LeBron, David Blatt, and the shadows behind the scenes with the Cavs

One fundamental part of the art of sports analysis — it is often a science, but it more centrally remains an art — is the recognition of what coaching actually requires.

As younger sports fans, we all gravitated to the obvious elements of the coaching job description, the ones that are easy to see on television or in the arena.





Our first exposures to sports revealed a context in which tactics and strategy represented the whole of coaching.

As every sports fan grows older, the awareness of the coach’s job description expands.

It’s about the strategy and the tactics and the game management and the substitution patterns, sure, but it’s also about dealing with the press, and maintaining a good relationship with the front office, and creating the right mixture of realism and optimism in the locker room. Most centrally, successful coaching — while necessarily demanding an acute tactical awareness on gamenights — is equally rooted in the ability to relate to people, to manage egos, to handle different and large-sized personalities.

Sometimes, coaches don’t get along with the front office, but they are able to shield their players from the messes and storms created by management. See Phil Jackson in Chicago with Jerry Krause and Jerry Reinsdorf. In other cases, everything about the organization flows smoothly together. The Red Auerbach-Bill Russell Celtics are one example, the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers (after the turbulent early part of the decade) another.

Regardless of the situation, the coach has to command a certain level of respect. This much is obvious.

What becomes tricky? How much respect is enough?

Byron Scott — like David Blatt — was fired the season after making the NBA Finals this century (in 2004 with the New Jersey Nets). It is clear, with the benefit of hindsight — gained through his tours of duty in New Orleans, Cleveland, and especially with the Los Angeles Lakers — that Scott is not a particularly good coach.

Yet, that same man made consecutive NBA Finals. He wasn’t a one-hit wonder; he did the deed twice. Yes, the East was extremely weak during Scott’s tenure in The Meadowlands, but he still made use of that window of opportunity. Did he get along swimmingly with a number of his players? No. However, they still played, competed and succeeded.

Why this line of thought, you might ask? Teams can (and do) succeed in spite of their coaches, but even when that’s the case, it seems uncharitable to give the coach at least a modicum of credit for getting out of the way and not messing up the project. If this is a bottom-line business, coaches should be accorded a certain degree of respect, even if their acumen was not centrally responsible for the achievements of a team at a given point in time.

Let’s put it this way: Some coaches might create a climate in which players simply quit. They give up on the endeavor. They become exhausted or disillusioned to the point that they don’t want to put forth the effort. Coaches can be tactically deficient and situationally limited, but the worst sin of coaching is to watch a team quit.

There are perhaps many different ways to get at the expression, “The coach lost his team,” but to me, “losing a team” is fundamentally one and only one thing: “The coach couldn’t inspire effort.”

This, in short, shows why LeBron James casts such a shadow over David Blatt’s now-ended tenure as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

There are two stories which have made the rounds over the weekend. These stories paint pictures at the opposite ends of the spectrum in Cleveland. One is the piece by Cleveland.com Cavs writer Chris Haynes, the other from the author of the #WojBomb, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports.

It’s easy to say that one has to pick a side in a situation such as this, but I don’t think you have to. I think both reports, while emphasizing different central claims, both point to a fractured and fragmented situation in Cleveland. They both shed some light on the internal politics in the Cavs’ organizational structure.

A key insight, for what it’s worth: You can simultaneously believe that David Griffin fired David Blatt without consulting LeBron James in the week leading up to Friday’s announcement, while also believing that LeBron is most centrally responsible for the event. It’s a fact that Griffin made the move; what will always be a point of dispute is how much influence LeBron carried all the while. Just because he might not have been directly consulted in an immediate way — proximate in both time and geography to Griffin’s final act — doesn’t mean his approval was either lacking, unneeded, or both.

