While it’s great to be the king, the next best thing is for him to have your back. That simple fact has buoyed an at-times rocky start to the year for Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt.
A year after LeBron James (aka King James) and his return to Cleveland was the hot NBA story, that heat’s moved to the defending champ Golden State Warriors, who’ve played an unprecedented twenty-two games this year (heading into Tuesday night at Indiana) without losing.
It’s seems the shifted spotlight rankles James in the manner with which he continually complements the Warriors on their sterling play and unflagging willingness to “play right.”
But Blatt can’t be too upset about it. No longer hung with the “rookie coach” appellation, the lower media glare has meant potentially viral moments go largely uncommented.
To wit, up 26 points in the third quarter against at home against the Atlanta Hawks two weeks ago, James grew upset with the sloppy “garbage time” play and subbed himself out without notifying anyone, earning a technical foul.
Jared Cunningham had put an entry pass to a posting James about a foot away from his outstretched hand, the second turnover in as many possessions. Like a frustrated parent, he just left the room.
Blatt scrambled to get Richard Jefferson up to sub, but James had already sat down. Play started and the Cavaliers received a technical for having only four players on the floor. It was a new variation on James’s tendency to linger on the offensive end when a call doesn’t go his way, though in this instance he apologized for “blowing a gasket.”
Blatt made light of the incident explaining that James thought they were playing hockey, where subs enter on the fly. The ease Blatt showed in handling the situation is indicative of both the greater respect he’s received from the beat writers this year, and the lower volume of attention devoted to his team.
For his own part, Blatt seems to have turned down the caustic meter a notch. While San Antonio’s five-time champion coach Gregg Popovich treats reporters’ frequently lame questions with eye-rolling disdain, that’s a right he’s earned with seniority and success (not necessarily in that order).
Blatt got the memo and has been more patient with the barrage of questions, wondering how cool it is to watch and/or coach a great player like LeBron James, or rhetorically pondering if he’s ever seen anything similar.
Blatt’s not only enjoyed a better relationship with the press. James has been more proactive in supporting the coach.
During a recent interview James said that Blatt “does his job as great as any coach can do in the league.”
That’s the most unqualified praise Blatt’s received from James, though during the playoffs he did credit him with doing a “hell of a job,” which went largely unreported. Told of James’ comments, Blatt said, “It’s easier to coach a team when you’ve got LeBron James on your side. It sure makes it a heckuva lot nicer.”
Despite the constant rumors of disconnect last season, the Blatt-LeBron relationship suggested side-view mirrors in a car, where objects are closer than they appear.
The Cavaliers’ playoff run seems to have cemented that “It’s pretty easy to team up with a guy like that,” Blatt noted. “It’s also refreshing to come in everyday and be about the same things.”
Indeed, James and Blatt have begun to sound like one of Hollywood’s “unlikely buddy” movies complete with total good cop/bad cop roles.
Blatt is the even-handed one who won’t call out players by name and often wants to note the positives.
LeBron’s the volatile, more menacing character who takes the team’s inconsistency personally. He sounds more like Robert Duvall’s hard-ass ex-marine The Great Santini than the spokesman for Sprite or Nike.
“We should always have a sense of urgency,” James said after a recent game. “And a sense of urgency comes from playing a little bit angrier.”
Walking-off-the-court-LeBron and “Angry LeBron” are part of James’s latest motivational strategy.
Despite the Cavaliers’ 13-7 record at quarter-mark of the season, their effort’s been inconsistent particularly at the defensively end. That’s most vexing because defense keyed their playoff run and they’d hoped to make it part of their team’s identity this season.
Instead they’ve played great in spurts and abjectly bad for equally long stretches. They’ve not responded to the fact that teams get up to play them and consequently have found themselves being outplayed and outhustled by inferior teams.
Only in the second half, and more often the fourth quarter, have they finally shaken loose from their lethargy and played high-level basketball.
In the same blowout victory that produced James’s blown gasket, Blatt reiterated both men’s complaint that the team plays in bursts with intermittent intensity like a radio signal that goes in and out. He noted that for all they did well at times they didn’t “play right.”
“At times we weren’t playing right, we weren’t good with the ball, we weren’t making good decisions, and weren’t as focused in different areas of the game on both sides of the ball as we need to be,” Blatt explained before the next game. “That’s part of disciplining themselves, but we try to play at a high level all the time.”
This is something James has referred to as well, noting the team’s inability to field a lineup that could/would play defense for a full 48 minutes after their loss to the Pelicans.
Their effort problem could be viewed as a First World problem inasmuch as even without their star point guard Kyrie Irving and defensive stopper Iman Shumpert, the Cavaliers have the second-best record in the conference, just a half-game behind the Heat. Getting those two back will clearly tip the talent factor further in their direction.
It is a long season, and what happens in the first 82 games have only so much bearing on what happens in the playoffs.
The Cavaliers turned from a borderline defense team to the league’s stingiest crew – in part by necessity after losing Kevin Love to injury in the Celtics series. They haven’t returned to that form yet, but there’s still plenty of time.
In fact, last season the Cavaliers were struggling with a similar effort-deficit. Perhaps the team has low grade Seasonal Affective Disorder. Maybe the vets on this team have seen too many seasons to get to excited or depressed until the playoff season starts in the spring.
Irving and Shumpert are expected back within the next two weeks, in time for the team’s epic match-up with the Golden State Warriors on Christmas day. Should the Warriors escape the final games of their current East Coast swing unscathed, they have a good chance of still being unbeaten when they face the Cavaliers in Oakland. (They’ll be gunning for the 29th straight and a shot at the Lakers’ NBA record 33-game winning streak.) After having so many injured players during training camp, it was perhaps inevitable that the team come out of it a work-on-progress. Their 8-1 record to open the season was deceptive because it was run-up against mostly weak teams which never forced the Cavaliers to work until maybe the fourth quarter.
In losing six of their next eleven, the Cavaliers have found themselves challenged by more than their leaders, Blatt and James. They should be able to play hard whether or note the offense is going, and that will be essential in the playoffs. The team, however, lacks their sense of urgency. It’s the defending champ that looks hungry while the Cavaliers look overly satisfied.
The question really is whether they’ll find the focus and intensity one would expect of a champion before the moment when they absolutely need it.