No Matter How Good a Coach David Blatt May Be, Is He Right for LeBron James?

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterMay 12, 2015

Harry How/Getty Images

CLEVELAND — Not even a game-winning shot in the conference semifinals is suitable to serve as the lead to the next day's sportscast—not in this Cavaliers season, not when there's a firestorm to be fueled. So there we were Monday, the media mob, angling for anything to advance the assumption of animus, the sense that, seven months in, there are still significant cracks in the collaboration between LeBron James and David Blatt.

Turned out there were no additional eruptions, certainly none strong enough to send any more hot takes streaming like molten lava across the sports landscape. Just explanations, the embattled coach and empowered star restating their interpretations about what had occurred and, more notably in the minds of many, almost occurred in Sunday's 86-84 Game 4 win in Chicago, when Blatt tried unsuccessfully to call a timeout he didn't have, and then called an inbounds play James immediately, unapologetically and (for the Cavaliers' purposes) thankfully overruled, later letting the world know that he did so.

Monday, Blatt confidently countered any claims of incompetence, while James summarily dismissed any insinuations of insubordination, the specifics of which can be saved for later, since they won't sway many supporters of either side. Of course, Blatt and James are supposed to be squarely on the same side, even if it hasn't always seemed so this season. At best, it's appeared an uneasy alliance and, at worst, an arranged marriage of extreme inconvenience, two people thrust together due to a timing glitch, then subjected to the constant parsing of every comment.

Yes, circumstances have played a part, but so have the parties themselves. James quipped that Blatt was "catching heat because he's coaching me," as if scrutiny is simply an unfortunate byproduct of proximity, and Blatt argued that he's coped with that microscope "pretty well all season to be honest"—though even if you grant him that, it's undeniable that the coach's defensiveness has sometimes been a detriment.

Further, even if you think that Blatt is a good coach, a reasonable stance considering his European recordit's not easy to win that much anywhereit can also be reasonable to wonder whether that makes him the right coach for this situation.

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Is he the right coach for this roster? The Cavaliers were rebuilding at the time of his hire, prior to James' hankering for a homecoming, which would have afforded him the opportunity to transition without pressure. But what about this team, the one that's now on a quick-ticking championship clock, the one led by someone of James' stature in the sport?

May 10, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) dribbles the ball as Chicago Bulls guard Jimmy Butler (21) defends in the first half of game four of the second round of the NBA Playoffs at the United Center. Mandatory Credit:
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Is he the right coach for this stage of James' career, when James has already reached the pinnacle but can still use help reaching his highest level? Is he the right coach to earn the unconditional respect necessary to offer the sort of constructive resistance that even someone of James' skill level requires? Or should we take something from the statistics, as James played his preferred position of "point" small forward in an offense leaning heavily on isolation, only for the star's shooting efficiency to slip significantly from 56.7 to 48.8 percent? (James is now at 41.8 percent for the postseason, his lowest since 2008, though that's at least partly attributable to Cleveland's host of injuries).

Is Blatt more of the right coach than others who may be available this summer, including the Bulls' Tom Thibodeau, in an environment where coaches, from Monty Williams to Scott Brooks, have been deemed replaceable after winning records?   

Maybe so.

Maybe that's what he will show.

Still, there should be more signs by now.

There should certainly be fewer flare-ups, fewer uncomfortable follow-up press sessions with the storylines centering on everything but the previous evening's score, even when the Cavaliers were, in heart-stopping fashion, on the right side of that Sunday.

"See, you guys want to make this the story, it's not the story," Blatt said Monday, of the focus on his timeout usage and, more pointedly, on his choice on the final play. "We won the game [Sunday]. To me, it's not a story. It's just part of the drama. Shakespeare wrote comedies, he wrote tragedies, he wrote tragic comedies, he wrote drama comedies. At least in the movies nowadays you have a lot of those. That's just part of this wonderful business we're all in. It's 2-2 in the series, heck of a series and we're glad to be a part of it and I'm certainly glad to be a part of it."

May 10, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt (C) shouts from the sidelines in the second half of game four of the second round of the NBA Playoffs against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. The Cavaliers won 86-84. Manda
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

If Shakespeare penned a modern soap opera, it might look like what Blatt's now co-starring in, with a new episode every day of the week and even re-runs on some weekends. If he didn't expect this level of turmoil, he wasn't alone. While Blatt was hired prior to James' return, there was initially much excitement in the Cavaliers' corner and in James' camp about how these two advanced basketball minds would meld.

