Locker Room Not Right, So Cavs Fire Blatt and Hire His Assistant

[image-1]As you probably know by now, Coach David Blatt was given his walking papers yesterday, and replaced by assistant coach Tyronn Lue. The Akron Beacon Journal’s Jason Lloyd and ESPN’s Brian Windhorst have been breaking this story since at least the beginning of last year.

We deserve a little ridicule for the scorn we heaped on Windhorst at the suggestions Blatt would get the heave ho.

We were just as skeptical this afternoon when we got the news. It’s not often someone fires the Eastern Conference’s leading coach a couple weeks before the all-star game. It’s just seems strange, and obviously we weren’t alone judging by many people’s reactions.

But they had the story, and knew for more than a year that there were forces moving against Blatt. In the end he couldn’t fend them off any longer. Or so it appears.

We tip our hat to Lloyd and Windhorst not only to honor the work but to acknowledge that what follows is nothing more than our take.

Certainly we’ve read lots and lots of comments and articles, so it’s somewhat informed, but it’s no less biased than any other writer in the pool. We all have perspectives which can certainly seem like agendas, though they’re just our take. (Not that the truth can ever truly be discerned without involving every CSI agent from Miami to Los Angeles.)

It seems on many levels, an absurd proposition: Take seasoned coach from overseas, replace him with coach that’s never coached anywhere, then talk about how this will change the team’s fortunes.

In making the change GM David Griffin plainly stated that good enough wasn’t the goal. Though he tried to temper expectations, we don’t see how you can replace the coach with the third best record in the league and be subsequently satisfied with anything less than the Finals.

“You cold look at a lot of different analytic measures of our team and we’re pretty good right now and that’s not what we’re in the business to be,” Griffin said. “This decision will be measured entirely by whether we’re able to bring championships to Northeast Ohio.”

No pressure, Tyronn

You’ll hear how Lue’s played with great players and coaches and was an assistant to Doc Rivers. But he’s not run anything before. There will be continuity since he’s been there, but we’re not so convinced it’s as simple as Steve Kerr and Luke Walton are making it look. It will be interesting to see whether anyone calls Lue a “rookie” coach during the media sessions.

In the end, Griffin didn’t fire Blatt so much from what was happening on the court as in the locker room. We’re going to have to get back the ruling from Zurich, but we’re pretty sure Griffin called the Cavaliers selfish underachievers.

“We are a team that struggles more than any good team I’ve ever been with – and this is my 24th year in the NBA – with prosperity. I’ve never seen a locker room not be as connected after wins as they need to be,” said Griffin.

It’s the syndrome in some locker rooms known as “15 guys, 15 ubers.”

“We’ve only been galvanized when expectations aren’t high and circumstances were somewhat artificial,” said Griffin, shredding their jugular like Freddie Kreuger. “Otherwise we’ve been a group of tremendous individual talent with individual hopes and dreams.

“That’s not a winning formula,” he continued. “I’m not leaving an unprecedented team payroll and all the efforts of everyone that works in this organization to chance.”

Yet it’s hard to see an upside risk being greater than the peril of the downside. In saying that “‘pretty good’ is not what we’re here for,” he may have only been reiterating popular logic, but it’s also laying down the gauntlet. The only metric is a championship. Yet the fact that this needs to be reiterated is a sign of the amount of trouble the Cavaliers may already be in.

Here’s where ours and the more “official” storyline depart.

By the reckoning of those more sympathetic to the players side of things, Blatt had alienated everyone in the locker room with his odd substitution patterns, failure to give second squad veterans the minutes they felt they deserved, and, it comes out now, failing to reprimand LeBron for his mistakes, while giving him ticky-tack calls in practice to curry favor.

These last two mortal sins (okay, one really is) are the subject of Brendan Haywood’s comments to ESPN following Blatt’s dismissal. Haywood said that Blatt wouldn’t criticize LeBron in film study and that James Jones actually had to say something to him about the players noticing. In someone else’s story it was Lue who said something. So that’s likely more than spin.

However Haywood also suggested that Blatt was often befuddled in drawing up plays, and cited himself as saying to other people, like, “we can’t trust this guy.” Prior to the Chicago playoff series we recall hearing compliments directed toward Blatt’s out-of-bounds plays.

(Haywood may have an axe to grind after spending almost the entire year stapled to the bench as a living breathing trade exemption and big guy past his freshness date. Note that he hasn’t hitched on to another team yet this year.)

We watched Blatt mostly meet with his three assistants then go back and draw stuff up, but we’ve watched players draw stuff up for their coaches in huddles so, aside from the fact that it plays into this out-of-his-depth narrative, we’re not sure the weight.

As to Blatt trying to court favor with James with his foul calls in practice, it sounds pretty craven. Then again if players never think they make a foul in a game, what is practice like?

