Will the Israeli-American coach finally get some respect if he wins an NBA championship?
After the last game of an impressive series sweep of the Atlanta Hawks, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt talked with broadcaster Ernie Johnson in front of an arena of joyous hometown fans.
“So let’s be honest,” Johnson said. “This hasn’t always been easy this year, David. But to be standing here, going to the finals, just tell me how that feels to you tonight.”
“Well, we’re in Cleveland,” Blatt said with a smile. “Nothing is easy here.”
As candid as that sounds, it’s almost an understatement in terms of describing Blatt’s tumultuous first season as an NBA coach. Somehow, despite parlaying a stellar European coaching career into a trip to the NBA Finals in just one season, Blatt finds himself on the hot seat, with something to prove.
How does that happen?
The crazy ride started with Blatt, 56, and a four-time coach of the year winner in Israel, leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to an improbable Euroleague title in 2014. Blatt, who played point guard at Princeton and professionally in Israel’s Super League, initially thought he’d transfer to the NBA as an assistant to Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr (whom he’ll now oppose in the finals) — but the Cavaliers took a chance and hired him as head coach in June 2014 to helm a team with modest expectations.
Then things went to a whole other level real quick.
Just weeks after Blatt was hired, LeBron James — a northeastern Ohio native and one of the best players in NBA history — announced that he was leaving the Miami Heat (after two titles and four straight trips to the finals) to return to the Cavaliers. Overnight, the Cavaliers were draped with championship-size expectations. The pre-season acquisition of all-star Kevin Love only added to the hype.
As the incoming stars adjusted to playing together, the year started off slow — and, while growing pains were predictable, Blatt’s job was suddenly rumored to be in jeopardy. The Cavaliers started 19-20 and lost their starting center to a year-ending injury. Rumors that LeBron wanted Blatt fired swirled around the media, which seemed eager to pounce on the NBA newcomer.
After weathering the storm, Blatt admitted that he had to make big adjustments in the NBA.
“I’ve gone through my own learning curve that I’ve obviously worked through,” Blatt told JTA in February, after the Cavs had turned around their season by winning 18 of their last 21 games. “Two-thirds through the regular season I’ve become a lot more comfortable, and a lot more cognizant of the things that are necessary to make a winning situation on an NBA team.”
With the help of several crucial mid-season acquisitions (J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov), Blatt’s team streaked into the playoffs as the eastern conference’s second seed and the league’s hottest team. They lost Kevin Love to injury but still swept the Boston Celtics, came back to beat the Chicago Bulls and dismantled the Atlanta Hawks. The Golden State Warriors, led by MVP Steph Curry, await in the finals, which start this Thursday.
Despite the turnaround, the blows to Blatt’s reputation only intensified, with LeBron’s utter dominance, game-winning shots and customary confidence stealing the show and getting most of the credit. Blatt didn’t help matters by almost costing his team a crucial victory in a tough series against the Chicago Bulls when he called a timeout the team didn’t have (one of his assistants pulled him back before the referees noticed). Making matters worse, moments later Lebron nailed a buzzer-beater to win the game — and proceeded to tell the world that he had called the play, overruling Blatt in the process.
Looking back, LeBron’s decision to return to Cleveland may have doomed Blatt’s NBA transition from the start by casting him as second fiddle to the game’s best player. That doesn’t take away anything from Blatt’s ability — it’s just how LeBron prefers to operate.
This week signals a potential shift in the dynamic, as Blatt’s players (including LeBron) have praised him more than they have in the past. And, in theory, the finals offer a chance for some face-saving redemption. But in reality the series is shaping up as a lose-lose situation for Blatt: If the Cavs win, it’s all about LeBron. If they lose — even though the Warriors have played at a historically high level all season — Blatt will be the obvious scapegoat.
At least Blatt has the support of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who told him recently that “all of Israel is behind the Cavaliers.”