On your first day as an NBA head coach, you are you one day closer to being fired as an NBA head coach. That’s the harsh reality of a high-profile job in which you abdicate much of the X’s and O’s to you assistants, to deal instead with the media, the politics and the wrangling of egos. You make that trade out of necessity – there aren’t enough hours in a day to do it all – and yet, it almost always leads to your undoing. A head coach quickly learns his job is 20 percent stuff he can control and 80 percent stuff he can’t…yet, ultimately, he is held 100-percent accountable for what happens.
Just ask David Blatt, fired Friday after a 30-11 start to the season that had the Cleveland Cavaliers atop the Eastern Conference. That makes them the best team to fire its head coach midseason, and all Blatt did last year was lead them to the NBA Finals and a 2-1 lead over the Golden State Warriors before they collapsed. His overall record with the team stands at 83-40, and now he has been pushed aside in favor of assistant coach Tyronn Lue, a move that seemed inevitable.
As early as December 2014, there were rumors circulating about Blatt not connecting with the players, and stories of Lue calling timeouts and plays behind Blatt’s back. The noise subsided as the Cavs hit their stride in the second half of the season, but then there was the notorious incident in the playoffs when Blatt tried to call a timeout despite not having any remaining, then drew up a play that LeBron James ignored in favor of winning the game himself. Over the summer, James and Blatt downplayed the tension, and the Cavs were playing well enough to forestall concerns for a while, but – as Cleveland GM David Griffin said in his press conference on Friday – pretty good isn’t good enough.
Blatt apparently slipped the noose once this season already. In the Cavs narrow loss to Golden State on Christmas, Blatt tweaked the rotations without telling the players, resulting in open revolt in a game against a Damian Lillard-less Portland that the Cavs apparently more or less threw. A win over Phoenix was a stay of execution for Blatt, but Monday’s 34-point loss to the Warriors – at home – was the nail in the coffin.
As with many breakups, though, the inciting incident is not the cause, but rather the culmination of something that was building for a long time. According to a scathing article by Chris Haynes, Blatt treated the Big 3 of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving with kid gloves, often seemed lost during timeouts and simply couldn’t build the trust with players that came so naturally to Lue, an NBA veteran and champion who played with both Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.
In other words, Lue is everything Blatt wasn’t. When the Cavs hired the 55-year-old former coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, he seemed like a good fit: Blatt would learn the ropes of the NBA and continue to shepherd Irving along, while also reclaiming Anthony Bennett’s lost rookie year and molding Andrew Wiggins into an NBA star. But then LeBron announced he was coming home, and everything changed. If the Haynes’ article is to be believed, Blatt knew he needed the blessing of his best players, but he also needed their respect, and that’s a hard thing to cultivate for a rookie coach with no NBA playing experience. Blatt was magnanimous in his dismissal, but given his pedigree – including how successful he was with the Cavaliers after they lost both Irving and Love to injury – it shouldn’t be long before he finds a landing spot in the NBA, whether as an assistant (as he was slated to be for Steve Kerr before Cleveland came calling) or with one of the many NBA teams looking for long-term solutions at head coach. A reunion with the young prospect he thought he was getting in Minnesota, perhaps?
Wherever Blatt goes, he starts a different story. The Cavs and LeBron James, for their part, have to figure out how to continue theirs. Griffin was staunch in maintaining that James was not informed of the decision before Blatt was let go, but it’s hard to say which is more ridiculous: believing that was actually the case or the Cavs not involving the lifeblood of their franchise in a decision this momentous. James might not have made the call, but it seems impossible that the move didn’t at least have his tacit approval before it went forward.
It’s tempting to feel like this ups the stakes even more for the Cavaliers. After all, only three teams have changed coaches midseason and gone on to win championships. But haven’t the stakes always been at or near their peak for James in Cleveland? If anything, the friction between Blatt and the team was deadening the stakes of the season and pushing into focus something petty and interpersonal, rather than the game itself. Championship contenders need things like chips on their shoulders, even if they have to manufacture them. If this galvanizes an “us against the world” feeling within the team, then it was the right choice.
It’s also possible they simply looked at juggernauts like the Warriors and Spurs and decided they weren’t going to ever stand toe-to-toe with them in the postseason, so why not make the move now to get the guy you really want for the long haul? If they’re that confident in Lue, now is the time to find out if he’s really the guy.
No one should envy the job Lue finds himself in, even if it presents a tremendous opportunity. Owners change rarely, and rosters can’t be overhauled easily, so it’s usually the head coach who’s the fall guy, whether it’s warranted or not. With the life of an NBA head coach so nasty, brutish and short, it’s a wonder they can get anyone to do the job. Welcome to the club, Tyronn.