Other than the first and the fifteenth, NBA coaches don’t have the one of the more enviable jobs. Other than a handful of them, the employees they count on most make significantly more money than hey do. Often, what they know best, they can’t use because “higher ups” meddle. Sometimes the meddling even comes from the players. Unless a coach possesses an additional title, e.g. general manager or president, his fate is mostly determined by how the players perform or, occasionally, by a referee’s call (or non-call).
And, then, the (not-so) poor coach is mandated by the league to attend a post game press conference, where await for him a bunch of people who, in many cases (especially if the team lost – or worse, if it’s mired in a losing streak), seem to revel in posing questions that will make him look incompetent no matter what answer he offers. Of all the NBA coaches who had to go through this grind (plus, those who are still involved in the process), Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt has had it worse than any of his colleagues (usually, the word “arguably” would be inserted but, for this year, that’s completely unnecessary).
What has turned into the nomination for soap opera of the year began innocently enough when Cavs’ owner Dan Gilbert offered his vacant head coaching position to a guy who had experienced nothing but phenomenal success, over a long period of time, at the highest level of basketball (not called the NBA). People were lauding the move, especially fellow coaches from all levels of hoops, exclaiming Blatt to be a great choice, independent of the fact he had no experience on the NBA level. A former player at Princeton where he learned under the legendary Hall of Fame coach, Pete Carril, Blatt had to think he had hit the lottery.
Then, the Cavs made a move that was to thrust him into a job that even that no Hall of Fame tutelage nor Ivy League education could prepared him for – they brought back LeBron James. Blatt’s maiden voyage into the NBA coaching wars just gave him, arguably, the biggest weapon of all. Where the expectations of success changed from, “Go ahead, Dave, show ‘em what you got!” to “Whoa, does anybody think the new guy is ready for this?” Or as Sean Highkin of Pro Basketball Talk reported on January 15, “Talk of his being fired has been present practically since the start of the season.” Good luck, Coach.
Simultaneously adding to the strength of the team and the overwhelming pressure the new head man now faced, the Cleveland front office made some powerful moves. First, they acquired (supposedly with James’ overt gestures to make it known how much the team needed him and how much LeBron wanted him), Kevin Love joined the roster. When it looked like the title hopes were crushed after losing Anderson Varejao on December 23, they added big man Timofey Mozgov and traded for defensive stopper Iman Shumpert and sharp shooter J.R. Smith from the Knicks. A season of learning the NBA game, with all the nuances and idiosyncrasies that take coaches years to understand, the season became a season under the microscope. Reporters and writers (some of whom were in favor of hiring each one’s favorite son) were poised to scrutinize Blatt’s every move. Toss in social media and both pregame (first) and postgame (second) guessing took on lives all their own.
Blatt’s start was reminiscent of what Erik Spoelstra encountered following the formation of the Big Three in Miami, i.e. rocky. Probably because he had no other choice, the rookie coach (a term that was used ad infinitum) endured and the squad became to realize success. But nothing short of a trip to the NBA Finals at worst or, an NBA championship at best, will even approach silencing his critics. And, in this day and age of screwed up expectations, even those might not suffice.
In Game 4 of their series with the Bulls, a loss would have put them down 1-3, facing three straight elimination games (they hoped), the Cavs fell behind, only to rally and go ahead by five with under 30 seconds to go. As has happened, seemingly, the majority of the season, strange events occur. Summarizing, 1) the Bulls hit five points in a row, 2) the Bulls’ use multiple times out (as in all they had left) just to inbound the ball, 3) Blatt signals for a time out (that they don’t have), with a) he’s restrained and b) no referee noticing (had the Cavs been granted one, resulting in a technical foul and, most certainly, a Bulls’ victory, Blatt might have left the country – of his own volition, 4) James drives to the basket and possibly getting fouled – but no call, 5) the referees huddle to check the exact time left (thus, affording the time out they didn’t have to the Cavs, 6) resetting the game clock from 0.8 seconds to 1.5 and 7) LeBron James nailing a basket at the buzzer – tying the series at 2-2.
During the presser that followed, a reporter asked a question regarding James’ dominating the ball and trying to make (force) plays whenever he touched it. Pointing out that James had 8 turnovers, he asked the coach, “Do you want to live and die with LeBron?”
Blatt finally got a chance to put that Princeton education to use. The exchange follows:
Blatt: “When I go to dinner, I usually get the check. Do you know why?”
Reporter: “Because you make the most money.”
Blatt: “No. The reason is because I take it. LeBron, he takes the responsibility. He knows who he is, what he does, what he needs to do for this team and he takes responsibility.”