What to make of the short tenure of David Blatt with the Cavs? The team was 30-11 and leading the East but had struggled against the best of the best, having been waxed by the Warriors and Spurs. Was Blatt’s abrupt firing the usual overreaction of management or was there something below the surface that justified this seemingly weird decision? We can’t know the answer for sure but let’s take a look at the facts, as we know them, and see if we can draw some conclusions.
Before even turning to the facts, it’s fair to start with this baseline precept: firing a coach who is superficially doing fine mid-year is only done if there is a serious problem or the organization realistically believes the move gives them a much better shot at a title in the short term. There is a cost to firing a cost and creating organizational tumult and it will not be paid unless someone believes there is a compelling reason to do so.
In reality, we can’t know what was going on behind closed doors but we can parse GM David Griffin’s stated bases for firing Blatt, as well as some of the reported issues. Let’s start with Griffin’s reasons as stated at his press conference:
-Griffin said that Blatt was not fired for getting waxed by the Warriors earlier in the week but because he saw some problems: “I have never seen a locker room not be as connected after wins as they need to be. We’ve only been galvanized when expectations were not high.”
-Griffin replaced Blatt with assistant Tyronn Lue: “I am more than confident that [Lue] has the pulse of our team and that he can generate the buy-in required to start to refine the habits and culture that we’ve yet to build.”
-Griffin emphatically denied that LeBron James was consulted on the firing: “LeBron doesn’t run this organization. LeBron is about this organization, and he is of this organization, and he’s of our community. But this narrative that somehow we’re taking direction from him, it’s just not fair. It’s not fair to him in particular. But frankly, it’s kind of not fair to me and our group anymore.”
Griffin’s reasoning implies that Blatt had problems relating to the team behind the scenes. The only concrete reason for the firing was this lack of focus after wins. This is something that is really hard to evaluate. The Cavs have had three long winning streaks this year and only two really bad losses (the home game to Golden State and a blowout loss in Portland). Blatt has had moments where you could question his engagement (he tried to call a timeout when the team didn’t have one last season and has been publicly dismissed by LBJ a few times during games) but Blatt’s overall results are pretty good. Last season, Blatt took the Cavs as far as they reasonably could have gone.
Without evident performance problems we have to turn to the unnamed source/rumor area to try to find some more facts. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin co-wrote a piece attributing the firing to the following: (a) Blatt considered himself an accomplished veteran coach from Europe and the NBA players felt he was a rookie and didn’t totally respect him, (b) LBJ was not warm to Blatt and undermined him publicly last year (but didn’t really do so this season), (c) Lue’s presence on the staff (who was also a candidate for the job against Blatt) undermined Blatt’s authority with the players, (d) Blatt, who was noted as a disciplinarian in Europe/Israel, was tentative in criticizing James and did not call him out for lax defense, (e) the Cavs struggled winning on a recent road trip an Griffin was told by the players that they were frustrated, and (f) Griffin’s final straw was what he noted was a “lack of joy” after the Cavs beat a very good Clipper team.
Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo wrote a postmortem allotting the blame on management setting up Blatt to fail. Wojnarowski wrote that James wanted Mark Jackson as coach but that the Cavs felt that Jackson was too high maintenance to bring in as coach (probably a good assessment). Failing that, James and his organization wanted Lue. The Cavs had already hired Blatt before they knew James might be coming but agreed to put in Lue as an assistant should Blatt failed. Blatt didn’t fail but James wanted Lue and that was the end for Blatt (who Wojnarowski noted was 11-2 in his last 13 games with the only losses to the Spurs and Cavs). Wojnarowski also wrote that any explanation that was not LeBron-related was rationalization and without merit.
Putting it all together, it is hard to accept any non-LBJ explanation for Blatt’s firing. The ESPN piece is detailed in its reasons but they really are mostly small details when the larger story was that James didn’t really did not want Blatt as a coach for much of last season. Moreover, the fact that James has been publicly quiet this year does not mean he has been quiet behind the scenes (in fact, you could infer that his quiet public stance is cover for backroom discussions).
As for the final straw and Griffin’s “connection” issue, it seems laughable. A “win connection” is not a thing. There are plenty of bad teams who are ecstatic after wins. The questions the Cavs need to worry about are: (1) are they more likely to win a title with Lue than Blatt?; and (2) will LBJ will re-sign after the season? It was fair to question whether Blatt was a great coach or not but the hiring a totally untested assistant like Lue is usually not a midseason move done by a team playing this well unless the star is on board (the most similar example that comes to mind is the 1981-82 Lakers who canned Paul Westhead for assistant Pat Riley. But the details don’t support the analogy. The Lakers were a relatively weak 7-4 at the time and coming off of a disappointing 1980-81 season).
Ultimately, the justifications provided indicate that there was only one real reason for the firing…James didn’t want Blatt. Griffin even acknowledged during his press conference that the decision might be a mistake, an implicit admission that the decision is far from clear cut. Still, if LBJ was unhappy, Griffin was correct to cut bait. The risk of losing James is very real and he holds the organization in the palm of his hand. If Lue doesn’t work out, Griffin can turn that on James and mention that any failures of the team were blessed or encouraged by King James.
This raises two interesting philosophical issues/questions. First, when do you well your superstar to stick it when he makes a demand? There is no set answer to this question but, on some level, the competence of coach does matter and the leverage of the star. A more revered coach would definitely be able to survive a coup with Blatt’s resume. Had James tried this move on Phil Jackson or Pat Riley, management might credibly rebuff him.
In a vacuum, Blatt should be able to keep going but he didn’t coach in a vacuum. Though Blatt seemed fine, James can walk at any time. Sure, he would be excoriated in Cleveland if he bailed again but that didn’t seem to bother him the first time. In this case, Blatt’s performance was not sufficient to override James’ wishes.
The second question is whether James is somehow “bad” or a “coach killer” for supporting the move (which almost certainly did). Sort of. James doesn’t come out of this situation looking good but if the Cavs improve no one will care. Every NBA star has had some degree of coach blood on his hand. This is just the nature of the business. James will be the person who is criticized the most if he doesn’t win in Cleveland and it is quite reasonable for him to have a strong interest in who coaches him. He just better be right.
Putting this all together, I think it is fair to conclude that Blatt got a bit of a raw deal and, yet, management had no choice. In order to both keep James happy and to show him that his handpicked successor got a fair shake, the move had to be made with enough time to be ready for the post season (and keep James satisfied after the season that Lue had sufficient time to have success). Understanding the context in Cleveland, this was the right move. Alas, I don’t think hiring Lue will really change the fact that the Spurs and Warriors are way better than Cleveland. If the Cavs now fall apart before the Finals (though this is unlikely), then this will be a messy but really interesting offseason in Cleveland.