Meet New Cleveland Cavs Head Coach Target and Euroleague Product David Blatt

Stephen Babb@@StephenBabbFeatured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

Maccabi Tel Aviv's head coach David Blatt speaks in a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel,Thursday, June 12, 2014. David Blatt has stepped down as coach of European club champion Maccabi Tel Aviv to pursue a job in the NBA. Blatt told a news conference on Thursday he wanted to fulfil his
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

The Cleveland Cavaliers have found a new head coach, and you'd be forgiven for not recognizing the name. 

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski reported Thursday that, "Euroleague icon David Blatt has emerged as the Cleveland Cavaliers' choice to become head coach." On Friday, confirmed the hire. 

Blatt was one of the candidates the Golden State Warriors were investigating for an assistant position, according to Wojnarowski, but there's little doubt the opportunity to lead his own NBA team is even more tempting. Per the AP's Jeremy Last, the Minnesota Timberwolves and Atlanta Hawks were also, "believed to be interested in hiring Blatt as an assistant."

But's Marc Stein reports that, "Until now, Blatt has resisted multiple opportunities to move back home because he was reluctant to leave behind his status as one of Europe's two most respected coaches—along with Italian legend Ettore Messina—to work in the NBA as an assistant."

It looks like he won't have to play the role, after all.

The 55-year-old isn't yet a household name for the average NBA fan, but that could soon change. His pedigree largely speaks for itself, and his overseas resume is among the very best. Per Wojnarowski, he recently, "resigned from his job as the championship coach of Maccabi Tel-Aviv to pursue his longtime goal of coaching in the NBA."

Mission accomplished.

A more thorough introduction is in order. To know what the Cavs are getting themselves into, we first have to learn a few things about Blatt himself.


Playing Days

Princeton great Pete Carril.
Princeton great Pete Carril.Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Blatt played point guard for Princeton University from 1977 to 1981 under head coach Pete Carril. It was there that his basketball philosophy began to take shape. As a floor general for the famed Princeton Offense, the Boston native had to understand and execute a system—more so than many point guards at the collegiate level.

Even then, the writing was on the wall for Blatt. According to The New York Times' Pete Thamel:

Those who saw Blatt play at Princeton could see the qualities of a coach. Carril called Blatt "the epitome of a team player." Carril said that he remembered pulling Blatt from the starting lineup during his senior year but that Blatt never changed his attitude or approach. That turned out to be important when he came off the bench to help Princeton win three close games.

New York Knicks general manager Steve Mills actually played in the same backcourt as Blatt. He told Thamel, "He was a typical Princeton guy in a sense. He was an incredibly smart player and understood everything Coach was trying to get us to do on the court."

Just as NBA point guards like Jason Kidd or Derek Fisher proved early on they had what it takes to survive in the coaching ranks, Blatt was doing much the same at the NCAA level.  

After participating in the Maccabiah Games as a member of the gold-winning USA national team, Blatt went on to play in Israel's Super League. He continued playing professionally from 1981 to 1993, when he accepted a coaching job with Hapoel Galil Elyon.


European Journey

As Wojnarowski notes, Blatt, "would be the first coach to make the leap from Europe to the NBA as a head coach."

After over a decade coaching in Israel, Blatt found his way to Russia in 2004. For the 2004-05 season, he was named Coach of the Year in Russia after winning the FIBA EuroCup championship. In other words, he got off to a pretty good start—which wasn't especially surprising to anyone who followed his career closely up to that point.

A year later, Blatt won the Italian Championship as head coach of Benetton Treviso.

Per Thamel, "Blatt has also coached for just about every prominent team in Europe—Maccabi Tel Aviv (Israel), Efes Pilsen (Turkey), Benetton Treviso (Italy), Dynamo Moscow (Russia) and Aris Thessaloniki (Greece)." 

Blatt also coached the Russian national team when he wasn't busy with those European clubs.

When reflecting on his experience in 2010, he told Thamel, "My story is amazing. An American Jewish Israeli who coaches Russia. When I think about it, I’m amazed by it."

Bleacher Report's Adam Fromal outlines some of the highlights from the journey that again brought him back to Israel in 2010:

As the head coach for Russia, he won a gold medal in the 2007 FIBAEuroBasket, earned a bronze medal at the most recent Summer Olympics and completely turned around that national program. While coaching Israel, he's won five Israeli Cups, four Israeli League championships and been named Coach of the Year on three separate occasions.

Not too shabby. 

And to top it all off, Blatt may have saved his greatest performance for last. In May, wrote, "This Euroleague run is acknowledged as perhaps his most brilliant, yielding the most out of a Maccabi roster that generated one of the lowest of expectations in recent memory."

Per Fromal, "Blatt's Maccabi outfit was down 15 points late in the third quarter of a Euroleague semifinal game against CSKA Moscow, but it cut the lead to 10 points heading into the final period and completed a dramatic comeback with 5.5 seconds remaining in the contest."

How does a coach get his team back into a game that was all but lost? A little offense can go a long way.


