Win more than 50 games — check. Beat the Boston Celtics, Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks — check, check and check. Advance to the NBA Finals — check. The Cavaliers have achieved all of this under the leadership of David Blatt. Contrary to popular belief, David Blatt is the head coach of the Cavs, not LeBron James.
Coming into the season and even the playoffs, one of the biggest question marks was how David Blatt’s coaching would translate to the NBA. Throughout the season and playoffs, the talk surrounding Blatt has been about his missteps or his relationship with LeBron. Is James respecting Blatt as coach? What is with the early season struggles with the team? How could he almost call a timeout when he did not have one in the Chicago series? These are just some of the questions we have heard over the course of the season. Lost in all these questions, however, has been a heck of a coaching job by Blatt.
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By straight stats and results alone, it sure seems like he has made a seamless and successful transition. And as you look at how this team has developed as the season has gone on, Blatt deserves a lot of the credit.
First, think about the personnel changes and roster adjustments that have happened over the course of the season. At the start of the year, Blatt had to sew a team of more than half composed of new players together. Then came the two big trades in the middle of the season that brought in Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov. But these trades did not end the roster changes. In the playoffs, Blatt has had to deal with the loss of Kevin Love and the hobbling of Kyrie Irving. Through all these changes, the team has won 53 games, advanced to the NBA Finals, and played some of their best basketball in the playoffs.
Blatt deserves some recognition for this success. He was able to mold his lineup and rotation through three different phases of the season. He was able to adjust his gameplan throughout the season given the roster he was dealt. He has been able to get the team together to play as a team and run a system that best suits the players. But, his roster management is just one aspect of Blatt that has stood out to me.
The other impressive aspect of David Blatt’s coaching this season is his ability to adjust between games and even in games. Let’s go series by series to examine his ability to adjust within a series.
Contrary to popular belief, David Blatt is the head coach of the Cavs, not LeBron James.
In the Boston series, Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas blistered the Cavs in Game 1 and 2, averaging 22 points on a 42.9 percent shooting. The Cavs were hurt by his ability to score. So in Game 3 and 4, David Blatt adjusted the defensive alignment on Thomas, causing his scoring to decline. Thomas scored just five points on a 22.2 percent shooting in Game 3 and scored 21 points at a 23.5 percent field goal clip in Game 4. Blatt made it difficult for Thomas, throwing double teams and different defenders at him, and his scoring volume and efficiency both suffered.
In the Chicago series, the Bulls were successful in Game 1 with the pick and roll and Derrick Rose was very productive early in the series, too. Blatt admitted later that he was wrong in how he had his team defend the pick and roll in Game 1. So in the games that followed, he adjusted the defensive scheme versus the pick and roll, resulting in an overall better defensive performance.
The Cavs really struggled staying in front of Rose and could barely slow him down early in the series. In Games 1-4, Rose had games of 25, 14, 30, and 31 points. He was wreaking havoc on the Cavs’ defense. Then Blatt made the decision to put the long and athletic Iman Shumpert on Rose. Shumpert played Rose well and seemed to wear him down as the series went on. Rose finished the series with games of just 16 and 14 points.
In the Atlanta series, there were not much adjustments needed because of a strong initial gameplan. One of the shrewd moves was putting Iman Shumpert on Kyle Korver; Shump hounded the sharpshooter and made it extremely difficult for Korver to get free when running off screens. The team decided that Korver was one of the biggest keys to Hawks’ offense, so Blatt placed his best perimeter defender on him. The series was just complete dominance by the Cavs players and coaches.
David Blatt helped an overall adjustment to the team in terms of defense. Early in the season, the Cavaliers were horrible on the defensive side of the ball. With the midseason acquisitions, Blatt helped build a strong defense that has ranked as one of the best in the playoffs (third with a 98.5 defensive rating, behind just the Wizards and Bulls, who played one less series than the Cavs). The Cavs had a 105.1 defensive rating before the All-Star break, improving to a 102 defensive rating after the All-Star break, and 98.5 defensive rating in the playoffs.1 The team improved more and more throughout the season.
Yes, I know a lot of the credit should be given to LeBron James. He is the heart and soul of the team, the best player, and he’s often like a coach on the floor. But, David Blatt deserves some credit and confidence going forward. He’s earned it. He has shown thus far that he can adjust to any obstacle and put his players in the best position to be successful.
“The coaching staff is going to prepare us the best way we can,” said LeBron James, explaining his confidence in Blatt and the coaching staff following the Game 4 win over the Hawks. “The coaching staff will give us the greatest game plan we can to win against Houston or against Golden State.”
With the Warriors up next, David Blatt will put his best gameplan together to slow down Stephen Curry and Golden State. With all the evidence and results I have seen from Blatt so far, I have full confidence in his ability to put a smart plan together and adjust in-game to different situations versus the Warriors.
Playoff stats come with caveat of small sample size, but still.