Reports out of Cleveland have it that the Cavaliers’ 18-12 record is disappointing to Cavs’ fans, team members, the coaching staff and their fans. Duh. Also, the blame is said to lay at the feet of head coach David Blatt. Ditto duh. The fact that when Anderson Varejao went down for the season, the Cavs no longer have anyone who can “protect the rim” (a trait necessary to keep players from fearlessly attacking the basket), has escaped any reasonable strategical thought.
Let’s take a chronological walk down memory lane. When David Blatt was hired, he had been a highly successful professional coach in Europe. The hiring raised eyebrows in many communities (I’d imagine Cleveland being one of them), yet every one of my coaching friends who knew, or knew of, Blatt told me the guy was a phenomenal coach. None other than my former boss and friend of over 40 years, George Raveling, assured me that Blatt was the real deal.
After it was announced Blatt was hired, George told me he had previously witnessed the semi-final and final games of the European Championships. His summary of Blatt’s coaching prowess was something to the effect that, at those games, it was readily apparent his (Blatt’s) team was – by far – the least talented of the four. That they won the tournament was nothing short of miraculous. George Raveling has been around basketball 60 years so that put an end to any question I might have regarding whether David Blatt could coach.
It came as no surprise when Cavs’ General Manager David Griffin made the following remarks at the time of the hiring. “I have watched David’s work for many years. He has an uncanny ability to adapt his system to maximize the talents of his teams year after year. That is why I am very confident he will make a smooth transition to the NBA. There is a great opportunity to accelerate the progress of moving our team and franchise to the higher level of play we all believe we are capable of achieving. I am excited that the experience, knowledge, skills and leadership David will bring to the Cavaliers is the right fit at the right time.”
Another interesting development had taken place in the search for the Cavs’ next head coach. During the interview process, owner Dan Gilbert and GM Griffin (and possibly others in the organization) were smitten with one of the other candidates, Tyronn Lue, an assistant to Doc Rivers for both the Clippers and Celtics. Lue was a highly regarded assistant and it was apparent to “those in the know” that he would someday, soon, land a head coaching gig of his own. In fact, in Cleveland, it was common knowledge Lue had been the runner-up for the job Blatt landed.
Although Blatt had a resume chock full of success, none of it was accomplished in the NBA. The top brass highly recommended to their new head man that he hire Lue. The release from GM Griffin read, in part, “Over the past several weeks, it became clear that Ty could play a key role in our team’s future success. Ty fits our culture and vision for the franchise. His successful experience as both a player and coach is going to help us tremendously.” The Cavaliers then made Tyronn Lue the highest paid assistant coach in any sport – with a contract for 4 years, worth $6.5 million.
It certainly seemed like a sound move at the time. Lue could aid Blatt with the nuances of the NBA, as well as player-coach relations which most in the league feel takes on a different dynamic than anywhere else – or, for that matter, any other sport. Let the David Blatt/Tyronn Lue era begin.
But then, something rather unexpected happened. LeBron James decided to return to his roots, leave South Beach and resurrect the Cavs’ organization. When that dream became reality, the playoff tickets that were being printed when Blatt was hired, morphed into NBA Finals ducats. To say expectations escalated is akin to saying your kids’ excitement over visiting Six Flags heightened when you told them you decided on Disneyland instead.
On the college level (which I am in no way attempting to equate to this situation since there is so very little in common on the two levels), I experienced on one hand – and was an observer of another – somewhat similar events. Anyone who’s ever coached is keenly aware of the fact that when players (or parents) disagree with the head coach (playing time is one favorite topic), the upset party invariably takes up the problem with an assistant. Maybe it’s because they don’t like confrontation, maybe it’s because they fear repercussions, definitely because it’s easier, in any case, the go-between is the road more traveled. If nothing else, it places the assistant in an awkward position as the number one trait of a good assistant is loyalty. In four of my nine collegiate coaching positions, I was in that exact setting. Some more often than others, some in more difficult circumstances than others. I’m not saying the reported problems of the Cavs are that of Lue’s doing – just that he is stuck in the middle of an incredibly difficult scene.
The one instance I observed occurred when George was in a near fatal car accident which forced him to retire from coaching. As I had mentioned to the players during that interim year without George, USC is a fabulous institution but I went there for George, not SC, so at the end of the season, I’d be moving on. USC Athletics Director, Mike Garrett, took off the interim tag from Charlie Parker and named him permanent coach. When he did, he told Charlie he should give strong consideration to Henry Bibby to move into my spot. Sure enough, Charlie hired Bibby – and less than nine months later, Garrett fired Parker, in February, i.e. mid-season – and replaced him with Bibby.
In a June 26, 2014 article by Jim Cavan, a featured columnist for social media’s Bleacher Report, the writer said, “Paying Lue this kind of money isn’t just about rewarding a top-notch assistant; it’s about owner Dan Gilbert cleverly hedging against a very real short-term outcome: that Blatt, for all his basketball gifts, might not pan out.” LeBron didn’t make his decision to “go back home” until July.
Did Gilbert have a strong inkling his star would come back when he hired Lue? That’s a stretch considering how he treated LBJ when he left. Most people feel LeBron’s return had nothing to do with Gilbert – that he truly loves his roots and wanted his kids to grow up where he did, that his wife wanted to go to Cleveland, even that he felt Cleveland’s roster was more conducive to winning a championship than Miami’s. Maybe Gilbert’s a shrewd gambler or just a lucky man.
In any case, lost in the shuffle is a good coach whose reputation is about to get obliterated. Should he be let go, the old saying would be more true than ever:
“NBA coaches are hired to be fired.”