Free of Their Coaching Distraction, Cleveland Cavaliers Are out of Excuses

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Free of Their Coaching Distraction, Cleveland Cavaliers Are out of Excuses
David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

David Blatt is well-spoken, Princeton-educated and one of the world's most accomplished basketball coaches.

He also made far too many excuses.

His ability to blame losses or poor periods of play on injuries, faulty preparation or a variety of other reasons became common and reflected on the spirit of the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room. In the end, however, Blatt became the biggest excuse of all.

"I remember last year telling somebody on the team, 'I love David Blatt. But if we're in a close game, he can't help us,'" former Cavalier Brendan Haywood said, via Steve Aschburner of NBA.com. "That's not a shot at Blatt. But...David Blatt can't come to a huddle and draw up a play that would get us a good shot. David Blatt doesn't understand sometimes substitution patterns."

 

Distraction

Since his firing on Jan. 22, the criticism has come flowing in from former players and those plugged into the team.

"There were obvious mistakes he was making, and you start to see it as a player, where 'We're going to have to win this on our own, because he can't do for us what Gregg Popovich can do for the Spurs. He can't take advantage of a mismatch the way Steve Kerr did in the NBA Finals,'" Haywood added.

Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

Despite a trip to the Finals and a 30-11 record to begin the 2015-16 season, it was this kind of separation between players and coach that led to Blatt's dismissal.

"I'm in our locker room a lot. There's just a disconnect there right now," general manager David Griffin said, via Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. "... Sometimes, you can win games in the regular season and get worse. We were regressing over a period of time."

To players, Blatt always was the outsider. The "rookie" head coach that Kyrie Irving once called an NBA virgin. If things didn't go the players' way, it was Blatt's fault. Food in the locker room too cold? Again, probably Blatt.

Even when LeBron James was prompted to give a public endorsement of his coach last season, he responded by saying, "Listen, man, I don't pay no bills around here. I play," according to Joe Vardon of the Northeast Ohio Media Group.

For whatever reason, the 56-year-old Massachusetts native always stood by his guys, even when it was clear their poor effort and focus was at fault.

After a 132-98 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 18, media waited extra long for Blatt to show up to his mandatory postgame press conference. When he did finally show up, excuses for his players once again came rolling out.

"Lack of mental preparation really hurt us. I told my guys that starts with me. If they're not mentally ready to play, I take responsibility for that."

David Dow/Getty Images

This was the same game in which J.R. Smith showed up roughly 45 minutes before tipoff then was tossed in the third quarter for a flagrant-2 foul for running through Harrison Barnes.

Is that the coach's fault too?

The sad truth is Blatt in his suit and tie could have showed a more inspired effort on the court. Cleveland had the previous two days off to prepare for the Warriors, who also beat it on Christmas Day. Golden State was vulnerable, losing two of its previous three games. This was the Cavs' best chance for revenge.

Instead, the Warriors ran off to a 12-2 start. Down 26 at the break, there was no comeback attempt in the second half. No spirit whatsoever.

Again, Blatt took the blame.

"We could have played anybody tonight, and I don't know that we would have had a vastly different result. There's a lot of things that go into having a day that's bad. Having a day that's that bad is very unusual. Again, I'll take responsibility for that."

Playing hard and being mentally prepared for a game aren't the responsibility of the coach. Cleveland's $109.4 million payroll is among the largest in the history of the NBA. Effort should never be questioned.

Now, Blatt and his .675 win percentage, the highest in franchise history, are gone. So, too, is the Cavaliers' scapegoat.

 

Gut Check

With Tyronn Lue taking over as the team's head coach, a significant amount of pressure falls on his shoulders. Far more is transferred to the players.

Jason Miller/Getty Images

No longer can Blatt stand in front of reporters and make excuses to cover for a team that's been so quick to throw him under the bus.

This is on veterans like James, Mo Williams, Richard Jefferson and James Jones to set the tone and expectations of professionalism. It's up to Irving and Kevin Love to help James shoulder the scoring load. Players like Iman Shumpert, Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and Timofey Mozgov need to become defensive forces on every possession.

It's a little disturbing that a team like this, with so many veterans, couldn't rally itself internally. That speaks volumes to the amount of work Lue may have in front of him.

It shouldn't matter if the Cavs liked, loved or hated Blatt. They all shared a common goal and should have done everything in their collective power to reach it.

Clearly, that wasn't the case.

For Lue, he shouldn't be afraid to call out anyone for anything, be it a team leader in James or the last guy on the bench. Players may not always like it, but they will respect it.

Lue played for Phil Jackson and with superstars like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, winning a ring with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2000-01. He played alongside Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards from 2001-2003. He's also helped coach Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin under Doc Rivers (both on the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers).

Lue has seen firsthand how to handle superstars and why it's so crucial for them to buy into what the coach is preaching.

"I've talked to 'Bron. I said, 'I've got to hold you accountable,'" said Lue, via Bill Livingston of the Plain Dealer. "It starts with you first. If I can hold you accountable in front of the team in doing the right things, then everybody else has got to follow along and fall in line."

Rocky W. Widner/Getty Images

It's time to forget their rash of injuries from early this season, the 0-3 record vs. the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs and the distraction following Blatt's firing.

Instead, the Cavs need to lock in under Lue, who seems to have the attention and support of his team.

This is still a franchise that is capable of winning a title this season. The Warriors and Spurs are clearly better right now. The good news for Cleveland is that a potential Finals matchup with either would still be roughly four-and-a-half months away—plenty of time to rid itself of previous bad habits.

Lue's first game at the helm was a disappointing 96-83 home loss to the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 23. After a strong start, Cleveland missed 16 consecutive shots and slowly reverted to isolation basketball.

Now, a Jan. 25 home meeting against the 14-31 Minnesota Timberwolves gives Cleveland a prime opportunity to turn things around.

For the Cavaliers, the excuses need to stop. Holding themselves and each other accountable has to start now, as it should have begun under the previous head coach.

Cleveland can't wait around for outside help or a coaching change to right the ship any longer. Lue plays a big role here, but the players are truly the only ones who can elevate the team to a championship level.

No more excuses.

 

Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @CavsGregBR. All quotes not sourced have been obtained firsthand.

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