It’s the 17th game of a season that began with a disappointing 7-9 record. In Dallas, one of the most-covered teams in American sports is revealing its weaknesses yet again. It faces a 10-point deficit with 8:52 left in the third quarter.
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The rookie coach calls a time out. A rather angry LeBron James bumps into him on his way to the bench. An accident? On purpose? Who knows. The game ends in a 106-95 loss that only ramps up the pressure.
This isn’t an imaginary situation illustrating the worst-case scenario for David Blatt, the Boston-born Israeli who took over as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ head coach last month. Rather, it’s what happened during James’ first season with the Miami Heat, coached by Erik Spoelstra.
And it wasn’t the first time LeBron collided with a coach. Three years earlier, Cleveland’s coach at the time, Mike Brown, took a shoulder from the big guy.
These cases never sparked much controversy; as far as we know, LeBron has never asked a team to fire its coach, as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson have done. But these incidents prove that the best basketball player in the world doesn’t shun passive aggression against his boss.
Last weekend, the challenge facing Blatt grew exponentially. When the American-Israeli signed on, Cleveland was known for its young all-star, Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. It was also known for its playoff drought. In 2014-15, a trip to the first round of the playoffs would be enough to win Blatt a few votes as coach of the year.
But after last Friday, the team with a 97-215 record since its greatest player ever jumped ship is now a championship contender. The LeBron circus is back in town. The question is, who will run the circus?
Not that James can’t be coached; the opposite is true. LeBron once said of Spoelstra that the “general doesn’t panic, no matter what the situation is,” and about Brown: “I respect him and I’m grateful to have him as a coach throughout the years that I had him. He definitely helped me to become who I am today.”
The feelings are mutual. “He is an extremely hard worker, one of the hardest I’ve been around,” Brown once told The Miami Herald. Mike Krzyzewski, who coached LeBron on the U.S. national team, has made similar statements. “The truth about him is good,” he told The New York Times. “It’s really good. I love LeBron. And the dynamic I have with LeBron is huge.”
That dynamic could make or break Blatt’s NBA career. Blatt is known for his emotions; he screams, he caresses, he curses, he hugs. Players might get offended or annoyed, but almost all respect him. “I know they don’t love me, because I’m hard on them, but I think they like me,” Blatt said after winning the Euroleague with Maccabi Tel Aviv two months ago.
It’s not clear how this recipe will change in Cleveland. Spoelstra, Brown and Paul Silas – LeBron’s first coach – met James armed with experience in the league, but Blatt is still a mystery.
Keith Dambrot, who coached James at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, told The New York Times that “people get a little bit scared” of James; they’re “a little in awe of him,” too.
“They’ve had to get along with him in order to keep their jobs. But he always wanted to be coached. He wants to be told the truth," Dambrot said. "That’s what really struck me between the last Olympics and now. Coach K took one of the greatest talents in the world, maybe ever, and he got him to play defense like a guy at Duke.”
Blatt doesn’t have a resume like Krzyzewski's, but his reputation as a man whose teams play the right way is what got him the job. In that regard, Cleveland is a perfect fit: LeBron is a superstar who always aspires to play the right way. Maybe Blatt’s presence wasn’t a big consideration in James’ decision to return to Cleveland, but it didn’t hurt.
“James does his homework and must know of all the Euroleague success that is a part of Blatt’s coaching history,” wrote Terry Pluto in The Plain Dealer. “My guess is if James heard Blatt was a loser, the Cavs would not be in contention for James.”
More than Team Russia
In the circus’ center ring, Blatt will have to do the juggling. He’ll have to learn on the job amid expectations for immediate success. Even if Phil Jackson’s books on coaching can provide some insight, a how-to guide on dealing with LeBron has yet to be written.
The biggest star Blatt has coached is Andrei Kirilenko — and that was just the Russian national team, not the NBA. Blatt will have to walk a tightrope; he’ll have to assert authority but remain open-minded.
He’ll have to be aggressive but not overly aggressive. He’ll have to stay in control court-side but give freedom to those who know how to use it. In the end, LeBron and Blatt have both won enough games, each in his own way, to know how to make the other guy work.
“To tell the truth, I don’t like to stick to definitions,” Blatt said this week when asked what position LeBron would play. “You need to be a basketball player, and that’s what he is. He’ll find his place, and we’ll find a place for him.”
And thus, within one month, happenstance has jumped Blatt from Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Tyrese Rice to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James — Rice, the guy whose shot put Maccabi in the Euroleague finals.
Blatt's career could take off, but the chance of failure is also high. “My first thought when I heard he was coming back was that I would have a great spot from which to watch the best player in the world,” joked Blatt.
Of course, if Blatt becomes the third coach to collide with the best player in the world, it won’t be so funny. In the meantime, there’s no reason to be pessimistic. Look how it turned out with Rice.