VIDEO: Top 10 Plays from Friday
No. 1: Unraveling of Cavs, James, Blatt began early — It was a hair-on-fire day for news in the NBA Friday, starting with the Josh Smith trade back to Houston and continuing through the pre-emptive weather postponement of NBA games from Saturday’s schedule in Philadelphia and Washington, right on to coach Steve Kerr’s return after a 43-game health absence to Golden State’s bench. But the whopper was Cleveland’s abrupt firing of head coach David Blatt. Not only had Blatt helped the Cavaliers reach the Finals last June, he had them atop the Eastern Conference with a 30-11 record and was in line to coach the East All-Stars in three weeks up in Toronto. Both local and national coverage blanketed the story, with ESPN.com providing the most exhaustive report courtesy of Brian Windhorst and Dave McMenamin. Here are notable excerpts:
At the very heart of the matter, this is why the Cavs fired Blatt on Friday, despite a record of 83-40 and a Finals appearance. Blatt viewed himself as a coach with numerous championships in Europe, an Olympic medal and 20-plus years on the sideline, a career that made him one of the most experienced coaches in the world.
The Cavs players, especially the veterans, saw him as a rookie.
The issues started before [LeBron] James returned to the franchise in July 2014. The Cavs were all over the place in their coaching search that summer. They offered the job to numerous big names, from John Calipari and Bill Self in the college ranks to Steve Kerr from the broadcast booth. [Cleveland GM David] Griffin also interviewed Alvin Gentry, whom he had worked alongside with the Phoenix Suns, and Tyronn Lue, a rising assistant who learned under Doc Rivers.
But team owner Dan Gilbert wanted to make a different kind of hire. He didn’t want a retread or an inexperienced coach, which is why he chased the veteran college coaches. It’s why he loved Blatt, who was a legend in Israel, something that appealed to Gilbert.
To complicate matters, the Cavs hired the runner-up for the job, Lue, to be Blatt’s assistant. To keep him away from the Clippers, the Cavs gave him a record four-year, $6.5 million deal — for an assistant. Gilbert would later call the coaching staff the best he had assembled in his time as owner.
Blatt endorsed the Lue move, which many in the league saw as an immediate undercutting of the head coach. Never before could anyone remember the runner-up for a job being hired as the lead assistant, and it was taken as an example of Blatt’s NBA inexperience. Blatt also didn’t understand that he would have to earn players’ respect; it would not be instantly given.
“It was like an 800-pound gorilla as the season moved on,” one person involved with the team said. “You could just see LeBron connecting to [Lue] and turning his back on David.”
That didn’t stay a secret. James’ and other players’ complaints about Blatt’s style got out quickly. During games, Cavs players complained about the coach to opposing players. Once, while on the road, an injured Cavs player used the home team’s therapy pool and complained about Blatt, with his thoughts literally echoing throughout the home locker room.
Those who knew Blatt from Europe, where he was known as a fire-breather with players during games, were stunned at how he had changed. When Blatt was the coach of the Russian national team, he famously once kicked two of his best players off the bench because they were talking over him in a timeout. Now, spectators watched in awe as players barked at Blatt in timeouts. That was just one of many adjustments he made to try to make this unwieldy job work.
Blatt, meanwhile, retrofitted the Cavs’ defensive system with his new players, and that helped launch the team’s midseason turnaround. He melded in the new players effectively. He showed his experience as he found a way to give James space while looking for other ways to make a positive difference. At the same time, his yielding to the players — James especially — only further reinforced that Blatt wasn’t a coach who demanded respect.
No. 2: Warriors’ Kerr grateful in return— While one NBA coach’s relationship with his team was getting blown up Friday, another was reuniting. Steve Kerr, after nearly four months and 43 regular-season games, was back on the Golden State bench for its game against Indiana. Kerr had taken a leave of absence on Oct. 1 to recover and rehab from two back surgeries, and while his physical health demanded and benefited from the layoff, his mental health definitely craved his return to everything Warriors. Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury-News was at Oracle Arena to chronicle Kerr’s first game back:
But on this night, one of the biggest adrenaline-rushes of the game actually came before the game, because Kerr had been gone so long after taking a leave of absence due to complications after back surgery.
And despite the Warriors’ amazing 39-4 run under interim coach Luke Walton–who happily moved aside one seat for Kerr’s re-arrival–the Warriors missed their coach.
More than that, he missed them. And was thankful to return to them.
“I felt great,” Kerr said afterwards. “Really nice reception at the beginning of the game. Our fans are amazing. Just felt good to be back in Oracle with all the energy from the crowd.
“Wasn’t our best stuff but we got the job done.”
Kerr has been at team practices for several weeks and on the last several road trips, but he’s the Warriors coach, he won a championship with them last season, and a coach needs to coach.
