Saturday, January 23, 2016

J-Speaks: Eastern Conference Leaders Axe Their Head Coach

When you are winners of nine of your first 11 games in the month of January and you are head and shoulders the best team in your conference, the players and the rest of your organization should be over the moon happy. When you are a team though that has championship or bust aspirations and when two of those losses are against two teams that have the same aspirations as you and one of those teams embarrasses you on national television and you do not enjoy two solid wins be double-digits that is a bad sign. That was the current state of the Eastern Conference leading Cleveland Cavaliers and they did something about that this past Friday.

The Cavs (30-11) on Friday afternoon fired head coach David Blatt, who lead the team to the NBA Finals a season ago, but his team minus All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving because of injury.

Coaching in place of Blatt will be assistant head coach Tyronn Lue, who according to a report from ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne has a new three-year nine million dollar contract, which includes a team option with a buyout on the last year of the deal.

This is the first head coaching opportunity for the 38-year-old Lue, who played 11 NBA seasons (1998-2009) with the Los Angeles Lakers, where he won two NBA championships; Washington Wizards, Orlando Magic, Houston Rockets, Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks and Milwaukee Bucks. Lue is now the second youngest active head coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA).  

Blatt, who was 83-40 in his season and a half as the leader on the Cavs sideline became the first head coach since the 1970-71 NBA campaign to be fired when their team has the best record in its conference. Blatt’s record was the fourth best in the NBA in that time span.

The team was 19 games over .500 this season and the starting lead guard Kyrie Irving and perimeter defensive ace Iman Shumpert were on the shelf to start the season missing the first 24 and 21 games because of knee and wrist injuries respectably.  

“When you have clarity of purpose that we have as a franchise, decisions like these tend to be make themselves,” Cavs general manager David Griffin said about the decision of the team to let Blatt go in a news conference this past Friday.

“Ownership has instilled at a very deep level in this organization what we are all about and every decision is made as an answer to the following question. Does this put us in the best position to deliver a championship to Northeast Ohio? And every decision we made is made with that question in mind.”

To bring what Griffin said into more clear focus, the Cavs entered their Jan. 14th class at the San Antonio Spurs (38-6) with an eight-game winning streak and some serious momentum. It was a chance to make a serious statement against a team that they might see in June if they make it that far.

After a marvelous first quarter where they had a 32-20 lead over the Spurs, the Cavs were out-scored 79-73 over the next two quarters and were outscored 55-45 in the second half falling at the Spurs 99-95 snapping the Cavs eight-game winning streak and extending the Spurs home winning streak dating back to last season to 32 consecutive wins. The Spurs with their 108-95 win at the Lakers this past Friday night have won 13 straight games overall.

The Cavs bounced back less than 24 hours later with a 91-77 win at the Houston Rockets (23-22) to close their road trip at 5-1 and garner their first win in Houston since Mar. 26, 2006.

The Cavs next big test came on Martin Luther King night this past Monday with their second meeting with the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors (40-4), who returned to Quicken Loans Arena for the first time since capturing their first title in 40 years when they beat the Cavs in Game 6 of The Finals this past June.

Unlike their Christmas Day encounter in Oracle Arena, where the Warriors won a nip and tuck slugfest 89-83 on national television, this contest was no contest.

Every adjective to describe how the defending champs took down the Cavs from how they chewed them up and spit them out to they took them to the cleaners, the beat them 132-98.

The Warriors led by as many as 43 points in the game shooting 54.1 percent from the field; going 19-40 from three-point range; scoring 21 points off 16 Cavalier turnovers; compiling 33 assists to the Cavs 22 and holding their own in the paint being outscored by just two 40-38.

Warriors’ guard and reigning MVP Stephen Curry was magnificent with 35 points going 12 for 18 from the field, including going 7 for 12 from three-point range with five boards, four assists and three steals. Finals MVP Andre Igoudala had 20 points off the bench going 7 for 8 from the floor, including 4 for 5 from long distance. Forward Draymond Green nearly had his ninth triple-double of the season with 16 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds to go along with two steals. The other half of the “Splash Brothers” Klay Thompson had 15 points and Harrison Barnes had 12 points.