The only caveat was that James has never been one to overemphasize the importance of any of his head coaches, from Paul Silas to Mike Brown to Erik Spoelstra. It doesn't mean he sees them as immaterial. He just puts a far greater premium on players, and gives nearly equal weight to the assistants as the coach in charge. He has also tended, over the years, to reserve his most frequent and energetic public praise for the opposing coach, whether an experienced one like Gregg Popovich or Doc Rivers or Thibodeau to an impressive newbie like Brad Stevens, someone on the other side who makes him think and work to win.

It's been enough, when it comes to his own coach, to offer occasional endorsements (though this season's have more tepid than usual) and to avoid any comments that could give the media machine any trace of trouble, even when some may be present behind the scenes. James has become so savvy in this regard that it can't be assumed an accident when he keeps referring to Blatt as a "rookie," a characterization the latter resents enough to lash out at any reporter who relays it. In the same vein, James knows too well what will result when, in responding to a question about his remarkable final shot, he starts by announcing that he "scratched" Blatt's final play.

Exactly what happened: a next-day circus.

It's constructive here to compare his current words with the care with which he chose his words when interacting, in the public forum, with Spoelstra. Certainly they had their rough patches, particularly earlyHeat insiders will tell you that James became more amenable to Spoelstra's suggestions some time in their second season together. And yes, he contradicted Spoelstra at times, but he would cease when Spoelstra, who tries to escape press briefings with minimal controversy, mentioned it to him, telling him just to go along and get by, and they would discuss issues privately. Over time, James actually became more of an ally than an adversary, commonly referring to Spoelstra by the endearing "Spo." (He often calls his current coach by the impersonal "Blatt," maybe because it's impossible to shorten.) He parroted many of Spoelstra's principles and sayings publicly, even the hokier ones, and still does to this day.

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 18: Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat shares a word with LeBron James #6 during the game the game against the Indiana Pacers on December 18, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges a
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

Spoelstra had some factors in his favor in the first season that Blatt does not, including the credibility that comes with two playoff seasons as an NBA coach, and the unwavering support from the top that comes from 16 years (as of 2010) working for the same stable organization. Then he gained more advantages over time, time that Blatt has not yet had. James, after falling flat in the 2011 NBA Finals, was at his most receptive to a coach's counsel; Blatt, by comparsion, is coaching someone who has already won two titles.

Plus, Spoelstra's comportment seems more compatible for a strong personality such as James. By NBA coach standards, Spoelstra is relatively egoless, eschewing excuses, shunning spotlight and never clamoring for credithe would chuckle when strangers would assume Pat Riley was the Heat coach, even after Spoelstra had won a championship. Blatt finds his pride much harder to hide, which is why he has commonly cited player absences when he's been criticized, and has made sure to remind reporters of overseas accomplishments. It's hard to imagine he's that much different behind closed doors.

So it should be fairly clear now, after what played out in Miami and Cleveland this season, just how much the Spoelstra-James partnership benefited both. This was especially so after Spoelstra embraced pace-and-space following the failure in the first Finals, and James, through his adherence and excellence, elevated his play, coach and the Heat franchise to extreme heights. Spoelstra, even with his youth and dearth of NBA head coaching experience, did manage to convince James to get out of his comfort zone, sliding him regularly to power forward, even while calling the Heat lineup "positionless" so James wouldn't feel constrained by that label. The Heat, especially in the 66-win 2012-13 season, played their best ball with James at that spot. James often played his best ball, too.

But even that relationship, like most between coach and player, encountered some challenges, only some of which got out. By the fourth straight exhausting Finals run, just about everyone on the Heat's front lines was somewhat weary of one another, and it was no secret that James was among several Heat players privately questioning Spoelstra's ultra-aggressive, highly taxing defensive scheme, particularly as the Spurs surgically picked it apart.

SAN ANTONIO, TX - JUNE 14: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat speaks to the media during practice and media availability as part of the 2014 NBA Finals on June 14, 2014 at the Spurs Practice Facility in San Antonio, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ackn
Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

After the Heat fell behind 3-1 to San Antonio last June, I asked this to James, who was seated behind the podium: "LeBron, you talked about their ball movement a little bit, is it just about doing things harder or are there tactical adjustments that need to be made in your guys' view?"

While I didn't do this intentionally, I quickly recognized that I'd uttered a Spoelstra phrase ("doing it harder"), which may have been why James reacted like this:

"That sounds like a set‑up question."

Not really, I replied.

"Not really?" James said, then smiling. "Man, [the Spurs] move the ball extremely well. They put you in positions that no other team in this league does, and it's tough because you have to cover the ball first, but also those guys on the weak side can do multiple things. They can shoot the ball from outside, they can also penetrate. So our defense is geared towards running guys off the three‑point line, but at the same time those guys are getting full steam ahead and getting to the rim, too. The challenge…as well, with them, implementing [Boris] Diaw into the lineup has given them another point guard on the floor. So Manu [Ginobili], Tony [Parker], and Diaw and Patty Mills on the floor at once, they've got four point guards basically on the floor at once.  So all of them are live and they all can make plays. So it's a challenge for us all."

