Les Levine

Only twice in the history of the National Basketball Association has a coach been fired in the middle of the year and that team went on to a championship. It happened with the 1982 Los Angeles Lakers and the 2006 Miami Heat. The coach? Pat Riley.

Cleveland Cavaliers General Manager David Griffin is counting on that happening again, replacing David Blatt with his top assistant, Tyronn Lue, Jan. 22. Griffin did not put the “interim” tag on Lue, but common sense tells you that Lue, who was the league’s highest-paid assistant coach, better win the NBA title this year. Otherwise, it would be tough to justify the move by owner Dan Gilbert if Lue doesn’t get more out of this team than Blatt did last season.

I was not totally surprised that Griffin made the move, but the timing caught me off guard. I would not have been surprised if Blatt hadn’t gotten a second year to win it all. Griffin went out of his way to say that LeBron James had nothing to do with the decision, but that is a tough sell.

That would be like saying he had nothing to do with the roster when Mike Miller and James Jones were brought in last year. James made it clear that Tristan Thompson should be offered an over-sized contract, and there was the much-ballyhooed poolside meeting with Kevin Love in Los Angeles in the off-season.

Griffin said that in his 24 years in the NBA he had never seen a locker room that didn’t enjoy big wins like the Cavs’. Why should the coach take the blame for that? If there were problems with certain players, shouldn’t the GM who put the roster together be responsible? If J.R. Smith shows up 45 minutes before tipoff, how would the coach know, if he was in the pregame press conference or in his office before the game?

Head coaches are rarely in the locker room, where the players are, about an hour before a game. A player or assistant coach should make the head coach aware of such a situation.

Maybe Blatt made a bad choice – or was forced into a bad choice – by hiring Lue as his assistant, knowing Blatt beat out Lue for the job. Blatt gave Lue more assignments than most assistants get, which made it look like he, Lue, was taking on some of the look of a head coach. Blatt gave Lue the OK to call timeouts, giving the appearance Blatt was not in control.

In the 1981-82 season, Magic Johnson made it clear he didn’t want to play for Paul Westhead, so owner Jerry Buss brought in Riley, who ushered in the Showtime era of Lakers basketball. While James’ fingerprints are not on the deed, it is unthinkable that he didn’t at least know about Blatt’s firing before the time he claims he did.

I am surprised by some of the reactions from local media. Some are writing and saying that Blatt had trouble drawing up plays, including some for players who weren’t even in the game at the time. And they are criticizing him for not “calling out James” as well as Kyrie Irving. If these facts were known, why did it take Blatt’s firing to get the word out, especially after stating that they knew for quite some time?

While Blatt came perilously close to a pink slip after Game 4 of the Chicago Bulls series last spring when he tried to call a timeout which he didn’t have – a technical foul plus possession would have put the Cavs down three games to one – I know of no miscue by the coach that actually cost them a game. My only criticism was that he constantly tried to justify his international experience, without giving proper respect to the difference in NBA circles. When the players gave him the game ball for his first win last year, he said he had won hundreds of games, without acknowledging the difference. Some players never forgave him for that. Most of the players referred to him as “Blatt” and not “Coach Blatt.” Lue did the same in his first interview Jan. 23 at Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence.

As for not “calling out” his star players, superstars have long gotten preferential treatment from coaches. Read Sam Smith’s “Jordan Rules” for clarification.

David Blatt got a raw deal. Tyronn Lue will get the same deal if he doesn’t win it all this year. Don’t worry about Blatt. His ego took a big hit, but he’ll be paid handsomely. And if he wants to coach again in the NBA, there will be a job or two waiting for him.

Read Les Levine online at cjn.org/Levine. Follow Les at Facebook.com/ClevelandJewishNews, or on Twitter @LesLevine.

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Letters, commentaries and opinions appearing in the Cleveland Jewish News do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company, its board, officers or staff.

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