOnly2Since then, he has ignored all the white noise and gone about his business, seamlessly integrating J.R. Smith and Timofey Mozgov into his starting lineup and getting Iman Shumpert to buy into a secondary role on his team. He has effectively taken Kyrie Irving off of the ball and, based on match ups, allows him to serve either as a scorer or as a ball handler that creates opportunities for his teammates.

He has tinkered with his rotation and has overseen the process of the Cavaliers becoming a unified team. Along the way, he has appropriately promoted and demoted players within his rotation and demands good execution from his club.

And, best of all, he has made it look somewhat easy.

Head coaches are often the first one to take the fall when things go awry, but they are never as quickly credited when things get turned around. Since January 13, the Cavaliers have compiled a win-loss record of 26-6 and have steadily ascended the standings in the Eastern Conference. Entering play on March 22, the team holds a three-game lead over the Toronto Raptors for the second seed in the Eastern Conference—something that seemed unlikely as recently as 40 days ago.

It feels like such a long time ago that Blatt was sitting next to Andrew Wiggins and helping to introduce him as the franchise’s newest addition back on June 27, but it feels even longer since Blatt was placed on the hot seat.

For that, he deserves an immense amount of credit.

* * *

Make no mistake about it. Adjusting to life in the NBA is not easy—not for a point guard, not for a center and not for a head coach.

One of the biggest challenges a coach faces when he begins competing at this level, even if he has had success elsewhere, is managing the egos and attitudes of the modern NBA superstar. In other professional basketball leagues around the world and certainly in the college ranks, the coach is viewed by the player as the alpha and omega of the player’s aspirations. The coach’s wish is the player’s demand and the coach’s personality is the fabric used to weave the team together.

The coach is the team.

But what about the NBA? It’s a players league and everywhere but the NBA, players are attempting to fulfill their potential and reach the pinnacle of their profession—signing a lucrative, multi-year contract with an NBA franchise.

Often, once that goal has been accomplished, a player simply does not have the same incentive to acquiesce to the desires of a head coach. “Quitting” on a coach is usually a product of this dynamic.

What’s even more difficult for a head coach is walking into a situation where some of the players on his roster have won championships and he has not. Rings garner respect and in late game situations where a coach has 15 sets of eyeballs looking at him for strategy, direction and leadership, a lack of bling can sometimes cause doubt to creep in, especially if the coach does not have a track record of prior success on the NBA level.

Four games in six nights, long road trips and knowing the strengths and weaknesses of all of the other personnel on every other team across the league: they are challenges that head coaches face that often do not get considered or thought about.

Early morning coach’s meetings, video sessions and attempting to teach a team with parts constantly moving into and out of the lineup is no easy task, especially not for a coach that is new to the grind of the NBA.

Have the Cavaliers achieved so highly, thus far, only because of David Blatt? Absolutely not.

But to this point, with the expectations suddenly dashed upon him, the win now edict, the integration of new pieces onto his roster and the Cavaliers emerging as one of the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, he has done as well a job as anyone could have expected.

* * *

As he sat before the City of Cleveland and accepted this challenge nine months ago, Blatt issued a subtle reminder to everyone.

“I’ve won everywhere I’ve been,” he said.

“I’ve coached enough international games and participated in enough games that included NBA players and teams to know that if you play the game right, it doesn’t really matter where you play it.

“I sorta came to the point in my career that I had accomplished just about all that I could… I kind of had that NBA dream in my ear and my heart. I found a great life in Israel and other countries but I never, for a moment, lost the hope that I would come full circle.”

And obviously, even when the Cavaliers had their early season struggles, Blatt never lost hope that, together, they would figure it out.

He is correct; he has won everywhere he has been.

And despite his learning on the job, to this point, the city of Cleveland has been no exception.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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