With the Cleveland Cavaliers set to take on the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Emmet Ryan looks at a familiar journey for the man in the suit.
David Blatt didn’t know what he was doing. His team was floundering. More was expected, with this talent and a soft schedule he was wasting a golden opportunity. This was a man who clearly didn’t recognise how to use his players and his way of playing was clearly wrong. The only question is whether we’re talking about Cleveland this season or Tel Aviv a year ago.
In the early spring of 2014, David Blatt looked a failure. Maccabi Tel Aviv were playing terribly in the Israeli League, were floundering in Euroleague’s top 16, and frankly looked like a team that was going to waste David Blu’s final season in the blue and gold. Within a few months, Blatt had secured the triple crown of taking the Euroleague and Israeli championships along with the Israeli Cup. When he sat for the post Euroleague final press conference he joked about the big job everyone was expecting him to get, head coach of CSKA Moscow. He had led Maccabi to a stunning victory over the richest club in Europe but after that game all we wanted to talk about was Tyrese Rice. Were it not for the CSKA rumours, Rice would have probably been the dominant talking point after the final. This would have been totally deserved by the way, Rice was amazing that weekend. Either way, everyone figured Ettore Messina was going to be the Euroleague coach who took a NBA job and Blatt would replace him at CSKA.
There wasn’t even a hint that David Blatt was going to the NBA. When that story finally came around, it didn’t look like Cleveland but when it turned out to be the Cavs it looked a good gig. The Cavs had young talent and generally looked to be under-performing. It was the type of low bar that a first year coach in the NBA would be happy to aim for. Blatt isn’t your run of the mill first year coach. If the marbles start rolling his way, he plays for all of them. So when the front office delivered LeBron James and then Kevin Love, Blatt was in his happy place. He had the players he needed but turning this outfit into a convincing unit was going to take time.
It was during those rough phases that the questions started to be asked. Was Blatt respected, was LeBron happy with him? How easy it is to forget that LeBron had several years of his career with Mike Woodson running the sideline. He knows what it’s like to have a coach that can’t cut it at this level. When Erik Spoelstra was questioned during his maiden season with the Big Three, LeBron wasn’t exactly perfect with the media in his defence of the coach but he knew he needed Spo. He’s been a long way from perfect with Blatt too but, again, we are starting to see that LeBron knows he needs him.
The turning point for Blatt and the Cavs was the arrival of Timofey Mozgov. On the floor, this was a team that sorely needed a big but for Blatt it was also about getting a player who was going to be a respected starter who knew Blatt ball better than anyone in Cleveland. Mozgov was part of the Russian team guided by Blatt through a pair of bronzes at EuroBasket 2011 and the 2012 London Olympics. He was also a player who Blatt brought in after he had guided Russia to a shocking victory in EuroBasket 2007. He was used to being a guy who came in to help a team that already had a significant amount of talent. Like that Russian team, the arrival of Mozgov in Cleveland isn’t something that turns the Cavs into probable NBA champions but it changes the complexion for their coach.
It’s still a long, long, way from smooth. At least from the outside. Cleveland swept the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals but without Kevin Love, they are far from at their best heading into a series with a ridiculously talented Golden State team. The Warriors look like they will be down a Splash Bro due to Klay Thompson’s injury but the Warriors look far more capable of winning without one of their best guys than pretty much anybody in the NBA. They still have Curry, Iggy, Green, and Bogut. This is a team that can bury you with offence and suffocate you on D. The one thing going for Blatt in this series is that even the wounded Warriors are clear favourites to take down his Cavs.
Blatt loves being the underdog. If anything his biggest struggles have come when he’s been a clear favourite, like when he suddenly had a loaded roster in Cleveland that every coach this side of Steve Kerr would kill for. It was when he was up against it, when everyone was questioning his ability at this level the most, that things started to move his way.
Mozgov arrived, that gave him a Blatt guy and LeBron was LeBron. Things started to gel. Blatt’s style doesn’t wash with everyone but even the greatest player alive today knew that he had to work with Blatt not in spite of him to make the Cavs relevant in the post-season. It’s still a far from perfect relationship from the outside but the results and the performances indicate what needs to work is working.
Now, Blatt, is in with his shot of another final. He doesn’t have the luxury of the one-and-done punch in the mouth approach that brought Maccabi to glory in Milano. He’s going up a complete unit and he’s down Kevin Love. The Warriors will be without Thompson for at least part of this series but the odds are still against Cleveland. That’s probably where Blatt feels most comfortable.