David Blatt admitted over the weekend that his appointment as the new head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers has yet to sink in.
That will surely begin to change on Wednesday when he is officially presented to the media after agreeing to a four-year deal that could earn him as much as $20 million.
The 55-year-old coach, who left Maccabi Tel Aviv two weeks ago after guiding the yellow-and-blue to the Euroleague title, BSL championship and State Cup in the past season, will not only be the first Israeli to coach in the NBA, but also the first to make the leap from Europe to the NBA as a head coach.
Blatt has rightfully earned himself a reputation as a coach who can maximize the talent on his roster, with the magic he worked at Maccabi over the past year a perfect example of his capabilities.
At one point, Maccabi’s ownership was worried the team wouldn’t even make it out of its Euroleague regular season group and came close to terminating Blatt’s contract late last year.
However, Blatt insisted all along that he will continue to work according to his long-term plan and that the results will ultimately arrive.
Some good fortune along the road helped his cause, but precious few people still doubt the Boston native, who moved to Israel in the early 1980’s after playing for the USA Maccabiah basketball team in 1981.
Blatt is known for his high demands from players, who he fundamentally believes should cast aside their personal goals in favor of the team’s targets. This ideology has resulted in several clashes with frustrated players down the years, including Tyrese Rice and Alex Tyus this past season.
Rice was ultimately the star of Maccabi’s Euroleague winning campaign, with Tyus also playing a significant role. However, the two spent much of the first half of the season on the bench, struggling to meet the expectations of their coach.
The two Americans (Tyus in particular) were even almost cut from the roster, but Blatt never wavered and eventually got the best out of them and his team en route to a remarkable ending to the season.
Blatt showed he can be pragmatic by allowing Rice to take over in the closing minutes of games instead of insisting on more ball movement the way he may have done in the past.
Pragmatism may prove to be one of the most crucial factors to success in Cleveland, with Blatt showing he is willing to change for the good of his team.
While the goal at Maccabi was to win every game and every competition, Blatt is going to be measured by a completely different scale with the Cavs. Improving on the 33 wins Cleveland recorded last season and reaching the playoffs have been mentioned as targets for Blatt in his first season in the NBA.
However, senior NBA writer for ESPN.com, Marc Stein, believes Blatt will be judged very differently.
“I would say success, in Year 1, would be connecting with Kyrie Irving and getting him to the point that Irving wants to be Cleveland’s franchise player going forward. The rest will flow from there,” Stein told The Jerusalem Post this week.
The 22-year-old Irving, who was selected for the past two All Star games, is entering the final year of his rookie contract, but the Cavs are intent on keeping him around for the near future by offering him a maximum $90 million five-year contract.
Since LeBron James’s infamous exit in 2010, the Cavaliers have averaged fewer than 25 victories over four seasons, including the past three with Irving.
There have also been suggestions that the players quit on their past two coaches, with a reported rift between Irving and guard Dion Waiters growing so loud the pair held a joint press conference to attempt to quell the noise.
However, Irving is still considered to be the cornerstone of the Cavs, who also have the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft. One of either Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins is expected to be selected by Cleveland, giving Blatt another young promising prospect to nurture on a roster that has underachieved in recent seasons.
“It’s a team with a lot of question marks, with the future of star guard Kyrie Irving at the top of the list,” said Stein. “But teams that are hiring new coaches are almost always coming off a season of disappointment. Blatt was never going to be handed a ready-made team. The Cavs have a lot of interesting pieces to make trades and shake things up quickly. It also helps to be in the Eastern Conference, where one good trade can move you up the ladder quickly.”
Blatt becomes Cleveland’s third coach in three years, but Stein hopes club owner Dan Gilbert will be showing a little more patience with the Israeli.
“No owner has been less patient in recent years than Gilbert. Firing Mike Brown with four guaranteed years left on his contract is basically unprecedented,” Stein noted. “But I’d like to believe Blatt is going to get some time now. I’d like to believe Gilbert really doesn’t want to make coaching changes annually."
“Gilbert is willing to spend more than most owners, which tends to solve a lot of problems,” Stein added. “Coaches and GMs want to work in Cleveland – no matter how difficult some of the working conditions might be – because they know they’ll get a lot of backing from ownership when it comes to resources.”
Blatt initially received an offer to become Steve Kerr’s top assistant coach at the Golden State Warriors, but he turned it down after impressing in his interviews with the Cavs last week.
“I was pleasantly surprised that Gilbert, after chasing so many big-name college coaches, was willing to hire a guy who can obviously coach but has no profile in the States,” Stein admitted.
“I really thought Blatt was going to have to start out as an assistant in the NBA because so many NBA players don’t know him, which had me convinced that no team would take a chance on him straight out of Europe. As an American-Israeli like David himself, I’m thrilled to be wrong on this one.”
Despite entering unknown territory, Stein believes Blatt is ready for life in the NBA.
“The Cavs don’t face anything close to the nightly pressure that Maccabi does,” he explained. “Maccabi is expected to win every game it plays. Dealing with that sort of pressure should help Blatt tune out the noise as he gets started in Cleveland. I also don’t think Blatt is going to be treated harshly. NBA executives really have only good things to say about him. Everyone knows this guy can coach.”