LeBron James, New-Look Cavs Offer Difficult Test for Well-Prepared David Blatt

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterAugust 15, 2014

Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

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.   

Exactly what are the odds that a complete NBA novice can do what Paul Silas and Mike Brown, both well-seasoned in the way the league and its superstars work, could not? What are the biggest challenges Blatt will face in replicating his success overseas? And how well-suited is he for the task?

The Cavaliers did get this part right, according to two NBA players who have played for Blatt: If you were going to pick an overseas coach to stick in this vise-grip of a situation, he's the one.

"He's unbelievable," gushes Los Angeles Clippers guard Jordan Farmar, who played several months under Blatt for Israel's Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 lockout. "He plays you to your strengths. He's really open to communication. He'll be awesome there."

Josh Childress, who sandwiched two seasons playing for Olympiacos Piraeus in Greece between four-year stints in the NBA, had Blatt as his coach in the Greek League's All-Star Game.

"Very nice guy and great to play for," Childress said before leaving for Australia, where he has a one-year deal to play with the Sydney Kings. "He's extra good at making in-game changes. I only really know him from that All-Star Game, but I've heard he'll do whatever it takes to succeed but is not a my-way-or-the-highway coach."

As much as Farmar and Childress like Blatt, though, both acknowledged that he faces an array of adjustments. While he has had championship runs in several countries—Israel, Russia, Turkey, Italy—he's never had to deal with the kind of coach-player dynamic he faces with James.

In coaching overseas, David Blatt enjoyed a level of control he may find trouble finding in his first season on an NBA bench.
In coaching overseas, David Blatt enjoyed a level of control he may find trouble finding in his first season on an NBA bench.David Sherman/Getty Images

"It's much different," Farmar says. "There are no superstars, no Kobes or LeBrons."

"If anyone is a star overseas, it's the coach. "I'd liken it to college," Childress said. "The coaches are more respected, their voices carry a little further. No one is really bigger than the team. Euro coaches, in general, though, have much more authority and control than NBA coaches do. It's, 'This is my show. If this American doesn't work out, I'll get another one.' [Blatt] has coached in enough different countries that he's experienced his fair share of different situations, but he's never not been totally in control of his team."

It's already pretty clear he won't have that in Cleveland. James made his decision to rejoin the Cavs without even talking to GM David Griffin or Blatt. In his first turn in the wine-and-gold, owner Dan Gilbert dumped Brown and let GM Danny Ferry go at the mere hint they might be hindrances in James opting to stay.

James has been subtle about it, but several coaching sources say he hasn't always been the most willing student, especially during his first turn in Cleveland. There were times, one source said, when Brown called for a practice after a long trip and James warned Brown he'd be the only one there.

It wasn't until he balked at Heat coach Erik Spoelstra's authority and team president Pat Riley made it clear he had Spoelstra's back that James was forced to fall in line. He has two championship rings to show for it, of course, but there are those in the NBA who believe one of his motivations for returning to Cleveland is that he tired of the buttoned-up way in which the Miami Heat operate.

Even less established stars such as Kyrie Irving and presumptive Cavs power forward Kevin Love have more security and clout than any European star Blatt, 55, has ever coached.

"His biggest adjustment will be going from being the coach to the coach alongside LeBron," Childress said.

Maybe. There's also a matter of dealing with a far more extensive season and travel schedule, as well as a bigger staff to run and responsibilities to the business side of the franchise, such as talking to season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors.

The demands of even the biggest franchises overseas don't compare to what the coach of the lowliest NBA team must handle. Blatt, unlike other first-year coaches such as Steve Kerr, hasn't even seen all that secondhand.

The return of LeBron James to Cleveland will force new coach David Blatt to mesh with the type of star he rarely dealt with overseas.
The return of LeBron James to Cleveland will force new coach David Blatt to mesh with the type of star he rarely dealt with overseas.Ty Wright/Getty Images

At least his experience in Russia should serve him well on the travel front"They have 10- and 15-hour flights over there," Childress saidand he is expected to lean on 11-year NBA veteran and associate head coach Tyronn Lue to handle the rest-vs.-practice dilemma.

Thanks to a shorter schedule and the monstrous impact winning and losing has on a team's economic status overseas, Blatt is conditioned to not look beyond the next game.

"You lose three games in a row, it could mean your season," says Farmar. "The mentality is different. Every game is a must-win."

While Farmar is confident in Blatt doing his part, he's less certain about the Cavs' personnel—with or without Love—being prepared to reach such lofty goals. Farmar went to the playoffs his first four seasons in the league and won two championships, all with the Lakers. He remembers that exhausting first taste of postseason action, losing to the Phoenix Suns in the first round, as well as the motivation that losing in the Finals the following season to the Celtics provided.

"It's a different beast," he says. "You don't really understand how valuable the chance to win a game is until you've experienced that intensity. Losing that first one (to Boston) helped us win the next two. As good as Kevin [Love] is, he hasn't even played in the playoffs yet. And he's not the only one. You need a team that understands its roles from top to bottom."

You also need a coach, of course, who can define those roles and convince each and every player why it is in his best interest to embrace it. Blatt has done that several times overseas, but that is hardly a guarantee he can do it here.

"Overseas it's much like San Antonio plays: ball and player movement," Farmar says. "There's no isolation, no dropping it down to a guy on the block. A lot of what Miami did is the Euro game. LeBron is one of the superstars who plays the right way, but I'm sure [Blatt] will find plenty of ways to get him the ball."

After failing to reach the playoffs in his first three seasons, Kyrie Irving is expected to contend for the NBA title with a host of new teammates and a new head coach this season.
After failing to reach the playoffs in his first three seasons, Kyrie Irving is expected to contend for the NBA title with a host of new teammates and a new head coach this season.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

This could prove to be a stroke of geniusmarrying Blatt's diverse and deep knowledge of basketball philosophies with a LeBron whose grasp of the discipline and focus needed to win championships clearly grew in Miami. It's probably not fair to assume he will return to being more like the LeBron we last saw in Cleveland than the leader he evolved into in Miami.

Then again, it's also not fair that no matter how or why the Cavs prove successful, LeBron assuredly will be given the lion's share of credit; and if they aren't, Blatt assuredly will be the fall guy. Blatt undoubtedly knows that, and with his wife and four kids still in Israel he hasn't exactly sunk deep roots into Cleveland yet.

That reflects a certain savvy right there. Despite what Las Vegas oddsmakers and LeBron-is-God fans might suppose, Cleveland getting its long-awaited title is a long way from a slam dunk.

Anyone who understands what a franchise must have to win a title wouldn't even say, at this point, it's a mid-range jumper. A contested deep three might be more like it. As in: not out of the realm of possibility of going down but hardly a high-percentage play.

Blatt's track record would suggest he not only knows how to get a better shot than that but also can make it when he does. His success, though, occurred in foreign lands with mostly foreign players and certainly a foreign power structure. Anyone who speaks more than one language can tell you: Not everything translates.

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @RicBucher.


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