Basketball Principles

Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

By all accounts, Blatt is an offensive mastermind. NBCSports' Kurt Helin wrote:

You would be hard pressed to find a coach more respected as an offensive innovator than David Blatt.

He’s not a name known to the common fan, but the American-born coach just led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the EuroLeague title, plus he is the Russian national team coach (bronze medal winners at the London Olympics). He is a guy other coaches study, particularly his offense and transition. There have been a number of teams looking to bring him over, he has been looking for the right spot.

Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski notes one coach who vouches for that offensive approach, writing, "As one major college coach who has studied Blatt's offense this spring told Yahoo Sports recently, 'I am not sure there is anyone in the U.S. with the kind of creative efficiency or ability to change constantly like David Blatt has. He utilizes what his players do as well as anyone I've ever watched.'" 

Thamel credits Blatt's early playing days with much of the success he's experienced thereafter:

Using principles of the Princeton offense that he learned under the former coach Pete Carril, Blatt has put together one of the most impressive resumes in Europe. He has won several EuroLeague titles as an assistant and as a head coach, though his crowning achievement was leading Russia to a victory in the 2007 European championships over Spain in Madrid.

So what exactly is the Princeton offense?

It's a system that cherishes movement of the ball and personnel alike. The San Antonio Spurs run a variant of it. Rick Adelman virtually made a career out of it, using the approach to its maximum effect back when the Sacramento Kings were a perennial postseason threat.

Even teams that don't explicitly run the Princeton often borrow aspects of its basic philosophy. Off-the-ball movement is a high priority, whether that means shooters running off screens or cutters darting for the basket.

The Princeton offense is essentially the polar opposite of isolation-heavy, one-on-one ball. It's all about sharing and sacrifice, generating movement from a variety of positions—including big men. That's one of the reasons the Kings were such a good fit for the system. Chris Webber and Vlade Divac were great passers as far as big men go. That helps fuel Princeton motion, obviating the need for a point guard to handle all the playmaking.

To the extent this kind of offense is gaining traction in a league that's realizing the limits of hero-ball, it's no surprise that Blatt has been in high demand.


Why NBA Teams Sought Him

Mindaugas Kulbis/Associated Press

Put simply, effective offensive systems have become increasingly vital in today's NBA. Most teams don't have the luxury of relying on a dominant scorer like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony or Kobe Bryant. And even the ones who do are more interested in offensive approaches that rely less on isolation and more on movement.

Recall that the Los Angeles Lakers attempted to introduce the Princeton back during the Mike Brown era. And that was with a dominant one-on-one scorer like Bryant around.

Blatt's mind for system basketball makes him a hot commodity. He knows how to win games without relying exclusively on any given player's talent. 

But the interest in Blatt isn't just about Xs and Os. He's a proven success story, and that proof has emerged in a variety of contexts.

That's hard to find at any level of the game, and there's little doubt Blatt's successes overseas should eventually translate quite well in the NBA. There may be something of a transition period, but Blatt has made a career of making transitions. He's learned what his rosters can and can't do, and he's coached them accordingly.

This clearly isn't a guy who's gotten by on premier talent alone. He hasn't been riding the coattails of a superstar all these years. He's proven he can win virtually anywhere—save for in the NBA of course.

That part comes next. And it will reportedly come with the Cleveland Cavaliers.


Objectives as Cavs Head Coach

CLEVELAND, OH - APRIL 16:  Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks on during a game against the Brooklyn Nets at The Quicken Loans Arena on April 16, 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloadi
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

Priority one will obviously be installing some version of the Princeton. That could do wonders for Kyrie Irving, freeing him to find his offense in the flow of the game rather than being forced to initiate so much of the offense on his own.

Imagine Irving playing a role more akin to Tony Parker, and you get some sense of what could be in store.

Irving's production may take a slight dip, but he should become more efficient in the process. He'll find better shots under Blatt, and he'll be less pressured to create those shots in general. The Cavs were never going to become an offensive juggernaut under Mike Brown—himself more known for his acuity on the defensive end of the floor. Now Irving and company will have a chance to learn from one of the very best.

And as a former point guard, Blatt will be well-prepared to put Irving in a position to succeed. He's been at this whole Princeton thing for a long time, and he was first introduced to it—like Irving—as a floor general.

Blatt's adaptability should also come in handy. He's walking into a complicated situation, and it may take him some time to get his bearings.

There have been doubts about Irving and shooting guard Dion Waiters' chemistry, and those questions will likely persist in spite of the duo's attempt to insist otherwise. Blatt is also inheriting an extremely young team, one that will only get younger thanks to the No. 1 overall pick in this summer's draft.

Irving and Waiters are both just 22. Last season's No. 1-overall pick Anthony Bennett is still just 21.

The good news is that Blatt will have a transformative effect on these guys. They haven't spent a decade in the league developing habits that are difficult to unlearn. There will be growing pains to be sure. After dealing with a revolving door of head coaches, Blatt faces a project that will require time to reach fruition.

His dream of being an NBA coach finally realized, now his patience as an NBA coach will be tested.


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