clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Blatt's Offense Didn't Make Sense For the Cavs, But Does For The Wolves

Just because the Cavs are stuck in the iso-ball of the mid-2000's doesn't mean the Wolves should be too.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

What else can be said about the David Blatt firing?

Countless articles have been written by those closer to the situation than I, all the talking heads on network television have already submitted their takes, and every NBA fan has a theory on why a 30-11 team fired its head coach. Though this is a Timberwolves website and the Cleveland Cavaliers' relative dysfunction has little bearing on the day-to-day operations of our favorite franchise, it's impossible to talk about David Blatt's coaching ability without addressing the elephant in the room. Especially when this elephant might as well be asking Mary Todd Lincoln how she enjoyed the rest of the play.

In the wake of the firing it's hard to completely believe almost any article that claims to have inside sources into the situation. The pro-firing articles read like plots to 90's Disney movies, with clear-cut heroes, villains, and life lessons to be learned. Given Blatt's reputation as a tough, but fair, coach in Israel and Russia, it's hard to imagine he would be timid in calling out his star players unless he had good reason to be. But the anti-firing articles just come off as idyllic, and sour grapes directed at a player who hasn't missed an NBA Finals in half a decade. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between Chris Haynes' and Adrian Wojnarowski's takes on the situation.

Because it's important to thoroughly understand what went wrong in Cleveland, I'll attempt briefly to state how I believe the last 19 months in Cleveland shook out as briefly as I can. Throughout the article I'll mostly be focusing on the offensive impact Blatt provides, as often times assistant coaches can be brought in to coach the other side of the ball (As an aside, the Wolves should really look into trying to steal former St. Thomas standout Sean Sweeney away from the Bucks for this exact purpose). From the start:

Foremost, it appears LeBron never gave Blatt a legitimate chance. James seemed to undermine him from the very beginning, and the principles which made Blatt successful overseas weren't even given a single practice to be implemented (there isn't an NBA-level offense that can be "mastered" in a single practice, no matter how intelligent the player. It couldn't be more obvious that James took the gist of Blatt's offense, then grafted his own, iso-friendly, style of play onto it.) Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, forever aware of how fortunate he is that one of greatest players in NBA history was willing to forgive a strongly-worded, Comic Sans'd, breakup letter and return to his franchise, has sought atonement via enablement. While James probably needs is a more authoritarian figure in the vein of Pat Riley to rein him in, Gilbert has instead apparently given James far too strong of a voice in the how the franchise is run. There's a line between catering to your franchise player and completely bending your knee to him, and the reports that the Cavaliers haven't crossed that line just aren't believable when Gilbert is paying (between salary and luxury tax) $43 million this season for Tristan Thompson.

Instead of being given the opportunity to instill his more-equal opportunity offense that would've been of great benefit to the talented, but limited, Kevin Love like a head coach should, Blatt was effectively neutered, forced to watch as Love was shoved into the corner to accommodate for LeBron and Kyrie's isolation onslaught.

The Kevin Love situation has also really turned into somewhat of a nightmare for Cleveland. Though he's the most prolific-scoring third option in the league, this can't be what Gilbert, James, and co. imagined they mortgaged their future to land him. On paper a teaming of LeBron, Kyrie, and Love should work, but it would require both LeBron and Irving to assume a fair amount of their touches on the wing, and not dominate the ball in the middle third of the court like they have for the rest of their careers. An argument could even be made that Cavaliers should've known LeBron in particular would struggle to make changes to his preferred style of play, as transcendent player often do when they age, and declined to pursue Love on that basis. But it's asinine to pretend that a stretch forward like Channing Frye or Ryan Anderson plus whatever the extra cap room would've turn into would give the Cleveland a better chance at a title than Love does. There are very few power forwards that possess the skill-set Lebron needs to fire on all cylinders, and he left one of them in Miami. Love has also been having problems with his back which has also hampered his effectiveness; €”another obstacle for Blatt that was completely outside his control.