In this telling, the socially awkward Blatt made things tough on the players, failed to give them clearly articulated roles, and didn’t really know enough about NBA personnel. Now maybe we lost count, but weren’t there two former NBA coaches talking to Blatt all the time? Were they out of touch with the NBA? Was Blatt not listening to his assistants?

Is It Character Assassination If You're Already Gone?

Of course, if you’ve been following the Cavaliers for a year, somebody’s been selling “this guy’s incompetent” line for a while, yet among the coaching fraternity there seems a lot of respect.

Yesterday Celtics Coach Brad Stevens copped to stealing one of his plays to create an open 3, while Dallas Coach Rick Carlisle credited him with picking up the NBA quicker than he could’ve adapted to European basketball.

Carlisle is one of several coaches that went overseas to spend time with Blatt, watch his practices and meet with him about Xs and Os.

Let’s be clear, Blatt had an undeniable kind of awkwardness sprinkled with a touch of arrogance. In Europe coaches are stars, so he probably came here a little too comfortable with the smell of his own farts, but that’s hardly uncommon in this business. We buy that he rubbed his players the wrong way, but find it hard to believe that he was holding the team back, per se.

What Terry Pluto and Adrian Wojnarowski have suggested builds out the circle a bit allowing us all to find a more common middle ground. Pluto suggested that the team’s indolence (disguised as “the Process”) had exhausted Blatt’s ability to motivate them, and in that sense, he’d lost the team. (It’s fair to question if he ever had some members, which we’ll get to in a moment.)

According to Pluto, Blatt was sacrificed to take away any of the team’s excuses. Before now they could say (and some would gladly repeat) when they lost it was Blatt’s fault and when they won it was in spite of him.

Indeed, Mike Fratello has suggested that Kevin Love was talking about Blatt when he said after the Golden State loss that the turn around was “going to take a lot of guys looking themselves in the mirror, and it all starts with our leader over there and dwindles on down.” (We love the word “dwindles” for how it seems to suggest a logarithmic decrease in responsibility for the players versus Blatt.)

Wojnarowski goes further than that. He says that LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul have been trying to push Blatt out since Day 1. (Hence the steady stream of stories to this effect – it just took a while to effect their plan.)

They initially wanted Paul’s client (and thus a comi$$ion) Mark Jackson but Griffin allegedly balked. Lue was Paul and Klutch Sports’ compromise candidate to replace Blatt. They’ve been pushing since last year to replace him, and it helped fuel the locker room divide as players divined the true center of power.

This is Wojnarowski’s line, and while he breaks more basketball news than anyone, he’s never been fond of LeBron either.

An additional shred comes from the Plain Dealer’s Chris Haynes who reports that the team was going to fire Blatt if the losing streak reached three games after the first Warriors loss. But a win in Phoenix (and for their next eight games, in fact) stayed their hand. This is interesting, and sounds accurate. Jason Lloyd has confirmed that these rumblings go back more than a month.

It is however a tad strange. You’re so convinced the coach has to go that a couple relatively lackluster wins over the Suns and the Nuggets are enough to cause pause? Yet a convincing win against the Clippers does not?

More Than Wins & Losses

Since losing three in a row at the beginning of December with Irving and Shumpert still out, the team’s gone 17-4. Not exactly screaming regime change, unless you put a lot of stock in that Golden State game, which Griffin claimed not to. In fact, he said it went beyond wins and losses.

“What I see is we need to build a collective strength of spirit and a collective will,” he said. “Elite teams in this league always have that… Halfway through the season we have not developed this identity and each step forward unfortunately we’ve taken two steps back.

“Our most glaring need is to understand and communicate role deliniation and team sacrifice,” he continued. “We have to have group buy-in and team-first habits in order to become the team we want to be.”

That sort of ties it together. The team’s sick at its core. Honestly, you can see it when they play. We were talking with some friends about how the Warriors seem to be having fun when they’re playing while the Cavs look stressed and anxious, except for LeBron, who’s looking for people to play angry, like he did in Miami.

What to make out of all this is really tied into your own preconceptions about the team. The fact is that whenever anyone leaves town it’s like a parade and everyone opens their window and empties the trash. So it’s never clear how much is legitimate gripe and how much is spin.

Reporters dig it up and throw in the middle and depending on where you sit, you might convince yourself that you triangulate the truth. (We mostly did.)

But we’re missing one more bit of information. Peter Vecsey was one of a couple reporters to suggest that David Blatt had talked to friends in Israel in recent weeks and told them “it’s me or Kevin Love.” If that was ever the conversation between him and Griffin, we know why we wound up here.

However it fits with the idea that all that time – going into last year – that Love was complaining about his lack of a role or purpose (on offense, we presume, not sure how much he cares what happens on the other end)

That’s nearly as long as LeBron’s allegedly been agitating for regime change. Could Love have found his way into James’ heart through their shared indifference/disdain for the coach?

