This week David Blatt made NBA history by becoming the first head coach to move straight from the Euroleague to the NBA sidelines without prior playing or coaching experience in the world’s top basketball league.
Technically, the Cleveland Caveliers and LeBron James new head man is a “rookie” coach, but he’s far from the typical first-year NBA coach. The 55-year-old Blatt has over 20 years of international experience at the highest levels, including leading the Russian national team to a European championship in 1997 against the then-reigning world champion Spain and later to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics. Of course, Blatt is best known in Israel as long-time assistant and then head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, who guided them to an improbable Euroleague title last spring.
Traditionally, it’s been impossible to predict the success of new NBA head coaches, and former high-profile college coaches have been conspicuously unsuccessful in bridging the gap between the collegiate ranks and the pros. The task of dealing with high expectations, plus the huge skills and often huger egos of NBA players, has often been the downfall of many highly-rated coaching prospects.
At the moment, Blatt is dealing with the multiple tasks of trying to establish team chemistry in a newly revamped lineup and acquainting his squad of mostly American players with a Eurocentric ball movement approach, spiced with a touch of the Princeton offense. Mike Miller, a 14-year veteran of the NBA wars, has already characterized Blatt’s offense as borderline genius, but it remains to be seen how long it will take for the Cavs to incorporate this style of play and transform it into an effective weapon.
At the same time, Blatt is also busy tempering down the lofty expectations that have resulted from James’ return to Cleveland. The mere presence of James has prompted outsized expectations throughout his entire career, and his dramatic recent decision to rejoin the Caveliers is akin to the return of the prodigal son who jilted his home town after never fulfilling the dream of leading the Cavs to a championship during his first tour with the team.
Few coaches are more capable of handling this type of pressure than Blatt. He has already educated the American press that the Cleveland situation is a virtual “bed of roses” compared to the atmosphere at Maccabi, where failure on the court was cause for a national crisis. This week he told the press that the Cavs are still a work in progress and any expectations for a championship this season are unfair.
James echoed Blatt’s opinions a week ago, by saying that the Chicago Bulls, the Cavs prime contenders for the Eastern Division title, are a much better team than the Cavaliers because they have been together a long time and have the chemistry that his own team needs to develop. According to James, that chemistry comes from playing and bonding together, and the experience of going through tough times including unexpected and disappointing defeats.
That long road to a possible championship began Thursday night in Cleveland’s home opener against the New York Knicks and will be followed by a matchup Friday evening against the rival Chicago Bulls.
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