LAS VEGAS — Now comes the hard part.
After all the smiles and ticket sales the Cleveland Cavaliers enjoyed in the wake of LeBron James' decision to return, the organization now faces the difficult task of fitting a 33-win roster around the game's biggest star.
David Blatt, welcome to the NBA.
The Cavs' new coach, gifted a four-time MVP, enters his first season in the NBA with title-or-bust expectations.
"My 17-year-old kid sends me this great quote: 'Danger is real and fear is a choice,'" Blatt said recently at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas. "Obviously I'm going to go work with a great, great player—one of the great players of all time. He's a basketball player and I'm a basketball coach, and we're going to work together beautifully."
So who is this Blatt you ask? For one, he's a disciple of Pete Carril, for whom he played at Princeton. For another, he's the owner of a 225-55 record over the past four seasons with Maccabi Tel Aviv and the reigning Euroleague Coach of the Year.
He mostly played in Israel from 1981 to 1993. But for a true NBA friendly sense of who he is, let longtime international scout Tim Shea, who previously worked for the Charlotte Bobcats, New York Knicks and Phoenix Suns, sum it up for you: "Phil Jackson should've hired him."
Shea, who praised his former Suns colleague and current Cavaliers general manager David Griffin for taking the chance on Blatt, said Cleveland's new hire is "one of the best coaches out there."
"You don't coach and do a great job with the Russian national team [at the 2012 Olympics, Blatt led them to their first medal, bronze, since the fall of the Soviet Union], and then change it up so well and do it again with eight Americans on Maccabi Tel Aviv [the team won this year's Euroleague title] without being a smart cookie," said Shea, who has scouted and gotten to know Blatt personally through the years. "It just shows the guy has an ability to get a team to perform at a top rate, have them get ready and peak at the right time."
Behind that success, in part, is Blatt's offensive flexibility. While he ran more of a freelance system in Russia, the focus was on team offense and team defense in Israel.
"He's not stuck on one style of play," Shea said. "He's going to make his teams successful relative to the talent that they have. And if he sees something that doesn't work during the season, he'll go to something else."
Blatt stresses the Gregg Popovich school of thought: team basketball, floor balance, and constant ball and player movement. Cavaliers point guard Matthew Dellavedova said he's already gotten better at those things during summer league, not even a week into working with his new coach.
"I've already learned a fair bit off him," said Dellavedova, whose Australian national team played against Blatt's Russians in London in 2012. "He's great with his communication, and I think he's a real teacher of the game."
"He's real cool," 2013 No. 1 draft pick Anthony Bennett added. "He knows his stuff. He knows a lot of plays. He just said that he's going to push me to be the best I can be, so I'm real happy to have him."
Blatt's team-system philosophy should be music to James' ears, as his Heat got burned by Popovich and the Spurs in this year's NBA Finals. One particular way that Shea believes Blatt will benefit James is with his teaching on how to score better off the ball alongside Kyrie Irving—a caliber of point guard he's never played with in his 11-year career.
"[Coach Blatt] forces you to think while you play," said Sylven Landesberg, Blatt's former standout player on Maccabi Tel Aviv, who's still playing for the team. "He likes the uptempo game when it's available, but also a controlled set offense. Coach likes to run a motion, and he knows how to take advantages of mismatches at the right time."
Blatt's No. 1 priority will be to get James to buy into his overall vision. With James' stature, his commitment would influence everyone else, especially considering the youth and playoff inexperience on the Cavaliers. But Shea feels James, whom he said "might be the smartest guy in the NBA," already did his homework on Blatt—and he's on board with his new coach.
"No matter what he does, David is going to have LeBron's respect, and that's the bottom line," Shea said. "If you have LeBron's respect, LeBron will go through the wall for you."
From there, it will come down to individual roles, and Shea said Blatt has a special ability, which the international basketball scene calls "mano sinistra," meaning "left hand."
"It's the ability to convince players that what they're doing is good for them—to do things that maybe they really don't feel like doing," Shea said. "It's not forcing them; it's convincing them. He has people accept their roles and he's going to get his players to believe in that, which is, in the NBA, 80 percent of the whole coaching thing."
Shea envisions Blatt focusing on defense to help the young Cavaliers mature more quickly alongside James. Much like Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's philosophy, "David is going to create the atmosphere of defense creating the offense, which a lot of times is the big difference," Shea said. "It's a bottom-line rule. And David is very good with transition offense. [His teams] do things in transition; they don't just come down and shoot. They were very active in Tel Aviv."
They were also very flexible, added Landesberg, who said he "never played for a coach who had such elaborate defensive plans."
"Every opponent we faced, coach came up with a different defensive scheme to slow the opponent down," he said. "He was very successful with his strategies. The reason we won was because we were able to stop teams and make them uncomfortable."
On paper, the pressure on Blatt is clear, but it isn't something he's unaccustomed to, having won at the highest level in two entirely different basketball worlds, Russia and Israel.
"LeBron knows about that pedigree, so if you've got LeBron on board, don't you think everybody else is going to get on board?" Shea said.
While Griffin's job is still not done—Mike Miller? Kevin Love? Another center to boost the undersized Cavaliers?—Blatt could prove to be the perfect hire for a Cavaliers team undergoing a culture change. But for now, let the man celebrate. We all would in his shoes.
"He's probably going to have a big bottle of champagne," Shea said. "I mean, come on, he's now got the best player in the world."
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