A coaching legend overseas, the notion that Cleveland's 'rookie' coach has been in over his head during the playoffs rings hollow
POSTED: Jun 5, 2015 8:53 PM ET
Coach David Blatt has earned the trust of LeBron James and the rest of the Cavs in his first NBA season.
In his first NBA season, as the "rookie coach" who bristled at that term for most of his first eight months on the job, David Blatt's public profile is probably more Forrest Gump than Phil Jackson.
He is, to the uninformed, the accidental coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers who just happens to be riding -- rather than steering, so the implication goes -- his team all the way to The Finals.
It is, of course, brutally unfair. Disrespectful even, given Blatt's long and uniquely successful career as an ex-patriate coaching internationally.
After a rocky start to Cleveland's insta-contender season, a gelling that took longer and required more dramatic intervention (key January trades) than expected and hiccups that still were coming in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Blatt found himself the target of snide remarks similar to what was said about Scott Brooks during Oklahoma City's Finals run in 2012 or Mike Brown during his stints with the Cavaliers and Los Angeles Lakers.
A lot of "nice guy but ..." second-guessing of his hiring, his command of the team and his potential for actually leading LeBron James, the rest of the Cavs and a city hungry for a championship to that lofty of a goal.
But it's June now. Blatt and his team still are standing, having blazed a trail right through squads shepherded by Boston's Brad Stevens, Chicago's Tom Thibodeau and Atlanta's Mike Budenholzer -- one of the league's bright young minds (Stevens) and two NBA Coach of the Year winners. Next up: the Golden State Warriors and their golden boy coach, Steve Kerr.
Inside Stuff: Blatt Back in Boston
Cavaliers head coach David Blatt returns to Boston face the Celtics in round one and catch up with old friends.
Kerr is a "rookie coach" too, but usually only gets referenced that way in nods to all the wonderful things he and the Warriors have done in their first season together. Well, Blatt and the Cavaliers have done some heady things, too, through even more newness as a team. Their growth and quest for an identity has been harder fought, later arriving. And yet, here they are, ready to tip off in Game 1 Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
"I told somebody recently I'm not a vindictive person," Blatt said Monday after Cleveland's practice, "so I don't feel the need for vindication in any way."
Vindicated? Validated? Even that's not quite right. Blatt's accomplishments ought to speak for themselves, except that few people have been listening where his deeds were talking. In NBA terms, he's one of those overnight sensations 20 years in the making.
A native of Framingham, Mass., and a Princeton grad, Blatt dove into his life's passion of coaching after playing professionally for 12 years overseas, nine of those in Israel. Coaching junior league teams even while he played, the former point guard met his future wife, Kinneret, got married and began to raise a family there.
Blatt coached in Israel, Italy, Greece, Russia and Turkey, winning the first of his four Israeli Coach of the Year trophies with Hapoel Galil Elyon in 1996. He won the Russian Super League version of the same award in 2005 after leading Dynamo St Petersburg to a 20-0 season and FIBA EuroChallenge title.
Appointed coach of Russia's national team in 2006, Blatt got his squad past world champion Spain to win the 2007 FIBA European Championship. By the 2012 Olympics in London, he steered the Russians all the way to a bronze medal.
Then, in a second stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv -- he had coached there from 2001-03 as well -- Blatt helped them to four more Israeli Cup championships (for a total of six) and three more Israeli League titles (for a total of five). Over his last four seasons, Maccabi Tel Aviv posted a 225-55 (.804) record, including 70-13 in 2011-12 and 54-18 mark just last season when they won the Euroleague championship.
Despite all his success, Blatt seems to have the job security of a Kim Jong-un staffer.
Blatt's first season has been shaped more by an awkward relationship with his team's star, LeBron James, whose decision to return to Cleveland came after Blatt's hiring. Actually, "passive-aggressive" was the term ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst has used in his season-long Cavs coverage. It's a little like the outside world's perception of James' work with Miami coach Erik Spoelstra in their first season together in 2010-11 -- except that Spoelstra had the mighty Pat Riley backing him up.
GameTime: David Blatt's Blunders
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James, as much as anyone, has used the term "rookie coach" throughout 2014-15 as if to highlight Blatt's absence of NBA creds. He's the one, too, who revealed to the world after Game 4 of the semifinals against Chicago that he overruled Blatt's play call near the end. No way was James going to be the inbounds passer with just 1.5 seconds left, a resistance proven right when the four-time MVP hit a baseline jumper to win the pivotal game.