During the game, Kerr sat quietly through the first quarter as the Warriors got out to a big lead–what was he supposed to fret over?
Then, as the Warriors went through a flat period or two, or when Kerr protested a call or two, he got up, yelled a few things, and called a few timeouts.
He was back.
“Honestly, I didn’t think one bit about who we were playing and when,” Kerr said about the Spurs game ahead. “It was strictly about when I felt ready.
“I wanted to come back a couple weeks ago and I sort of had a target date in mind–and we got to the date and it was, ‘I’m not ready.’ I knew I wasn’t ready.
“But the last 10 days or so have been great; I’ve really felt good physically. Felt like I turned a corner. Feel like I’m ready to go, regardless of who was on the schedule.”
No. 3: Bulls earning ‘soft’ label — As of Friday, there wasn’t a coach in the Central Division who was happy with his team – and maybe not a fan base all that happy with its coach. Tyronn Lue is undefeated for the moment in Cleveland but the Pacers, Bucks and Pistons all have had their issues lately. And then there are the Bulls, where new head coach Fred Hoiberg is frustrated with his team’s poor starts and inconsistent efforts, while many Chicago fans are wondering if management’s designated replacement for Tom Thibodeau is the right guy for the job. Beat writer Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times suggested after Friday’s loss in Boston that the Bulls are “soft,” a four-letter word equal to any profanity around pro athletes and teams:
The first-year coach was asked if he was tired of his team looking soft in too many moments this season, and without hesitation responded, “Yeah, I am.’’
He wasn’t alone.
“Soft’’ is always a dangerous word to use about a team on any level, but also a very fitting description of what this Bulls team has become on a night-to-night basis. And they can try and dress it up with buzzwords like “communication’’ and “energy,’’ but it seems to come back to one common theme with this team: Too soft in too many key moments.
Jimmy Butler definitely wasn’t going to hide from that label.
“Yeah, especially coming out of the gates, and that’s on us starters, man,’’ Butler said, when asked about the marshmallow moments from this team. “We’re digging ourselves a huge hole a lot of these games because we know how talented we are, how well we can score the ball, but defense is all about grit. The will and the want to do-so. I don’t feel like we do-so right now.’’
Even more troubling was Butler pointing out that the coaches stress it, the players talk about it and practice it in shootaround, but once those lights turn on, well, as Butler put it, “when we get out there it’s kind of like we do what we want to do. We’re not on the same page, we’re not communicating, and then on top of everything else we don’t get to the loose ball like the other team does.
“It’s time to stop talking about it. We’ve been talking about this all year long now.’’
No. 4: Winning gives edge to All-Star reserves — If Charles Barkley felt confounded by the fan balloting for the 2016 All-Star starters, he probably will again find plenty with which to quibble when the conference coaches make their selections for the East and West All-Star reserves. The seven players added to each roster – to be announced Thursday as part of TNT’s doubleheader telecast – presumably represent the next-best players through the first 45-50 games of the season. But of course, there are other factors involved. Some coaches apply arbitrary filters to thin the herd of candidates. Others might indulge shameless biases or personal grudges, or game the voting so one of their guys benefits. A couple of East coaches – Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Boston’s Brad Stevens – gave some insight on their criteria to Adam Himmelsbach of the Boston Globe:
“Probably the biggest criteria is looking at the team’s record,” Casey said, “because you can score 50 a game and have a losing record, and you’re not going to [be an] All-Star. That’s not only for me, but for all coaches.”
Casey was probably exaggerating just a bit, because a 50-point scorer on any team would be a lock, but you get his point. Wins matter. Stevens echoed that sentiment, saying he uses team success as an easy tiebreaker among players who otherwise appear to be equals.
“Probably a differentiating factor will be who scares me the most,” Stevens said. “That’s just kind of the way I’d look at it. Obviously, who do you have to prepare for differently? Who makes you tweak what you normally do?”
When Stevens analyzes numbers and figures, he does find some advanced statistics quite helpful.
“I look more at efficiency than anything else,” he said. “I don’t get too caught up in points per game or rebounds per game or those types of things. You get caught up in efficiency and those types of things. You get caught up in efficiency from a points standpoint. You get caught up in rebound percentages. I think that, again, you have to also factor in fourth quarter and crunch-time performance.”
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: One of the most popular topics related to David Blatt‘s firing Friday was speculation over the degree to which Cavaliers susperstar LeBron James was involved. Should James be thought of as a “coach killer” after his experiences with Mike Brown and now Blatt? Or does he draw that sort of criticism unfairly? … The Brooklyn Nets might find plenty to like in Blatt as they cope with a real freefall. … The Nets needed a shooting doctor, so they hired a Nurse. … Former Marquette teammates Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder battled in Boston. … Former NBA referees are mentoring their profession’s next generation. … Re-think whatever your definition might be of a “high basketball IQ.” Introducing the smart ball. …