We have no idea if Vecsey’s tweet about Love is even true, but his unhappiness is no surprise to anyone, and the team’s struggles can in some part be traced to Love’s general lack of assertiveness. We would never suggest he doesn’t care, but perhaps his frustrations lead him to stop exerting so much energy trying to change things.

We have to surmise that the timing of the decision is situated so that Griffin has a bit of flexibility evaluating the move before the trade deadline. If we were Kevin Love, we wouldn’t get too comfortable. Indeed, Windhorst suggested when the players were called together and informed, many initially speculated Love had been traded.

That’s a real team endorsement. (And may yet come true if this change doesn’t have the desired effect.)

We’ve read columns that have suggested in their own manner that this was akin to lancing a boil, and now that it’s done, things ought to move along smoothly from here. Even Griffin suggested this in his most cutting remark about Blatt’s legacy.

“We have a coaching staff and because that group is really close as a unit in terms of the assistants and the way they dealt with our game planning, I feel like we won’t miss a whole lot,” said Griffin, before laying down the boom. “But I do feel like we’re going to gain in some areas that were critical.”

We’re not losing anything we don’t already have and we’re getting a lot better in critical ways. Ouch! That’s Gotta Hurt!!

Final Analysis

We tried to give you everything we thought relevant, here’s what we think.

When the Eastern Conference’s best team has to fire their coach to get the team’s attention that can’t be a good thing. Just us, but that reads as a fundamental flaw in the team’s character. When something as dramatic as this needs to be done to motivate the players to play the right way (which is to say unselfishly), it begs a fundamental question of their consistency going forward.

Sure, they’ll do well for a while, but after the first blush of emotion is over what then? This team under Blatt showed a terrific capacity for backsliding, showing up late to games, and playing down to the level of the competition. Firing the coach is going to change that? When it’s all the same assistants?

We’d like to call this the beginning of the Make No Excuses tour. This team has what it asked for. Now it’s on them. Frankly, the fact that they made enough excuses and were guilty of enough malingering that Griffin felt this was necessary should speak volumes in itself.

“We need to honor each other with total commitment every single day,” he said.

Who here thinks anyone on the Spurs or Warriors needs to be reminded of the above?

“To be truly elite we have to buy into a set of values and principles we believe in that becomes our identity and if we can do that day in and day out that becomes who we are,” said Griffin. “

It’s not strange to us that this is being pitched as a solution – though few of us was aware before today of the perceived urgency. Sure the team loses focus and doesn’t always work hard. The second and third best players can be defensive turnstiles when they don’t put in max effort and the whole enterprise is pretty inconsistent. Yet, we’d still rather be Cavs than 27 other teams.

The fact that firing the coach was seen as the only way to solve this disconnect also drives home for us the idea that while everyone says LeBron James wasn’t consulted on the decision, he didn’t need to be. Everyone knew where he stood. Maybe Woj goes too far in his palace coup scenario, but nobody’s surprised James is happy to be working with Lue.

Problem is that in our experience, the coach isn’t your friend. He’s somebody you might actively dislike a bit, and that makes you work harder. Will Lue be able to drive James and his mates, or will they subconsciously still feel they can hit the button when they need, especially now that they’ve gotten their way with their coach.

Simply put, if this team needed action this dramatic for the GM to feel they could be in a position to compete for the title, then this is a lot worse than it looks, and it’s a lot easier to get sick in the stomach about the present tenure of Kevin Love. If he’s got some big boy pants he better find them, because his role in Blatt’s firing is sure to put a target on his back. Or a bigger one anyway.

We thought Blatt was a good coach who wasn’t given a chance and we find it hard to believe on a staff with two former NBA HCs he could be as overmatched as some are beginning to suggest. However we don’t have any trouble believing there was a cultural difference that Lue is better able to bridge.

He’s 38 and played just a few years ago. We’re just not sure the Cavaliers are any better as an on-the-job learning opportunity for Lue. While he already has the team’s trust, since he acted as a liaison between the players and Blatt, we suspect, just from our experience of life, that strengths usually come accompanied by perhaps undiscovered weaknesses.

In the end Griffin made a move he felt he must. We didn’t sense the desolation and lack of comity he felt amidst his team, but we’ve seen its manifestation of selfish, inconsistent play. The move’s necessity speaks as loudly as the move, but we appreciate the two-time cancer survivor’s willingness to roll the dice even as he says he’s not willing to take any chances with such a big payroll. Newsflash: You just did. 

“There’s a lack of spirit and connectiveness I just couldn’t accept,” he said. “Frankly halfway through the season I think we have the time to right the ship. I know that sounds crazy when you’re sitting here with a 30-11 record. I understand that.”

Okay, just so you know.

We’ll be at the Q tonight for the game against the Bulls. Ought to be a circus. Don’t fail to tune in. You can follow us on Twitter @CRS_1ne and read our postgame analysis on Sunday in the Scene Blog.
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