You can believe Haynes’s report at Cleveland dot com or Woj’s column at Yahoo. You can even believe large portions of both. In particular, you can believe this shared bit of insight from both pieces: The relevant parties — Griffin (emphasized in Haynes’s piece) and LeBron (emphasized more in Woj’s piece) — simply knew it was time for Blatt to go. They acted on something known and internalized, not after having a hasty meeting or crisis summit. Neither Griffin nor LeBron had to approach the other this past week. It was simply known that a tipping point had been reached.

This is how power works. It is sometimes exercised in a hard way — imagine Lyndon Johnson giving a U.S. Senator “The Johnson Treatment” and getting in his face. Power, however, can also be exercised in a soft way, through accumulated instances and realities that are mutually absorbed and processed from a distance. Meanings and knowledge can and do emerge without spoken words, dramatic actions, or grand gestures.

This is what pushed Blatt out of Cleveland. Ironically and not as mere coincidence, it is why it’s so hard to evaluate Blatt as a coach.

This guy is one of the foremost reasons why it's hard to be too critical of David Blatt's work as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This guy is one of the foremost reasons why it’s hard to be too critical of David Blatt’s work as the head coach of the Cavs.

Briefly consider the man shown above, Matthew Dellavedova. Is he the beneficiary of LeBron James’s excellence and on-court leadership? Surely. However, LeBron is a man with many commitments. A coach and his staff certainly play a role in getting individual players to develop and refine what they do every night. Dellavedova burst onto the scene in the 2015 playoffs and Finals. He became an even better player this season. Are we to say that David Blatt had no real role in — or deserves no real credit for — that process with Delly? It is the most representative example of a refutation of the idea that Blatt “lost this team.”

Effort was always there. More specifically, defensive effort was always there.

You saw it with Delly. You saw it with Tristan Thompson. You saw it with Timofey Mozgov and Iman Shumpert and even J.R. Smith. This team did not dog it on defense last season (after the trades which formed a Finals-caliber roster). It did not go soft on defense this season.

Yes, playing with LeBron might have meant — and might still mean today — that the Cavs view No. 23 as their real coach. Few if any would dispute that. However, if someone (anyone) had to occupy that uncomfortable chair of responsibility in Cleveland, that person would have most centrally failed if he had not inspired a robust effort from his team.

Maybe LeBron (and/or Tyronn Lue) was truly the source of the Cavs’ effort in the 2015 playoffs and Finals, not to mention the first 41 games of the current season. Nevertheless, Blatt didn’t preside over a team which stopped caring. If “losing a team” is fundamentally rooted in the cessation of a legitimate effort on a nightly basis, Blatt didn’t lose the Cavs — not in 2016, not in 2015.

Because LeBron is in the background — as the man no teammate wants to disappoint — it will always be easy to say that LeBron held the Cavs together. It’s just as easy to say that LeBron could have made his players support Blatt more if he, King James, had wanted to. Neither statement can be affirmed or disproved with mathematical certainty. As said above, these kinds of points will always be debated.

Let’s just realize that much as coaching is about a lot more than tactics, questions of responsibility, blame and failure revolve around more than inner turmoil or confusion.

David Blatt was a very imperfect coach in a very incongruent situation. Did he look amateurish in many instances (chiefly Game 4 of the East semifinals in Chicago, when he called a timeout which could have cost the Cavs the game and the series)? Sure.

Did he lose the team, as last Friday’s avalanche of leaks to a Cavs beat writer suggested? Not from this vantage point.

Blame David Blatt for many things — you can do so quite fairly. Don’t blame him for doing one of the central things a head coach is always supposed to do: Getting his team to play hard…

… even if LeBron was the one motivating his players all along.

About Matt Zemek

Matt Zemek is the managing editor of The Student Section, covering college football and basketball with associate editors Terry Johnson and Bart Doan. Mr. Zemek is the editor of Crossover Chronicles, covering the NBA. He is also Bloguin's lead tennis writer, covering the major tournaments. He contributes to other Bloguin sites, such as The AP Party.