The Cleveland Cavaliers’ recent NBA turnaround has rightfully halted speculation about Israeli David Blatt’s status as head coach. Their current 11-game winning streak on the heels of losing 10 out of 11 contests has reconfirmed the Cavs’ reputation as an extremely up-and-down team. But as opposed to earlier season four- and eight-game winning streaks, Blatt’s team now appears to be more firmly headed in the right direction.
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Most of the credit, and rightfully so, has been attributed to the play of a renewed and refreshed LeBron James after a two-week hiatus due to various injuries. The addition of Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert via recent trades has also been cited as a significant contributing factor. What has received less attention is the former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach’s role during this period.
According to ESPN analyst and former NBA coach Mark Jackson, “David Blatt deserves credit for having held down the fort” during a media feeding frenzy of commentary about the Cavs’ poor play as well as rumors of Blatt’s losing the team’s attention, discord between himself and James and the inevitable questions about his future with the club.
Through all of this, Blatt has never displayed panic, remained positive and continually refocused expectations through reiterating that the Cavaliers are still in the beginning a multi-year process toward becoming title contenders. He has never wavered from his core coaching principles of team-oriented offense and pressure defense, despite the reality of enormous dependence on three superstars (Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, along with James), an extremely weak supporting cast and a team-wide tendency of matador defense.
During the current win streak the Cavaliers are slowly showing signs of the cohesiveness and team chemistry that had been lacking all season. James seems to be playing like the LeBron of old, both mentally and physically, and there’s a much more concerted effort on defense. Effort on defense is contagious and has been bolstered by the addition of Mozgov, who gives them a physical presence and a rim protector that was previously lacking.
Blatt has a coaching history of slowly bringing his teams along and developing chemistry and at times, overcoming tremendous odds to achieve success. The Cavaliers’ management, which in the past has had an itchy trigger finger with coaching changes, also deserves some recognition for staying patient during the embarrassing losing streak and maelstrom of controversy.
Despite their current success, the Cavs are still a work in progress. Some of their problems are fixable but others call for additional roster adjustments. The most pressing task is to better integrate Love into the framework of the Cavs’ James- and Irving-dominated offense. Throughout his NBA career, Love has been one of the league’s most productive offensive performers. He is currently averaging 17 points a game, a shocking 9 points less than last season. At the moment, Love has become basically a three-point shooter while analytical studies show that he is most productive when operating in what’s known as the elbow of the key. In theory, this is a problem that can be alleviated by tinkering with the offense until Love gets more touches in his sweet spot.
Other possibilities could involve thinking out of the box, like having Love come off the bench or even having LeBron coming off the bench, which he recently volunteered to do.
Cleveland’s more serious problems are structural. Despite their new additions, the Cavs still have a extremely weak, unproductive bench which leaves them vulnerable when their key players get injured. This can only be addressed through further roster changes and may only be possible in the off-season.
There are certainly further big challenges ahead for Cleveland but for now, Blatt and the Cavaliers have weathered their first major storm.