One thing that happened during the Cavs being blown out by the Warriors on Monday night that was pointed out by ESPN NBA Countdown host and analyst Jalen Rose is that four-time MVP and perennial All-Star LeBron James, who led the Cavs with 16 points in the aforementioned ugly setback sat in ex Cavs’ head coach Blatt’s chair during one of the time outs.

Rose said on the 6 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter” to anchor Lindsay Czarniak this past Friday that it is not unusual that happened.

When that person doing it though is a four-time MVP, two-time champion who returned home with the soul goal to bring the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title in over five decades and when a team is 17-4 against team under .500, but just 4-4 versus team playing at .600 and over is saying that in the biggest of games that the players and the coaching staff, in particular the head coach are not on the same page.

“Therefore David Blatt unfortunately for him and his family was fired on his day off,” Rose said to Czarniak this past Friday.

To bring this point into better focus, the Cavs after that loss this past Wednesday won at the Brooklyn Nets (11-33) 91-78.

James and Kevin Love each had 17 points to lead the Cavs. Love also had a game-high 18 rebounds. Starting center Timofey Mozgov was the only other player to score in double-figures with 11 points to go along with five rebounds.

On the back end of a back-to-back, the Cavs returned home to face another hot team from the Western Conference and this time they were up to the challenge as they defeated the Los Angeles Clippers (28-15) this past Thursday night 115-102.

James led the way with 22 points going 9 for 17 from the field with 12 assists and five rebounds. Starting shooting guard J.R. Smith also had 22 points going 6 for 7 from three-point territory. Irving had 21 points and Love had another double-double with 18 points and 16 rebounds. Mozgov had another 11-point performance with five boards, two blocks and two steals.

The Cavs, shot 50.6 percent versus the Clippers and shot 46.4 percent from three-point range going 13 for 28. They out-rebounded the Clippers 47-35; recorded 29 assists to the Clippers 19; outscored their visitors in the paint 42-34 and held the Clippers to six fast break points.

After these two straight wins however, things seemed to not be right with the team from a comradery stand point and that has been something that has been going on for quite some time now.

That is something that ESPN First-Take commentator Stephen A. Smith pointed out during “Sportscenter” on Friday of how James has shown how is comfortable being around Smith, forward/center Tristan Thompson and Irving.

A season ago, a photograph was taken in a hot tub and a number of the Cavs were in the photo except for Love.

James tried to get things square with Love over this past summer by spending some time with him in Santa Monica, CA, according to Shelburne and that was key in Love signing a max deal last summer of five years at $113 million.

The other key was the experience Love had in seeing what The NBA Finals were like a season ago, even though he was not able to play because of a shoulder injury he sustained in the opening round versus the Boston Celtics.

“You felt last year, he [Love] didn’t fit in with that team both culturally on the court and spiritually or whatever it was,” Shelburne said of Kevin Love’s role a season ago.

“But when he got to The Finals and he saw and he experienced what it was like, even though he was injured. Even though he couldn’t play, that’s what he wanted to feel.”

While he has performed played well with double-doubles in the last two games and has put up better statistics this season averaging 15.7 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, he is only shooting 41.3 percent and has looked nothing like the Kevin Love that was 20-plus point and 10-plus rebound per contest performer that made him an All-Star back with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

On top of that, there was no outrage or even a call out from the print or broadcast press about this, which Shelburne also pointed out this past Friday on “Sportscenter.”

Going back to the coaching changes, when the Cavs were in the process in looking for a new head coach two off-seasons ago, their final two choices according to Smith were Blatt and the new head coach now in Lue, who the Cavs paid a serious amount of money to lure him away from the Clippers.

On top of that, Lue more often than not was the one who was drawing up plays in timeouts and on many occasion was the one who had no problem getting on the likes of James, Smith and Irving, especially in film sessions, which is something that former Cavalier pointed out to Czarniak on Friday.

That among other things was a major reason that Blatt according to Smith was on the clock of not if, but when he was going to be given the boot.

“When you look at David Blatt and you saw that he was still there as the coach, although you liked him. Although you respected what he did in Europe and you respected that he had a basketball acumen. When you looked at him in terms of going up against contemporaries and you sense that he didn’t measure up and everyone in the locker room seemed to get that,” Smith said.

“David Griffin ultimately reached the conclusion that others had reached before him, but he deserved credit for finally making the move that he made.”  

