As David Blatt’s tenure comes to an end in Cleveland, the ironies surrounding his departure are numerous, profound, and endlessly fascinating.
It’s a sidebar to the main story — in other words, it’s not about LeBron’s possible power play or David Griffin’s reasoned attempt to hold the Cavs franchise together — but it certainly rates as a compelling sidebar: Just how amazing is it that Blatt got fired under one set of circumstances, when it seemed he could have been fired in a very different situation a year earlier?
NBA historians will write about this event for decades to come, not just because LeBron loomed over everything else, but because no coach of a conference-leading team had ever been fired in the middle of the season. Why did Blatt get dismissed in January of 2016, not January of 2015?
Let’s briefly recall where we stood roughly 12 months ago.
Remember when David Blatt said that Kevin Love was not a max player? That was January 12, 2015. At the time, the comment came across as both appalling on the merits (of course Love, an Olympian, was this luminous, abundantly skilled player who would make a world of difference for the Cavs) and an imprudent use of blunt words by a coach who needed to keep his locker room together.
The idea that a head coach would throw a prominent player under the bus when things weren’t going well suggested that Blatt might be in over his head. If he was that tone-deaf, that eager to call out a player, in the middle of the season, it might not have been good for him to stick around.
What game prevented Blatt from being fired in year one with the Cavs — maybe not in an immediate sense, but in terms of at least stopping the bleeding when the 2014-2015 season was in jeopardy?
It was a win over the Los Angeles Clippers, on January 16, 2015.
You remember that game, don’t you? Kevin Love, metaphorically thrown under the bus, literally had a back injury and did not play. Kyrie Irving — who later scored 57 points in a win at San Antonio — scored 37 on this night to help LeBron put away the Clippers and move Cleveland north of the .500 mark at 21-20. The ability to beat the Clippers — an upper-tier playoff team — didn’t merely give the Cavs confidence; it quieted so much of the noise which had been lingering around the team and Blatt, its hesitant head coach, who had not yet turned the corner.
Had the Clippers won that game in a runaway, who really knows if Blatt would have stayed in power? The Cavs might have spiraled out of control to the extent that Blatt’s hold on his position was no longer tenable.
Love — the player thrown under the bus — was rescued by LeBron in part, but even more so by Kyrie.
Yet, as the playoffs unfolded, Love got injured and was knocked out for each of the Cavs’ last three series. Irving’s condition worsened as the playoffs went along, and an injury suffered early in the Finals against Golden State made it clear that he was not going to be able to return. Kyrie Irving had helped save the season for Blatt and the Cavs. Kevin Love, dogged by injuries as he was, didn’t really get a full chance to prove to his coach that he deserved to be a max player. They were both sympathetic figures when a shorthanded Cleveland team put up a great fight but fell to the Warriors in six games last June.
What happened in their (relative) absence? The Cavs turned into a defensive machine. They completely shut down the high-powered Atlanta Hawks — a 60-win team — in an Eastern Conference Finals sweep. They controlled the Warriors in the first three games of the Finals, before Andre Iguodala and a smaller lineup turned the tide of the series in Game 4. Cleveland had come a long way from Blatt minimizing Kevin Love’s impact and offering a harsh assessment of his skill set.
That irony is screaming its lungs out this weekend.
Crossover Chronicles senior writer Joe Manganiello said everything that needed to be said about Love’s deficiencies in this piece, written after the Cavs were torched by the Warriors in a 34-point slaughter last Monday night.
Sure, Cleveland then beat the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday to move to 30-11 at the 41-game midpoint of the season. However, the loss to the Warriors so painfully exposed the extent to which the Cavs are not likely to win the world title. Even with an NBA Finals trip in his pocket, and even with the Finals a virtual lock for this season as well, David Blatt abruptly went from “the coach who survived January of 2015” to “the coach who will never cross the threshold with these Cavs.”
It’s counterintuitive. It’s unprecedented in the conference era of the NBA (which began in 1970, after a divisional format had been used in previous decades). It probably should have happened after the end of the 2014-2015 season, if Cleveland was that unsure of Blatt’s abilities as the leader of this particular group of players.
Nevertheless, it’s real: David Blatt, who looked so lost in mid-January of 2015, with a 20-20 record heading into a game against the Los Angeles Clippers, got fired in January of 2016 after a win over the Clippers and a 30-11 mark. His comments about Kevin Love did not push him out the door. Kevin Love’s deficient performances — ironically validating what Blatt had said the year before — in many ways led to Blatt’s exit, albeit indirectly.
Irving, so potent as a scorer a year ago and not the same player this season after his run of injuries, could not come to Blatt’s aid this time. He was quiet in the loss to Golden State last Monday, intensifying fears that LeBron James misjudged the level of talent on his roster… and the compatibility of the pieces involved.
Kevin Love. A Clippers game. Kyrie Irving, at his best and at his weakest. A .500 team scrambling for survival; a 30-11 team realizing how inadequate it is, relative to the best team in the league. It is utterly amazing how each of the past two Januaries in the NBA — despite being so different in all the obvious ways — produced the exact opposite outcomes for Cleveland and its coaching situation, measured against what one would normally expect.
David Blatt survived adversity and became a victim of success. One Clipper win in 2015 saved his job, with Kyrie Irving being the savior. Another win in 2016 could do nothing to prevent him from being shown the door — Kyrie is now seen more as a limitation than a liberator. Being harsh in his evaluation of Kevin Love cost Blatt nothing. Being right about Kevin Love cost him everything.
You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. It’s why this story will continue to be discussed many years in the future, whenever a coaching situation takes a wrong turn for a high-profile championship contender with major star power.