The final nail in Blatt's coffin came when the Cavs were absolutely dismantled by the Warriors on both sides of the floor, with Golden State running an offense with many of the same principles that Blatt had built his overseas reputation on (free-flowing movement, quick hitters where the ball-handler is trusted to read and react, and a fine-tuned balance between the individual and the team). In a flourish of irony that would make Alanis Morissette blush, lacking the Popovich-required success it takes to survive a 30-point loss, the most successful coach in Cavaliers history was then shown the door because the Cavs looked hopeless against the type of team he strived to meld them into.

But this move perfectly illustrates the difference between a firing without cause, and a canning that leaves a bad taste in the public's mouth. Semantics aside, David Blatt lost the Cavaliers' locker room—if he ever had it in the first place. Cleveland's in championship-or-bust mode, and it's all but impossible to win a title when the head coach isn't respected by this players. Blatt was definitely mistreated and a string of post-signing bad luck fated him to a lose-lose situation, but that doesn't change the fact that with him at the helm the Cavaliers didn't stand much of a chance against whoever emerges from the West, be it the Warriors, Spurs, or possibly even Thunder. This wasn't the best look for the Cavaliers, but neither is losing in the Finals—which looked an almost certainty after last Monday's game was over midway through the second quarter.

Despite his struggles in Cleveland, it's easy to see how Blatt would fair better in Minnesota. Every team has unique personalities and needs, and while Blatt wasn't the right coach for the Cavaliers, he could very easily be just what the Wolves need. Before he took the Cleveland job, Blatt was actually near the top of Flip Saunders' wish list of prospective coaches-in-waiting in the summer of 2014. His recent experiences could be muddling the perception on his coaching abilities, but before he even arrived to the NBA, Blatt had already amassed quite a resume.

After coaching him for four years at Princeton, legendary coach Pete Carril only had praise for Blatt: "He was an all-around player. He knew how to play. Very smart, tough, strong, played to win. It would be hard to find a guy better than that.''  Despite unassuming basic stats, Blatt immediately began a 12-year career playing professional basketball in Israel until he suffered a career-ending injury in 1993. Undeterred, within six years he was the head coach of famed Israeli club Maccabi Tel Aviv, and by 2006 he was coaching the Russian National Team.

"I'm a Jewish/Israeli/American who walked into the old Soviet Union and won a European Championship," Blatt told The Cleveland Plain Dealer in a 2014 interview. "When it comes to basketball, what is there to be afraid of?"

It's quotes like these that make it hard to believe the reports that Blatt was spineless upon arrival in Cleveland. In 2014 he reached cult hero status among Israeli fans when he shocked the basketball world by winning the Euroleague title with Macabbi. To quote an ESPN article from when he signed with the Cavaliers:

"Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach," said one admiring Western Conference general manager who attended the Euroleague Final Four. "David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA."

How Blatt did it is even more impressive than that lofty praise can convey, because those two games showed off his fantastic versatility as a coach. Though his offensive hybrid compromised of equal parts classic Princeton offense and the read-and-react, quick-hitting style popularized by small-ball earned him the Euroleague Coach of the Year award in 2014, he was forced to adapt, coming up with creative solutions to maximize his under-manned team's meager advantages in each game. Full game tape for both matchups can be found on Macabbi's YouTube page.

In the Semi-Finals Blatt found his Maccabi team in a classic grit-and-grind affair with CSKA Moscow. Down as many as 13 points in the second half, Blatt had to lean heavily on ball movement to free up stretch forward David Blu. This is a game that really featured Blatt's Princeton-style offense, with its quick-hitter sets which quickly morphs into very NBA-style read-and-react scenarios. After four quick points from Moscow's best player, the 6'11" Sasha Kaun (who would later join Blatt in Cleveland), within minutes of the tip Blatt made the decision to go small-ball in an attempt to sideline Kaun.

Subbing out their traditional center and tallest starter, the 6'9" Andrija Žižić, for athletic, 6'8" Alex Tyus, Blatt made a concerted effort to tire Kaun out by pushing the pace in transition and making Kaun work in pick and rolls. When Kaun was forced out of the game and replaced with the 6'6" Kyle Hines, Blatt immediately subbed Tyus out for 6'9", 345 pound Sofoklis Schortsanitis in an attempt to punish the outmatched Hines inside. The rest of the game proceeded in this fashion. If Blatt couldn't use talent to bring down Moscow, he was determined to break their back with versatility. On a night where Maccabi shot 43.75% from the field and lost the rebounding battle 43 to 30, they were able to steal the game away after another timely three from Blu and a layup off a turnover in the final seconds.

