The Talented Mr. Blatt
By Harri Mannonen
David Blatt is doing a stellar job as the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He is not only winning big time, but he’s also successfully challenging the current mainstream of offensive tactics in the NBA. That combination is a remarkable feat—especially given Blatt’s lack of NBA experience prior to this season, plus the numerous injuries the Cavs have had to face. To fully explain Blatt’s transition to the NBA and Cleveland’s success offensively, let’s break things down in a Q&A format.
How is Blatt challenging the current mainstream?
The mainstream is to encourage passing, ball movement, and players’ off-ball movement. Blatt directs the Cavaliers into the opposite direction. He severely limits both the ball movement and the players’ off-ball movement.
What, then, is the Cavs’ offense like?
The Cavs simply set up a pick-and-roll or an isolation. Players not directly involved in the action spread the floor. The player with the ball attacks and/or passes to an open teammate. When a shot goes up, someone crashes the offensive boards.
What’s so great or novel about this? Isn’t regression to isolation basketball exactly what bad NBA offenses have always been infamous for?
Yes. While they use a lot of pick-and-rolls, too, so do other teams. Blatt’s crucial virtue has been to realize that isolations can be used as the basis for an efficient team offense. That is what sets the Cavs apart from the rest of the league.
How is it possible to use isolations as the basis of an efficient team offense?
First, you must have players who can effectively score against their defenders when left one-on-one. This will either give you a decent shot straight off the bat, or force the opponent to send a double-team.
Second, you need proper spacing, so that once the double-team comes, it is possible for the ball handler to find an open teammate.
Third, passing must be well-timed and precise. This allows you to make use of the advantage created by the double-team and the spacing.
Fourthly, and maybe most importantly: you need current NBA rules and the way they are being interpreted.
What do the NBA rules have to do with playing isolation basketball?
The defensive three-second rule drastically affects the dynamics of the offense-defense interplay. If the spacing of the offense is proper, it is impossible for the defense to clog the middle.
How do the Cavs use the defensive three-second rule to their advantage?
Say they have LeBron James with the ball on the right wing. The other four Cavs are spread on the left side, everyone within their shooting range, everyone standing still. James takes his time with the ball, walks, dribbles into a spot he likes, and looks around to see what the defenders do.
If the opponents play him one-on-one, the player guarding James has two basic options: play him tight or drop off him. The Cavs are fine with both options; according to Basketball Reference, James is shooting 37.7 percent on long twos and 72.2 percent at the rim. His driving ability is enhanced by the fact that in these situations, the lane is open for sure.
The third option for the defense is to bring a second defender to the right side of the lane to begin with. This leaves a four-on-three situation on the left side of the floor. James simply makes the skip pass and the Cavs attack with a man advantage. Not a bad situation for them, either.
What’s important about the way the NBA rules are interpreted?
In one-on-ones the offensive player is given a substantial extra advantage because traveling is called very loosely and hand checking very strictly. It’s tough enough to stop James or Kyrie Irving in an isolation no matter how the game is called. Now that they are effectively allowed to travel, it’s next to impossible.
Why should the Cavs on the weak side be standing still?
Because it makes it easy for the ball handler to see who’s left open, a task that would be more difficult if the other Cavs were moving. One defender may cover two defensive players should they cross each other’s path or should the spacing be incorrect.
So then why do most good teams run offenses that are based on a great deal of off-ball movement?
This type of offense is common overseas, because in other leagues and FIBA basketball they don’t have the defensive three-second rule. Plus the refs usually don’t favor the offense quite so much. Given these conditions, teams need off-ball movement for two purposes: they must stop the defense from clogging the middle, and the ball handler needs some preliminary actions to gain an advantage over his defender in the one-on-one.
How come some successful NBA teams emphasize ball and player movement, too?
Under any set of basketball rules and their interpretations, there are a lot of ways to play effective offense. I’m not saying that Blatt and the Cavs’ way is the only one. What I’m saying is that there is logic to it and that it is an interesting one.
Why, then, has Blatt been criticized so bluntly?
Most of those critics seem quite clueless about what Blatt is actually doing. In other words, they do not understand basketball thoroughly enough to understand his coaching.
Also, a lot of criticism has been not about his general choices regarding tactics but rather about random incidents. Like trying to call a timeout when he had none left, or being overruled by James while trying to draw an out-of-bounds play.
Yes, it was a mistake to try to call a timeout when they had none left. But come on, a coach builds a great offensive scheme and you judge him by this one random mistake?
What about the out-of-bounds incident in the Game 4 against Bulls?
The way it’s been turned into a scandal is a joke. Blatt listened to his best player, didn’t let his own his ego get in the way, and did what was good for the team—and the team won. It happens all the time in any kind of business.
The Cavs’ isolation offense obviously calls for good one-on-one players. What else do you need?
Good shooters so you can spread the floor on the weak side. You also need an athletic big man—like Timofey Mozgov. On offense, you put him in the weak side short corner so that his defender has to get out of the lane. But because Mozgov is so big and mobile he can still crash the offensive glass from the short corner position should the isolated player take a jumper.
How can the Cavs improve their offense in the future?
They may run traditional set plays too often. It looks like they should put more faith in their isolation offense. But it’s hard to tell, because too much of anything can be dangerous.
Their isolation offense needs improvement, too. Once they have created an advantage—like the four-on-three in the example explained above—they could do a better job of exploiting it. It is there that Blatt’s tactics and the Cavs’ execution remains somewhat underdeveloped.
The execution can always be improved. It is an admittedly thin line between the Cavs’ team-oriented isolation offense and the old-fashioned one-against-five isolation offense that could spell doom.
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