From the moment LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in July of 2014 after his four-year South Beach sabbatical, the clock was ticking on David Blatt’s tenure with the franchise.
The move is hardly a surprise, but the timing is strange. After Cleveland had lost to the Golden State Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals, the consensus was that Blatt had this year to figure things out and deliver the city its first championship in more than 50 years. But doing it now, after starting the season with a 30-11 record and after leading the Cavaliers to wins in 11 of their past 13 games — with the only losses coming against the Warriors and San Antonio Spurs — and after promoting assistant Tyronn Lue to head coach, means only one thing: The focus shifts squarely to James.
Since 2000, Byron Scott is the only HC fired mid-season after leading a team to the NBA Finals the previous year. David Blatt now joins him.— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) January 22, 2016
For the past season and a half, Blatt has been a convenient excuse at every turn for James, who clearly never meshed with him. Whenever the Cavaliers have had issues, it’s been Blatt — not James — that has shouldered the vast majority of the blame, even though anyone who has paid attention to what’s happening in Cleveland knows that James has more power than anyone within the organization, and arguably more than any player within any organization in the league.
That’s not to say Blatt didn’t create his own problems. When dealing with the media, he could be unnecessarily confrontational, which often worked to his detriment. Blatt was given at least two opportunities in recent weeks to praise individual players on his team with easy, softball questions — and instead used the opportunities to not only dismiss the questions, but argue with their premise.
David Blatt and LeBron James shared a moment in the locker room last night. A seemingly simple good bye. Who knew...— Joe Vardon (@joevardon) January 22, 2016
And Blatt always seemed like a coach more suited to a rebuilding situation with a young team (a role he had been initially hired for) than guiding the immediate championship contender that the Cavaliers became after they signed James and traded for Kevin Love. The fit between James and Blatt always was awkward, particularly at the start of last season, and it was no secret he was far more comfortable with Lue — a popular former player and a well-regarded coach around the league.
In the hours after firing Blatt, the Cavaliers came out in a united front that James had nothing to do with Blatt being let go, and hadn’t been consulted on general manager David Griffin’s decision.
“I’m in the locker room,” Griffin said when asked at Friday’s press conference if he had consulted James about the move. “I didn’t need to ask questions.”
Yet if James had wanted Blatt to remain in charge, then he would still be coaching the Cavaliers when they host the Chicago Bulls on Saturday night.
I believe LBJ wasn't directly consulted on Blatt's firing. But there is no need to ask questions you already know the answers to.— Chris Mannix (@SIChrisMannix) January 22, 2016
But he didn’t, and so now Blatt isn’t, and there won’t be anyone for James to hide behind anymore. Many already assumed that he was running the team by default before; there is little reason to argue with that premise now.
The Cavaliers are an outstanding team, and are virtually assured of making it back to the NBA Finals this season, given how far ahead of the rest of the Eastern Conference they are at the moment. Their recent losses to the Spurs and, particularly, Monday’s evisceration at the hands of the Warriors in Cleveland, however, show that if James and his teammates are to come away from this season with a championship, it’s going to require them to get to a higher level of play than thy have shown to this point.
How will they get there? Only by finding ways to truly incorporate Love into their offensive system, as opposed to having their third max player — alongside James and Kyrie Irving — spend most of his time as a decoy on offense, while still struggling on defense as he always has. Doing so, however, will require James, and Irving to a lesser degree, to fit themselves into a system that allows for the ball to move more and for Love to be used as a featured option more.
These are things that Blatt very well could have wanted to do, but given the obvious lack of buy-in he had from James, it was never going to happen.
That excuse is gone now. James has a strong relationship with Lue, who has been given a multi-year contract to become the head coach, according to Yahoo, and he’s only going to be seen as his choice to coach the team, no matter how hard he and the rest of the organization might try to present this move as something else.
But if this doesn’t work, the blame is not going to be placed on Tyronn Lue; it’s going to be placed on LeBron James.
When he left Miami to come back home to Northeast Ohio, a big factor in James’s decision was the power he could wield within the Cavaliers organization — something that was never going to be the case with the Heat, where Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra are a united front.
With great power, however, comes great responsibility. For the first time since coming to Cleveland, James will have to bear the brunt of that responsibility. David Blatt is gone, and with him the easy target on which to pin all of Cleveland’s issues. That target now moves to James. This is what he asked for when he came home, and now he has to deal with it.