Can David Blatt Get Kyrie Irving and Cleveland Cavaliers Back on Track?

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistJune 20, 2014

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The Cleveland Cavaliers went outside the box—and the United States—to fill their coaching void.

That approach, a welcome break from the stale circumstances of former coach Mike Brown's failed comeback, could breathe some fresh air into the franchise and its All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving.

A little more than a month removed from Brown's dismissal, the Cavaliers finally settled on his replacement Friday. Cleveland went with former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, as first reported by Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer:

League sources revealed the financial figures of the agreement to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski:

Blatt might be an unknown face to NBA fans, but he's a respected one in basketball circles. The 55-year-old has been honing his coaching craft overseas for the last 20 years:

There are no blueprints for the Massachusetts native to follow. His leap from the European sidelines to the NBA's head coaching ranks is unprecedented.

Still, the path he's left behind him is one that lines the road ahead with hope. He's hardly a stranger to success.

"In the past four seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt's teams went 222-55, including a 70-13 record in 2011-12," Schmitt Boyer noted. "This past season, his team won the Israeli Cup and the Israeli and Euroleague titles."

Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

Even if the leagues are unfamiliar, that type of success can be universally appreciated. No one may better understand that than the Cavaliers, who have now employed three different coaches since the start of the 2012-13 campaign.

Cleveland is desperate to build a winner. Since LeBron James' infamous exit in 2010, the Cavaliers have averaged fewer than 25 victories over the last four seasons.

Considering the stakes facing the franchise this summer, now is the time to start constructing that road back to relevance.

The Cavaliers must make a call on the future of Irving, a 22-year-old with a pair of All-Star appearances and an All-Star Game MVP award already under his belt. According to Terry Pluto of The Plain Dealer, that call has already been made on Cleveland's end:

The Cavs will offer Irving the full 5-year maximum contract.

... My sources tell me that the Cavs have had no doubts about offering Irving the 5-year deal, and will do so. Once July 1 arrives -- the first date that an extension can be offered -- the Cavs will set up a meeting with Irving. They will present their All-Star guard with a contract extension, a 5-year deal in the $90 million range (or whatever is the maximum number).

Whether Irving will actually sign the deal could be a different story:

History says Irving will do what so many before him have done: Take the money and stay. James, Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul—all players that eventually forced their way away from their small-market clubs—all signed their max rookie extension before leaving.

The Cavaliers, for the third time in the last four years, also own the No. 1 overall draft pick. Unlike last time around, this class boasts some drool-worthy prospects at the top of the board—even after Joel Embiid's stress fracture in his right foot may have removed him from consideration.

How the Cavaliers handle these personnel decisions could ultimately determine the direction this franchise is headed.

Still, bringing in a mind as bright as Blatt's is a way to get started on the right foot.

Blatt might have built his brand overseas, but the roots of his coaching career were planted during the four years he spent with coach Pete Carril's Princeton Tigers.

There, he shared a backcourt with current New York Knicks general manager Steve Mills. 

"He was a typical Princeton guy in a sense," Mills said of Blatt in 2010, via Pete Thamel of The New York Times. "He was an incredibly smart player and understood everything Coach was trying to get us to do on the court."

What exactly is a "Princeton guy?" It's someone who adheres to the principles of the Princeton offense that Carril employed.

"Off the ball movement is a high priority, whether that means shooters running off screens or cutters darting for the basket," Bleacher Report's Stephen Babb wrote. "The Princeton offense is essentially the polar opposite of isolation-heavy, one-on-one ball."

That could be best reflected in the numbers compiled by the Russian national team under Blatt's watch. As's John Schuhmann noted, Russia had the second-best assist rate at the 2010 World Championship, 2011 Eurobasket and the 2012 Olympics.

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 12: Head Coach David Blatt of Russia looks on versus Argentina during their Basketball Game on Day 16 of the London 2012 Olympic Games at the North Greenwich Arena on August 12, 2012 in London, England. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The Cavaliers finished the 2013-14 season ranked 20th in assist percentage (57.2), via More than nine percent of their offensive plays were isolations, via Synergy Sports (subscription required), which resulted in an unsightly 38.1 field-goal percentage. When they ran the off-ball cuts Blatt's system demands, they enjoyed a 57.7 shooting percentage.

Cleveland has offensive weapons, but it has struggled to fit those pieces together. Blatt's offense doesn't encourage five players to work as one, it demands that type of approach.

That might seem like a tough sell for this franchise.

Irving's leadership and attitude have been questioned by Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. Talk of a reported rift between Irving and guard Dion Waiters grew so loud the pair held a joint media session to attempt to quell the noise.

Oct 17, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers guard Kyrie Irving (2) talks with guard Dion Waiters (3) during the second quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wachovia Center. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Considering the amount of losing this group has endured over the last few years, some behind-closed-doors bickering would hardly be a surprise.

Still, someone needs to settle the troops.

According to guard Jannero Pargo, who finished this past season with the then-Charlotte Bobcats, uniting a locker room happens to be one of Blatt's specialties.

"Blatt understands emotions of players, their different attitudes, and knows how to get it all into one," he told's David Pick. "Those are ingredients one needs to be a successful coach in the NBA."

Blatt seems equipped with the tools needed to power up Cleveland's offense and coalesce the roster. It's easy to imagine him scoring high marks in both categories after his debut season comes to an end.

Ultimately, though, he will be judged on wins and losses. For him to impress in those areas, he'll need a much better effort from his players than the one seen over the past four seasons.

Blatt can prepare his players for the journey ahead, but they'll be the ones actually making the trek. He looks like the right coach to lead this team, but only regular-season play will let us know for sure if the players want to be led. 


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