The melodrama of the Cleveland Cavaliers season has seen David Blatt come under increasing pressure. BiE’s Emmet Ryan looks at how the pressure for the first-year NBA coach is nothing he can’t handle based on his previous posts.
In 1977, at the height of the Cold War, Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow 91-79 in the semi-finals of the European Champions Cup, the competition that would later become Euroleague. The Israelis would go on to claim the title over Varese on a 78-77 scoreline in Belgrade but it was what Tal Brody said after the win over CSKA that stuck with Israeli basketball and Israel as a whole. The American-Israeli declared in his post-game interview “We are on the map and we are staying on the map – not only in sports but in everything.” The “We are on the map” line struck a chord in Israeli society, Menachem Begin even used it in an election campaign in 1981. Maccabi had already been more than just a basketball team in Israel but this made the whole European basketball community aware of it.
A little over two decades later David Blatt was elevated to head coach when the legendary Pini Gershon took a break and guided Maccabi to a Euroleague Final Four along with complete dominance in domestic competitions. Blatt’s first real mental hurdle came not when he took the top job but when he agreed to step down. Gershon came back and Blatt reverted to being his assistant for a season before setting off on a varied coaching journey.
It’s never been easy for the Bostonian but time and again he has risen to the challenge. Victory in Eurochallenge with Dynamo St Petersburg, a club rarely in the spotlight, in his first season coaching in any capacity outside of Israel. Victory with Benetton Treviso in 2006, the last time a club other Siena claimed the Italian title before Olimpia Milano’s win last season. Victory in EuroBasket 2007 with Russia, over a heavily favoured Spanish team that had won the world title a year earlier, and bronze with that same Russian team five years later at the Olympics in London.
Yet for all that, this time last year his future as Maccabi head coach, in his second stint, was heavily in doubt and not because he was being courted. The insanely high expectations set by the club had Blatt under pressure. The Israeli title looked a challenge, making the playoffs in Euroleague looked tough and the Final Four a pipe dream. Disharmony with the roster was reported and Blatt’s tendency to clash with his top players seemed to be backfiring. In May, having lifted the Euroleague crown against the odds with David Blu playing like a man who wasn’t inches from retirement, another David, David Pick, brought it to Blatt’s attention that 60,000 people had filled Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Blatt and the victorious Maccabi would meet Benjamin Netanyahu at Ben Gurion Airport with the trophy a day later before completing a sweep of all competitions and the talk was of a big move for Blatt but not to the NBA. CSKA Moscow was going to part ways with Ettore Messina and Blatt was everybody’s favourite for the gig. Messina was the Euro-based coach expected to take a head coaching role across the Atlantic.
Instead, of course, Messina became and assistant with the Spurs and Blatt ended up getting the head coaching job at one of the worst teams in the NBA. Then that bad team got the best player on the planet, then it added Kevin Love, and suddenly the roster started to look good, really good, from a talent perspective. Blatt had hit the jackpot.
In a way, we should have seen the Cavs struggles coming. Miami, while not this bad, was far from ready to go when the Big Three headed to South Beach and the Heat needed time to blend. Kyrie Irving, fresh of being MVP in the FIBA World Cup, and Kevin Love were All Stars but neither had made it to the post-season. It wasn’t just about getting a bunch of talented players to gel, the challenge was getting them to do so in Blatt’s style. The bumps are big but this is still far from a place for panic.
Blatt probably shouldn’t have said Love isn’t a max player, when the market says he clearly is and there’s a strong case he’s not being used properly but maybe he’s trying to get inside Love’s head to fix his defensive issues. Second guessing a man who has defied the odds like Blatt is risky but it is a lot easier when this happens:
And even more so when word gets out that timeouts are being called behind his back while his calls get ignored by players. This is not the picture of a man in control and in the NBA your failings will get seen around the world, not just amongst your own fans or across Europe.
Yet for all of those justified issues being raised, not forgetting the far higher standard of the NBA and the status of his players, I still look at the situations Blatt has walked in to and think this is anything but the biggest test of his mettle. He’s got an incredibly talented team struggling in the most interesting regular season in years and it’s not like those issues will magically go away once the post-season starts. Blatt is a playoffs coach, his record internationally shows that, but it’s that grind he does over the course of the regular season that puts his teams in position to win the games that really matter.
A title isn’t the be-all and end-all for the Cavs this year and it shouldn’t be for their coach but Blatt’s approach indicates it may well be for him. He’s getting under the skin of players, he is failing in some pretty awful ways, but it’s all focused on trying to get his team to play his game his way in time for the big push. Time is still on his side and when you give Blatt that, it’s a hardy bettor who backs him to lose.