The Cleveland Cavaliers and David Blatt have come to terms, giving the Boston born coach with over 30 years in the European game his first taste of a NBA head coaching gig. Emmet Ryan says this could be a defining moment for European coaches.
You don’t have to go back all that far in history to a time when European players, or indeed any player from outside the USA, was seen as incapable of cutting it in the NBA. It wasn’t until the likes of Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, and Arvydas Sabonis made their mark that Europeans were truly accepted in the league. Dirk’s MVP season struck another blow. The steps have been taken by players in jerseys, the idea of a player whose formative years were outside of the United States not having what it takes is seen as foolish in the modern era.
Coaches however simply haven’t made the breakthrough. Ettore Messina’s single season as an assistant with the Lakers was a big deal. It opened up the prospect of a coach who had made it to the top in Europe being able to transition to the US. Messina was linked with NBA head coaching gigs less than a month ago and now looks likely to join the Spurs as an assistant. Blatt, who is of course American born, is the breakthrough we have been waiting for.
Much as the Bostonian is a noted Celtics fan, he is very much a Euro in the eyes of the NBA. This isn’t Mike D’Antoni with his flavour of Italy coaching in the bigs. Blatt is a Euro lifer. Nearly his entire professional playing career and his full two decades as a coach have been in Europe. Blatt has enjoyed phenomenal success often when resources said he shouldn’t have. Maccabi Tel Aviv’s win in Euroleague this year was the most obvious example but he has taken care of business in Italy and Russia as well as on the international stage. When Russia beat Spain in EuroBasket 2007 they knocked off the reigning World Champions. That was followed up with a bronze in London 2012.
Yet in all of this excitement it’s easy to forget that Blatt’s position with Maccabi came under severe scrutiny this season. Their dominance in Israel is such that the slippage of this season, or what looked like slippage, was being blamed on Blatt. It’s safe to say he answered his critics with aplomb, guiding Maccabi to two remarkable victories in the final four after a crafty series win over Milano. The final four showed off Blatt’s tactical nous at its finest. Elimination formats are tiny sample sizes but in 85 minutes of basketball Blatt was incredible. The manner with which Maccabi played off the psychological frailty of CSKA Moscow followed by their punch in the nose approach to Real Madrid showed the way with which Blatt can adapt to any situation.
Many American visitors to this site may not know what they are getting in Blatt. In simple terms, he is a coach who won’t tolerate any nonsense, can show his fair share of intensity, but is beloved by his players. Basically it’s like Gregg Popovich with a nicer manner towards the media.
It would be great if Blatt does good things in Cleveland but even his getting the job is a win for Europe. The glass ceiling has been smashed. David Blatt may fall back through it but others can climb to new heights.