Experience is a relative term. When Phil Jackson won his first title as a head coach in 1991, he was in just his second season as coach of the Chicago Bulls and had spent only two years prior to that as an NBA assistant under Doug Collins. Gregg Popovich became head coach of the San Antonio Spurs in 1996 and won his first title in 1999, a three-year learning curve in the lead seat. Erik Spoelstra took over the Miami Heat in 2008 and won his first title during his fourth season, in 2012. Technically, those bench-minders hadn’t served much NBA time before lifting the Larry O’Brien.
Sure, all three had the benefit of some of the greatest players of their generations. But the other vital piece in shortening their routes to rings was the lengthy journey each took to coaching at the highest level. PhilJax spent seven years after his playing days coaching in Puerto Rico and Albany before he got an NBA shot. Pop started as an assistant at Air Force in 1973 and was an exec before he grabbed an NBA clipboard and Spo’ started with the Miami Heat in 1995 as a video coordinator and moved up Pat Riley’s bench. “Inexperienced” coaches who win have usually paid heavy dues to get to the top and even then, with the MJs, Tim Duncans and LeBron Jameses of the game under their tutelage, those trophies didn’t come immediately.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are expected to contend for a championship this season, but they’ll be led by rookie head coach David Blatt, who has a wealth of coaching experience overseas but never spent a single NBA season on the bench. Of course, here, success is another relative term. In Cleveland, a bunch of wins in the regular season will be expected, not celebrated. A deep playoff run? Necessary. A championship? It’s the only thing that matters.
We’ve been here before. When LeBron joined the Miami Heat back in 2010, it was with the same immediate expectations that exist now. That team got off to a 9-8 start, the fit between LeBron and Dwyane Wade was awkward at best, and an incident where LeBron brushed by Spoelstra on the way to the bench was the center of conversations of Pat Riley potentially looming as a replacement. It took the Heat another year to figure it all out.
Blatt faces the same pressure as Spoelstra did in Miami and Mike Brown did in Cleveland because of the mere presence of LeBron, but even with the same “inexperienced coach plus best player in the game” math, Blatt’s situation is entirely different. For starters, Pat Riley was in control of the Heat organization in 2010 and despite all the whispers, placed his full support behind Spoelstra; the ax didn’t swing low over Spo’s head despite media and fan pressure. And within a year, the Heat had hit their goal.
Blatt’s task in Cleveland likely won’t get even that much breathing room. Though LeBron James’ homecoming letter preached patience and acknowledged a process that would take time, it’s hard to think LeBron will be happy if the Cavs don’t win a title this season. Aside from Love, the team has added veterans Mike Miller, Shawn Marion, and James Jones (and maybe Ray Allen.) The time is now.
There’s also no Riley figure in Cleveland. The Cavs have already ceded some—or perhaps the correct word here is most—of their organizational control over to LeBron. He left Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett out of his letter, placed a call to Dion Waiters before he made his decision public, and got in touch with Love immediately after his announcement. LeBron might not be making these transactions in an official capacity, but everything that’s happened this summer has his fingerprints on it. And though he says he’s never leaving again, LeBron is operating on a two-year deal, with the leverage of opting out if the Cavs don’t do what’s necessary to win. There’s nothing in the way of the guillotine for Blatt if this doesn’t work.
Second, even without having observed the NBA game up close for years, Blatt’s technical knowledge differentiates him from Mike Brown’s case. Where Brown’s limited offensive schemes often hampered LeBron’s true potential, Blatt has a reputation for being a brilliant basketball mind, capable of offensive innovations tailored to his personnel. In an interview earlier this summer, Blatt mentioned implementing elements of the Princeton offense and employing LeBron James as a stretch four, a position where the LeBron that is returning to Cleveland is much more comfortable operating than the LeBron who left in 2010.
Blatt’s an adaptive coach, and based on Cleveland’s personnel, he’ll have to do just that. Undersized in the middle, Blatt will have to stretch the floor and LeBron’s slimmed down in order for the team to run. The first-year NBA head coach will need to work with Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters to improve their spacing (on-court and in the locker room, too) so they can capitalize when defenses collapse on LeBron. Kevin Love’s game has been criticized endlessly in the long-rumored trade from Minnesota. Blatt’s going to have to be an advanced level innovator for an elite player, a teacher to playoff virgins and a restorative mentor for a vilified player entering his prime.
It’s still important to remember that Blatt’s hire came before LeBron’s decision to return. Publicly, LeBron has said all the right things about working with the rookie head coach but the power moves it took to build this team weren’t undertaken so that the Cavs could take their time figuring things out—not in the 50th anniversary year of Cleveland’s last pro sports championship.
No one will feel that pressure as much as Blatt this season. And while even the greats needed a year or three to win it all, the highly decorated, much anticipated rookie coach likely won’t even get that.
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