One other big question that came into focus about this move is how involved was James in this, Griffin made it very clear that while James is the leader of the Cavs on the court and his goal is the same as the organization, he had no role in Blatt being relieved of his duties as head coach of the team.

“I didn’t talk to any of the players before this decision,” Griffin said. “It’s really critical to me for everybody to understand this is my decision. This is our basketball staff’s decision… My job is to lead a franchise and to lead an organization where it needs to go and that’s what I’m tasked with doing and that’s what I did.”

In getting back to James, Griffin said that, “he desperately wants to bring a championship to this team. LeBron doesn’t run this organization. LeBron is about this organization and he’s of this organization and he’s our community, but this narrative that somehow were taking direction from him is just not fair.”

Fair or unfair, the task of getting the Cavs to the ultimate prize no falls on Lue and while he may not have any head coaching experience, he has a ton of knowledge from his playing days and is a well-respected individual in the league.

No one understands that better than his former boss and head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers in Glenn “Doc” Rivers, who Lue spent three seasons as the Director of Basketball Development from 2009-11 with the Celtics and as an assistant coach with the Clippers in 2013-14.

“This man has the ability to tell you the truth and be very, very clear and direct with you either without offending you or offending you in a way that’s beneficial to you,” Smith said about Rivers feelings about Lue via a text message this past Friday.

Former Cavs’ center Brendan Haywood said to Czarniak on this past Friday’s “Sportscenter” that while Blatt had a hard time giving constructive criticism to the players, especially James during film sessions, Lue had no problem telling James that he was late on a defensive rotation or how the likes of Irving and Smith needed to show more effort on certain plays.

“He wasn’t scared to challenge them,” Haywood said of Lue’s ability to reach the players, especially high profile Cavs. “So guys really, really started to respect Tyronn Lue because of that.”

Another telling sign of how good Lue was in his short time with the Clippers, after their aforementioned setback at the Cavs this past Thursday, perennial All-Star lead guard Chris Paul, who led the Clippers with 30 points, nine assists and three steals at the end of the game met up with Lue on the court and gave him a big hug.

That really shows how good Lue was as an assistant when one of the best players in the game and who NBA on TNT/NBATV analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley calls “the best leader in the NBA” goes over and shows love to a former assistant coach.

The hope now is that Lue can do become the fourth person to take over as head coach of an NBA team mid-season and lead them to the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

The last time that happen was in 2005-06 when then Miami Heat head coach Stan Van Gundy, who is now the leader on the sidelines for the Detroit Pistons was relieved of his duties when the Heat were 11-10 and team president Pat Riley took the reins. The Heat finished the season 41-20 and went on to win the championship by beating the Dallas Mavericks in six games.

Prior to that the Lakers of 1981-82 replaced then head coach Paul Westhead, who was 7-4 after 11 games with Riley, who went 50-21 the rest of that season and including the playoffs 61-23 overall and the Lakers went on to win the championship that season and added three more titles in 1985, 1987 and 1988.

The first time this happened was in the 1979-80 NBA campaign when Westhead replaced Jack McKinney, who went 10-4 to start that season to and the team went 50-21 the rest of that season. They beat the Philadelphia 76ers in six games that season to capture their seventh title at that time. This was also the game that Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson started at center in place of Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and had 42 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists.

The Cavs have been the favorites to win the East right from the jump of and by their record, they have played up to expectation. As mentioned earlier though, they are 0-3 against the Warriors and Spurs. The Cavs with the talent they have should win the East, but do have the toughness and focus to win it all if they see the Spurs or the Warriors in The Finals this June if they make it there? Griffin hopes that the coaching change will be a major step in that direction and the players if they have any reservations about the decision have to role with the punches and perform.

“I know what something that’s not right looks like and I believe this was the right decision to make and it’s very possible that it’s the wrong decision to make…,” Griffin said. “They don’t have to like it. They do though have to respect it that this is what we’re trying to do.”

Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 1/22/16 6 p.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter” with Lindsay Czarniak, reports from NBA Countdown analyst Jalen Rose, Stephen A. Smith, ESPN Senior Writer Ramona Shelburne and ESPN NBA Senior Writer Marc Stein; 1/23/16 8 a.m. edition of ESPN’s “Sportscenter” with Sara Walsh and Matt Barrie;;; Sporting News Official 2006-07 NBA Guide.

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