As we have throughout the last several years, WFNY will use the last two weeks of December to discuss the most important stories of the last twelve months. Stay with us as we count down the biggest and most discussed topics of 2016. Our “Best of 2016” takes a turn toward a move that was simultaneously shocking and season-saving.
If you were drawing it up from scratch, there certainly would be easier ways to design winning an NBA Championship. Nobody forgets about falling behind 3-1 in the NBA Finals to the team that just set a new record for most wins in the regular season. There are memes galore to remind everyone of that. In the wake of all the confetti, parades, and celebration, it seems like one aspect of the season—perhaps the most unorthodox decision in the history of Cleveland sports—was simultaneously responsible for making the climb to glory more difficult, but also the very thing that made it possible in the first place.
That decision, of course, was the midseason firing of David Blatt.
By now everyone remembers the stats by heart. The Cleveland Cavaliers were 30-11 and in first place in the Eastern Conference. They were 12-3 in games which LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love all played, with two of those losses being to the Golden State Warriors and the other one belonging to the San Antonio Spurs. Blatt’s coaching record of 83-40 was easily the highest winning percentage of any coach in team history. The previous season, Blatt had guided a team without Kevin Love and eventually without Kyrie Irving to just two wins away from an NBA title. By almost any measurable stat on paper, the David Blatt era was a rousing success.
The only stat that really mattered, of course, was 0-2. As in, 0-2 against the defending champion Warriors, the team virtually everyone expected the Cavaliers to face in the NBA Finals again. In a year and a half at the helm, an awful lot of things went really well for the Cavaliers under David Blatt. But by late January, especially after the thrashing the Cavs took against the Warriors in Oakland, it started to really feel it wasn’t quite enough. The team just wasn’t quite good enough:
But today, there are no moral victories to be found after the butt kicking the team took last night. If you’re looking for silver linings in a game like that, you’re looking for answers in the wrong place. The Cavaliers are stuck in a bad place to be. There is only one outcome to this season that will not be a disappointment, and right now, they are not playing good enough basketball to achieve that outcome.
The Cavaliers play the Spurs at home on Saturday, January 30. If we see a repeat of Monday’s effort in that game, questions will start to pop up about whether or not changes need to be made to this roster before the trade deadline. The last thing the Cavaliers need is that kind of distraction. So keep an eye on these next two weeks, they just might set the tone for the rest of this season. No pressure, eh?
Five days later, David Blatt was fired and Tyronn Lue was promoted to head coach.
It has been said that coaching LeBron James is an interesting endeavor. The word “easy” is rarely invoked. When LeBron took his talents to South Beach to play for Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat, it took time for chemistry to develop. Less than a month into their first season together rumors began to swirl that LeBron was working behind the scenes to get rid of Spoelstra so Pat Riley could come down and coach the team. Riley made it clear that Spoelstra was going nowhere, though, and the two eventually came together and had a great run, winning two titles in four years.
Before LeBron left for Miami, many will recall that the Cavaliers actually fired Mike Brown in what most assumed was a last minute ploy to appease LeBron. While LeBron and Mike Brown had a lot of successful years together in Cleveland, it was always known that LeBron had long preferred being coached by someone who had played in the league. Thus, Byron Scott was hired to attempt to appeal to LeBron’s wishes.
David Blatt had plenty of experience as a professional, both as a player and as a coach. That experience didn’t come from the NBA, but the European leagues, rather. Perhaps the biggest disagreement between Blatt and ‘Bron was on just how much that European experience mattered in the NBA. Blatt came into the league expecting to be treated with respect as a veteran coach with plenty of championship experience. LeBron referred to Blatt as a “rookie coach” several times in the media. That disconnect was ultimately a divide too great to be bridged and the team just wasn’t quite good enough.
And so in stepped another rookie coach, Ty Lue. In some ways, it was akin to Darth Vader taking out Admiral Ozzel and thus appointing Captain Piett to Admiral. The key difference, of course, is that unlike Admiral Piett, Admiral Lue was able to get the job done.
Again, “easy” isn’t a word used to describe what Ty Lue faced. One merely had to look back at NBA history to see that changing coaches midseason was hardly a recipe for winning a title. Only three times in NBA history had a coach won an NBA Championship in the same season he took over at some point in the middle of the season. Two of those three were won by Pat Riley, one of the handful of greatest coaches in the history of this league.
It’s really quite incredible to truly stop and think for a second just how overlooked the firing of David Blatt is when it comes to story lines surrounding the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers. Perhaps because the Cavaliers had to come back from a 3-1 deficit, the midseason coaching change seems like ancient history. Perhaps the magnitude of “The Block” towers over “The Firing”. Perhaps the sheer size of “The Shot” casts a long shadow over it. Maybe when 1.3 million people decided to gather for a parade in this team’s honor, everyone agreed to a social contract that they would only focus on celebrating the accomplishments and not dwell on the things that happened in the regular season.
It’s incredible to stop and think just how overlooked the firing of David Blatt is when it comes to story lines surrounding the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers.
There’s no way to really ever know just how important that moment in time was when Blatt was replaced with Lue. It’s entirely possible the Cavaliers would have won anyway even with Blatt. One the list of people responsible for the Cavaliers’ title, where does Ty Lue rank? Those are unanswerable questions. Thankfully, we live in a results-oriented society. Answers to hypothetical questions don’t mean a thing. The fact is, Lue stepped in and got results. He got Kyrie Irving to forget about what people said about his game and to just be a relentless attack dog on offense. He got Kevin Love to finally embrace his role in Cleveland. In Game 7 of the NBA Finals, he went at LeBron James at halftime and got LeBron to respond.
For the rest of the history of mankind, whenever someone looks back at the Cleveland team that once snapped a 52-year Championship drought in the city, they will see the team was coached by Tyronn Lue. But they will also see the name David Blatt listed as coach for the first 41 games of the season. Maybe they’ll wonder what happened. Why would a coach be replaced after a 30-11 start to the season? Did he get sick? Injured in some way? Were there personal conflicts with ownership and/or management? The last thing they might guess would be that the team simply wasn’t good enough to beat one specific team. But that’s the reality of the decision and the crux of the whole issue. And that is why Lue was chosen to lead the team for the seemingly impossible task.
A lot was said and written at the time of the coaching change about whether or not it was the right thing to do. Coaches around the NBA spoke loudly in defense of David Blatt and against the Cavaliers’ front office. Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Fred Hoiberg, Byron Scott, and Stan Van Gundy all made public comments about it. But no coach spoke out more loudly against the move than Rick Carlise, who said, “I’m embarrassed for our league that something like this could happen like this. It’s just bizarre.”
Back in January, it was fair to question the logic of this move. It was surreal. It was jarring. It was almost unfathomable. Fast forward to June, however, and the image of Ty Lue, head flung deep into a wine and gold towel, sobbing uncontrollably at what his team had just accomplished. In that moment right there, all the doubt has been washed away. All the questions had been answered. All the moves justified. Only one thing mattered in that moment. The Cleveland Cavaliers were NBA Champions, and Ty Lue was the coach who led them there. That David Blatt was fired despite such external success in terms of wins and losses only made the situation that much harder to grasp. But if a team is going to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the NBA Finals anyway, they might as well go through a changing change in the middle of that season just for good measure. In hindsight, it seems like the only logical way any of this could have played out.