That whole buzzer-beating play only happened because the referees missed Blatt's attempt to call a timeout Cleveland no longer had -- an embarrassing gaffe that Blatt owned immediately but has lingered. Had it cost them the game, the smart alecks cracked, it was possible the Cavs might have left their coach standing on the tarmac in Chicago.
Certainly, Blatt has had more folks ready to criticize than praise him. James has said it's a by-product of "coaching me" -- the two-time NBA champ is the most polarizing player in the league. But it also stems from the limited grasp many fans and media have of pro hoops beyond the NBA or U.S. borders.
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"I think he's mischaracterized because people think of him as a European coach," New York Knicks general manager Steve Mills told the New York Post recently. Mills teamed with Blatt in Princeton's backcourt for three years under coach Pete Carril.
"I think of him as a kid who grew up outside of Boston who wanted to be involved in basketball. He's just had a different set of experiences. ... I always thought he had everything it took to be a very good coach in the NBA, and that's coming through in the job he's doing this year."
Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said Blatt never was in trouble, even as some fans were pounding the panic button when their record fell to 19-20 at midseason. "I don't care what the expectations were, especially after we changed coaches twice in two years," Gilbert told the Northeast Ohio Media Group last week. "This was a guy with a long-term record of success. You have to at least give a season, maybe more than just one. I think it would have destabilized the entire franchise and it would have been bad."
Slowly, surely, Blatt and his crew worked their way out, incorporating newcomers such as Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. James took a hiatus to soothe his body and commit himself mentally. The talents began to blend, the defense stiffened and the season turned around -- 32-7 in the next 39 games.
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Listen to all the action from Game 4 as the Cavaliers sweep the Hawks 4-0 and move onto the NBA Finals.
And Blatt learned a lot.
"I've very much had a learning curve as far as the NBA," Blatt told NBA.com Monday. "What I think I learned more than anything else, when I first came and thought, 'Well, basketball is basketball and this is no big deal,' I've learned that this is very different. The game is different and the way things work is different."
Blatt, 56, said he is grateful for the help of his staff -- a hybrid of holdovers and new hires -- and to the Cleveland players. Especially the most strong-willed one.
Asked what he has learned about James, the coach said: "That he's greater than I thought he was. All-around. LeBron coming back here, as a player and a man, made a courageous decision to do something beyond basketball. He knew the responsibility and the expectations that were going to be on him ... I salute him for it.
What I think I learned more than anything else, when I first came and thought, 'Well, basketball is basketball and this is no big deal,' I've learned that this is very different.
– Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt
"LeBron has been a great teammate. He's been coachable. And he has been very willing to be led. He, himself, is a dominant alpha player and personality. He has things to say and he has great influence, and that's fine. Because if it's all channeled in the right and in the same direction, then you get the desired results: to be competing for the NBA championship. And that's what we're doing.
"I think that's all a part of understanding, how do you make something work?"
James, on Monday, seemed to soften his stance a bit on his coach. "We knew that a lot of people were going to say things that didn't mean much, but that's just what they have to do," he said. "That's what helps sales. ... I think he's handled his situation unbelievably.
"Being a rookie coach in the NBA, being able to take his team to The Finals, I think he's done a helluva job."
Blatt has navigated this long season making new friends in Cleveland, digging into the vibe of that underdog sports town. But he also has done it while flying solo -- his wife and children remained in Israel. His three daughters visited during the first round against Boston and the whole crew will join him for The Finals games in Cleveland.
But otherwise, he's been on his own, focused on the task, tuning out as best he could the noise.
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"I think it's really hard for a lot of people to even fathom what I've been through and the path I've taken unless you really understand the world of basketball outside the United States," Blatt said. "It's not part of their perspective and their experience. And that's OK. I never asked for a break from anybody and I never asked for any extra credit.
"This thing is -- I know it's not about me. It's a story that's a lot greater than that. I'm fortunate enough to have been considered for a situation that turned out to be very different than it was planned. And I had the opportunity and the good fortune of coaching some very great players, in a great sports town that's hungry for success that now has been given the opportunity to realize its dreams."
Blatted laughed. "I don't think I can say it any better than that. I hope you've got all that down," he said.
It's down. Along with the fact that, while the Cavaliers are just four victories away from the NBA championship in their first, roller-coaster year together, Blatt is no more than seven games away from no longer being referred to as a "rookie coach."
"That'll be fun," he said, playing along. "I'm excited about that"
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