Championship Clock Unexpectedly Ticking for 1st-Year Cavaliers Coach David Blatt

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

USA Today

The ink might not have dried on the job-description portion of David Blatt's contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers before a flurry of headline moves made that section obsolete.

Whatever the former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach thought he was signing up for, it certainly wasn't this. The Cavaliers can only hope that the man they tabbed to continue their rebuilding effort will still be the right selection for their dramatically different reality.

Remember when Blatt was hired in late June? Remember what the Cavaliers' biggest challenges were then?

First and foremost, the franchise had to make sure that it didn't botch its third No. 1 pick over the last four years. From there, the focus shifted to franchise face Kyrie Irving and his impending contract negotiations. Once the two-time All-Star put pen to paper on a new five-year deal, Blatt's biggest hurdles seemed to be tapping into Andrew Wiggins' potential and balancing his ball-dominant backcourt.

Blatt isn't just running on a different track now—I'm not sure he's even still playing the same sport. As Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher explained, Blatt suddenly finds himself shouldering the heaviest burden in his profession:

David Blatt's first NBA assignment of any kind is to take LeBron James, the league's biggest name and most powerful player, and a handful of other stars who've never set foot in the playoffs, and meld them into an instant champion for a title-starved fanbase and an aggressive, speaks-his-mind (sometimes in Comic Sans) owner.

Quite the daunting task, isn't it?

Now, change doesn't have to be a bad thing. In this case, it should bring about something bigger and better than Blatt could have ever imagined.

That's saying something, considering that the coach was aiming high long before James and his traveling band of three-point sniping ring-chasers brought this fanbase back to Believeland.

"I have won everywhere I've been," a confident Blatt proclaimed at his introductory press conference, "and I plan on doing the same here."

INDEPENDENCE, OH - JUNE 25:  David Blatt addresses the media as he is named Head Coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers at a press conference at The Cleveland Clinic Courts on June 25, 2014 in Independence, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and ag
David Liam Kyle/Getty Images

The confidence was good to see, and his intentions seemed sincere, but which coach doesn't plan for success in his team's future? Even the rebuilding Philadelphia 76ers want to win...eventually.

Still, he said the right things, and the glowing reviews he received from different corners of the basketball world made it sound like he might be the right guy to snap the Cavs out of their post-Decision funk.

Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski called it a "tremendous hiring" and Blatt "an original thinker, a great communicator and tactician, a coach unafraid to try and fail." Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy noted that the "word 'genius' often gets thrown around when Blatt is being described," along with his "reputation for being an offensive mastermind."

The Cavs' problems hadn't been a lack of talent. At least, not to the extent that their 97-215 record over the past four seasons might suggest.

They had more logistical issues. Their top two scorers, Irving and Dion Waiters, both did their best work on the ball. Tristan Thompson and Anthony BennettCleveland's other two top-four picks between 2011 and 2013—both played the same position.

Dec 13, 2013; Orlando, FL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers point guard Kyrie Irving (2) and shooting guard Dion Waiters (3) against the Orlando Magic during the first quarter at Amway Center. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A sharp mind was needed to unscramble the puzzle pieces, but by all accounts that's exactly what Cleveland had in Blatt.

"David Blatt is going to bring some of the most innovative approaches found in professional basketball anywhere on the globe," Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said at the press conference.

That's what the Cavs asked Blatt to add: innovation, excitement, creativity. For anyone who sat through a handful of Mike Brown's stagnant offensive possessions, the sentiment was certainly understandable.

Yet, those very same attributes no longer carry the same meaning. Innovation and excitement are tremendous boosts to a young team looking to get something started.

That's not who the Cavs are anymore. Thanks to James' powerful recruiting pitch, this is a win-now roster worried about execution, not experimentation.

"James wasn't in the same room as his front office this summer, but he has been working alongside team officials," wrote's Brian Windhorst. "He successfully recruited [Mike] Miller and free agent James Jones. James also has been in contact with [Kevin] Love, [Shawn] Marion and free agent Ray Allen."

The patience that James discussed in his homecoming essay either never existed or did not survive the summer. Regardless of what happened, Blatt now has the pressure to deliver a title immediately.

Granted, it's a good problem to have. He has the best player on the planet in James; a top-10 talent (at least) unofficially officially headed to Cleveland in Kevin Love, per Wojnarowski; and a potential superstar in Irving, who should take a tremendous stride in efficiency with the new firepower around him.

Still, this isn't what Blatt signed up for. It's no longer the same job Cleveland hired him to do.

"Without question the Cleveland team that I signed on to, compared to the Cleveland team of today, is different," he said, via David Pick of Basketball Insiders.

This isn't Blatt's team anymore. It's LeBron's.

It's James' legacy on the line; his players on the roster; and, if need be, his game plan to tweak. According to Fox Sports' Sam Amico, James avoided the hyperbolic reactions others have had while discussing Blatt's schemes:

Maybe I'm reading too deep between the lines, but James calling it an OK fit leads me to believe it may be subject to change at some point. That's not a knock on Blatt's coaching acumen, just an observation that at this point of his career, James knows what type of offense suits him best.

And expectations couldn't be any higher for this offense, which is why this team factors heavily into preseason championship predictions despite having defensive holes on the interior and perimeter.

Fortunately, Blatt sounds like someone willing to hear what others have to say.

Blatt told Irving, "My offense is tailored to you, to all my players and what your strengths are," via Shams Charania of Real GM. 

Cleveland's offensive strength should be staggering, and the top-tier talent should complement one another brilliantly. Outside of his own observations and those of his players, Blatt can also draw from the impressive, experienced assistant staff he has built:

Blatt has been dealt a strong hand, maybe the best one in the league. And this isn't his first time playing this game.

But the stage is brighter than ever. The stakes are almost impossibly high.

From aiming for the playoffs to now being graded on the treacherous championship-or-bust scale, Blatt is headed out on a journey he never could have foreseen taking.

This isn't about joining a new basketball world. He needs to conquer it.


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