Brendan Haywood played the last of his 13 NBA seasons with David Blatt, LeBron James and the rest of the Cleveland Cavaliers, so he knew the dynamics in the room as Blatt made his way as a rookie NBA head coach in 2014-15.
Based on that, and what he learned from Cleveland contacts he had maintained inside and outside the organization, the former center was less surprised the news that Blatt was fired Friday by the Cavaliers than by its timing.
He shared his thoughts on the Cavs’ dramatic move in an interview on Sirius XM’s NBA Today channel.
“From what I was hearing, David Blatt kind of lost the team,” Haywood told hosts Justine Termine and former NBA player Eddie Johnson. “Then there were differences about what guys should be playing and what guys weren’t playing, from a management-coaching standpoint.
“When you throw in those type of things combined with the fact that Tyronn Lue already had a lot of power in the organization, had a lot of traction, and a lot of people that were there already viewed him as the coach, these type of things happen.”
Lue, 38, the Cavs’ associate coach was promoted to Blatt’s position Friday, agreeing to a new multi-year deal. There had been reports last season that Cleveland players heeded Lue’s instructions, confided in him and leaned more on his advice than on Blatt’s.
Haywood, 36, spent most of his career with Washington, won an NBA championship with Dallas in 2011 and was with Charlotte for one season before arriving in Cleveland in July 2014 in a trade that also delivered shooter Mike Miller. He mostly served as an insurance policy, logging 119 minutes in 22 appearances, but was a witness to the team’s business from within.
“It’s unfortunate because David Blatt’s a good guy,” the 7-footer said. “He was in first place. I’ve never seen a coach in first place fired. And on top of that, they’re in first place and their second-best player [Kyrie Irving] didn’t play most of the first part of the season.”
But there were legitimate reasons for the change that Haywood specified in the satellite radio interview. Among his charges: Blatt had a double standard toward James that other Cavaliers players resented.
“Coach Blatt was very hesitant to challenge LeBron James,” Haywood said. “It was one of those situations where, being a rookie coach, and LeBron being bigger than life, it was a little too much for him. I remember we had James Jones [talk] to Coach about how, ‘Hey, you can’t just skip over when LeBron James makes a mistake in the film room.’ Because we all see it.
“And we’re like, ‘Hey, you didn’t say anything about that. You’re going to correct when Matthew Dellavedova‘s not in the right spot. You’re going to say something when Tristan Thompson‘s not in the right spot. Well, we see a fast break and LeBron didn’t get back on defense or there’s a rotation and he’s supposed to be there, and you just keep rolling the film and the whole room is quiet.’ We see that as players. That’s when … as a player, you start to lose respect for a coach.
“Slowly but surely, that respect started chipping away where he would kind of be scared to correct LeBron in film sessions. When he would call every foul for LeBron in practice. Those type of things add up. Guys are like, ‘C’mon man, are you scared of him?’ ”
Blatt did not meet with reporters Friday, instead releasing a statement through his agents. It read in part: “I’d like to thank [owner] Dan Gilbert and [general manager] David Griffin for giving me this opportunity and am honored to have worked with an amazing group of players from LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love through our entire roster.”
The flashpoints that marked Blatt’s first season in Cleveland – his attempt to call a timeout that the Cavaliers didn’t have left late in a playoff game against Chicago, drawing up a crunch-time play against the Bulls that James vetoed because it didn’t put the ball in his hands, assorted incidents of bad body language by the Cavs superstar relative to his coach – were largely missing this season.
But according to Haywood, they weren’t replaced by the positives needed from the head coach of an NBA championship contender. That’s why he considered Cleveland management’s move Friday to be fair.
“I remember last year telling somebody on the team, ‘I love David Blatt. But if we’re in a close game, he can’t help us,’ ” Haywood said on Sirius XM. “That’s not a shot at Blatt. But … David Blatt can’t come to a huddle and draw up a play that would get us a good shot. David Blatt doesn’t understand sometimes substitution patterns.
“The mistake he made against the Bulls when he didn’t have the ball in LeBron’s hands at the end of the game… There were obvious mistakes he was making, and you start to see it as a player, where ‘We’re going to have to win this on our own, because he can’t do for us what Gregg Popovich can do for the Spurs. He can’t take advantage of a mismatch the way Steve Kerr did in the NBA Finals – Steve Kerr made it so it was hard for us to play James Jones. They attacked him every time he was in the game.”
Actually, every coach in the NBA would attack James Jones with whomever he was guarding, but Haywood was on a roll.
“Blatt didn’t feel the game like that, and those mistakes can get you beat. When the goal is championship or bust and you don’t think that coach can get you to a championship or help you win a championship, then that’s what has to be done.
“I honestly think they’re a better team. I have no ill will toward David, I hope he gets another job. But as a guy who was there last year, I think Tyronn Lue will do a better job.”