David Blatt was fired as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. And as people rush to blame both Blatt and Lebron James for this situation, we consider the real reasons for his demise.
Firing a coach of a successful team is hardly unheard of. Stan Van Gundy was moved on – “resigned under pressure” – in Miami because Shaquille O’Neal demanded it. Paul Westhead was fired by the Lakers in 1981, allegedly because Magic Johnson wanted him gone. Both teams went on to win championships that year. Still, when a team that arguably came within a Kyrie Irving knee tendon of being the NBA champions, a team who pushed the Unstoppable™ Golden State Warriors to game six, and then rolled to a 30-11 record in the following season, decides to fire its coach, it’s a fair sign that something unusual has happened.
The argument for sacking David Blatt has been laid out in full since the decision was made last week in the now traditional post decision justification leaks. Blatt was too arrogant, turning up at the Cavaliers thinking his ‘thousands of wins’ in Europe mattered for anything and failing to connect with the players. Blatt was also too subservient, not willing to call out senior players for their mistakes. Presented with what Adrian Wojnarowski called ‘open rebellion’, the Cavs had no option but to move on.
If we take the position of many pundits to be true – that David Blatt had indeed lost the locker room- then the decision by the Cavs has merit. It is undoubted that dysfunction did exist, and reports were that Lebron James, and other players, had been open in their contempt for Blatt.
Laying the blame at Blatt’s feet is a limited way to understand what has happened. For starters it’s very difficult to work out if Blatt actually deserved to be dismissed. The team managed to nearly win the championship last year, and that Blatt had managed them to the third best record in the league this season, sitting only behind two of the greatest regular season teams in NBA history. Blatt achieved this despite rarely having his full collection of players available, going months without Irving this season and in last year’s finals, without Kevin Love in the playoffs, and without James for over a fortnight last season. This season he had done a good job of integrating the duplicated skills of Love and James into a functioning offence prior to Irving’s return this season. Indeed, according to 538, the Cavs are actually performing better than expected this year.
But considering Blatt a success ignores that something indeed went wrong – ‘open rebellion’ is not normal in successful organisations. So how did it come to this? It required a three-prong attack of organisational incompetency.
The first step was undermining Blatt’s authority before he even started working for them. By hiring Tyron Lue as Blatt’s assistant, and making him the highest paid assistant in league history, the Cavs organisation gave the Cavs players a ready excuse to not buy in. Presented with the opportunity of adopting to an outsider’s difficult style is far less appealing than the familiar approach of one of James’ friends.
And indeed it was clear from early on in Blatt’s tenure that Lebron did not support Blatt’s hiring as coach of the Cavs. In fact, Lebron’s people made overtures early last season to bring in Mark Jackson. Given Jackson’s famously dysfunctional operation in Golden State, it seems a minor miracle that the Cavs did not give in to James’ requests. After all, they had fired Coach Mike Brown to please Lebron before James famously took his talents to South Beach.
The second-prong of the Cavaliers ode to incompetence was born here. A more functional organisation may have worked to resolve the tension between Blatt and James. Instead, the Cavaliers at best were nihilistic about supporting Blatt, hoping that his performance would resolve the matter for them in either direction. A more functional organisation could have resolved this matter by being more forthright in their support of the ‘rookie’ coach.
Indeed, this was not the first time James had been in a situation where he did not get along with a rookie coach. In Miami, Lebron reportedly wanted Erik Spoelstra fired early in his first season as head coach. Lebron’s alleged frustrations were manifest in the now famous ‘shoulder bump’ of Spoelstra. However, Heat GM Pat Riley supported Spoelstra, making it clear that the Heat had no intention to move on from his coach. It wasn’t until the end of the second season that Spoelstra got through to Lebron. But it resulted in what is considered the best basketball Lebron has played, winning two championships, as well as being awarded NBA MVP in the same seasons.
David Blatt never got such an opportunity to stay this long with Lebron.
And thus the third prong was delivered – constant change. Instead of bringing stability to the Cavs roster, routine upheaval has remained the norm in Cleveland. Andrew Wiggins and Bennett were moved on for Love. JR Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mosgov were brought in on ‘win now’ trades. With the sacking of Blatt, the injuries to Irving these Cavs have barely had any time to gel. And even in straining to defend his desire to keep the roster as is, GM David Griffith has revealed his desire to keep dealing:
“But I can also tell you that we have been very clear from the beginning that there’s no such thing as untouchables.
While these changes, and willingness to continue to change the roster, did not necessarily contribute to the disconnection between the roster and Blatt, it can hardly have contributed to cohesion in the group.
The Cavs offered Tyron Lue a 3 year extension with the head coaching position. He starts his reign without the restrictions that would plague Blatt. But the organisation remains the same.
Will incompetence reign again?