For the championship game against Euroleague powerhouse Real Madrid, Blatt was able to find a different formula for success. Again down by double-digits, but this time to NBA-caliber players such as Nikola Mirotić, Rudy Fernández, and Sergio Rodríguez, Blatt completely scrapped the schemes that had delivered them to the title game, instead going with what was working.

Focusing more on an onslaught of pick-and-rolls from the top of the key, Blatt allowed point guards Ricky Hickman and Tyrese Rice they freedom they needed to bring Maccabi back. Hickman and Rice combined to shoot only 12 of 34 from the field, but they got to the line 17 times and only missed a single free throw between them. In overtime, Rice was the deciding factor, scoring eight straight points to open the period and 14 of his 28 points in the final five minutes. Watching Hickman and Rice run countless pick-and-pops with the versatile Maccabi bigs, it's not difficult to picture Kevin Love popping to the top of the key instead.

It's abundantly clear how this offensive system can help the development of the Wolves young core. While Sam Mitchell is attempting to teach Wiggins, LaVine, and Muhammad how to score in iso situations, it appears the future of basketball is in the image of the Kerr, Popovich, and Blatt-style offenses: Free-wheeling motion, and multi-skilled players using their intelligence to tire opposing defenses with reads off simple actions and sets. Without question the skills that Mitchell is teaching this group will come in handy during crunch times of highly contested games, especially for Wiggins and LaVine who are being groomed to fill that role. But while those skills are still important, are they as important in the current era of NBA basketball as they were ten, or even five, years ago? Also, it's worth noting that while there wasn't a single player who averaged for than four assists per game on the 2013-14 Maccabi team, that doesn't mean that Ricky Rubio will struggle to find a place in the offense. There is still a need for players who can identify and throw creative passes leading to easy baskets, but the sole burden of proving those looks will be at least partially eased from Rubio's shoulders.

However the player who figures to benefit most from Blatt's coaching style is undoubtedly Karl-Anthony Towns. Though I think Sam Mitchell has done an under-appreciated job with Towns so far this year (I know, I know, unpopular opinion: Everybody wants a coach that's willing to be hard on their young, inexperienced superstar until it's staring them in the face), the potential that KAT's skill set brings isn't being 100% utilized—and that's his outstanding passing ability. One of the motions that frequently appeared in Blatt's Maccabi playbook was ripped directly from his mentor, the aforementioned, legendary Pete Carril. The infamous Princeton action, which revolves around getting a forward or center the ball a high-post touch with the defense stretched thin horizontally, provides an exquisite perch to feed back-door cutters. This action is so effective that almost led to one-seed Georgetown, anchored by Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, being upset by a bunch of 16th-seeded Ivy League geeks in the 1989 NCAA Tournament. This is the spot from the floor where Karl did most of his passing damage from the perimeter during his lone season at Kentucky, but too frequently Minnesota's offense screeches to a halt when Towns catches the ball in the high-post. If Blatt lands in Minnesota and is able to run the offense he wants to run (and why wouldn't he?), it could make for an imposing catch-22 for opposing defenses as our young stars continue to develop.

Until then, the Timberwolves remain at another crossroad in the franchise's history. The Spurs and Warriors have completely rewritten the script during over the past two and a half years on how an elite NBA offense should be run. The chess of positionless basketball simply has the checkers of iso-ball pinned, and that doesn't seem likely to reverse in the imminent future. While the Cavaliers might be stuck in the past, there's no reason why the Wolves shouldn't capitalize on their lack of foresight and snatch up a proven, accomplished coach to occupy the vacuum left by Flip's tragic passing. The momentum that Saunders brought to the organization is in danger of dissipating, and with professional veterans like Kevin Garnett, Tayshaun Prince, and Andre Miller to help him along, there will be nobody looking to challenge and undermine Blatt's vision.

The Wolves need a way to wash the poor taste the first half of the season has left in their mouths, and Blatt needs a fresh start. Also, Shabazz Muhammad really, really needs to learn how to pass the ball. All in all, it seems like a pretty good recipe for a basketball marriage in the Northland.