With that response, he made it clear to the trained ear that it wasn't just about "doing it harder." It was also about making some adjustments to the way the Spurs were attacking. The coach is the one primarily responsible for those adjustments. But James did this so subtly that he got his point across without creating a raging controversy. Rather, he primarily left the impression of appreciation of the other squad, not of frustration with his own coach. He took this approach in several situations over his time in Miami; you can count on one hand the times that he implied any conflict with Spoelstra, such as when he complained about his discomfort with playing power forward and battling the Pacers' David West.

That filter hasn't followed him home.

Nor is this a one-way street. Blatt goes to great pains to dismiss reporters' critiques of James' play, usually saying that everybody needs to be better. But not all of Blatt's answers take the easy, expected turn, especially when a reporter is trying to praise James above others. When someone asks a softball question, such as what it means for James to show up several hours early for Game 1 of this series, it's better just to say it's a sign of tremendous commitment than to seem perplexed and slightly put off by the attempt to single anyone out.

If some of this seems like a sideshow, well, some is, and if some of this seems unfair, well, that's true, too, especially the emphasis on Blatt's inbounds decision with 1.5 seconds remaining Sunday. The latter is not what you might have plotted, maybe, and it's certainly not what James would have conceivedhe said Monday that he never even gave inbounding a thought, since "we're going to win or lose with me, I just take that responsibility." But Blatt, who said he simply thought it right to use his "biggest and best passer" in that capacity, did remind reporters Monday that he did something similar in San Antonio this season, with James finding Irving, who made a game-tying three-pointer as part of a 57-point performance. There was also a January game against the Clippers, in which James sealed a victory with a bullet inbounds pass to Tristan Thompson for a layup, a play that caused James to laud his coach for a rare occasion.

Nor is it especially unusual, as James has repeatedly stated this season, for a star, particularly one of lofty IQ, to take some control of the proceedings: "My team respects me to make some decisions. It's no different from a great quarterback calling an audible." For the record, James did this some in Miami, too. When the relationship is widely considered healthy, delegation is deemed proof of the coach demonstrating flexibility and trust, and alteration can be seen as a sign of a star showing initiative. 

Of course, the Blatt-James relationship isn't widely viewed that way. Maybe a championship changes that, especially under the current adverse circumstances, with Kevin Love out and Kyrie Irving ailing; after all, as James said prior to the season, he couldn't take the full measure of teammates and coaches until they went through tough times together. Maybe Blatt never does anything else that can be construed as inexperience, at least in terms of his adjustment to the American game. Monday, he insisted that he had never lost track of his timeouts before; he was fortunate the officials didn't see this signal, or the Bulls would have been shooting a free throw. But Sunday wasn't the first time this season he'd squandered all of his stoppages too soon. He did so against the Spurs in November, which forced James to dribble from the backcourt on a late possession, into a turnover that ended Cleveland's chances.

May 10, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Cavaliers Cavaliers forward LeBron James (23) celebrates with teammates after scoring the game winning basket in the second half of game four of the second round of the NBA Playoffs against the Chicago Bulls at the United C
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Monday, James did Blatt some service, by asserting that he felt the Cleveland coach "had put our team in position to be successful in the postseason, and as the players, we've got to go out and execute. It's not about me changing play calls or Coach Blatt trying to call a timeout when he didn't have one. That's why we're a team. You don't have to do it on their own.

"Players, we make the majority of the mistakes, coaches make mistakes at times, and that's why you have guys pick you up. That's why we have our assistant coaches that help Coach Blatt when things are not going right, and that's why I have Kyrie and Tristan and Delly and the rest of those guys to help me when things are not going right. That's what this team is all about. We get carried away way too much with individuality in this sport. It's not golf. It's not tennis."

That's a good start.

That's the right track, to stop, or at least pause, the cycle of controversy.

Naturally, though, it can't answer the other questions.

Is Blatt the right coach?

The right coach for this situation?

The right coach to get enough of James' respect to get his ear...and then his best?

The right coach to push James out of his comfort zone in a way that the star will keep pushing forward and higher, rather than back?

That remains to be seen, and shouldn't be completely ruled out, not after just seven months, much of a struggle as that stretch has seemed. For Blatt's sake, though, that confirmation best be seen very soon, while the conflict is heard much less.

Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @EthanJSkolnick.


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