CLEVELAND — Late last week, the point guard for Maccabi Tel Aviv got married. This is big news. In a small country like Israel, just after its most heralded basketball team won the Euroleague championship, the marriage of Yogev Ohayon is the kind of thing that everyone is interested in and everyone wants to attend.
But Ohayon’s wedding served mostly as a backdrop for everyone to discuss the real big news of the moment: David Blatt is going to be the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“It was almost as if the wedding was secondary,” said David Pick, a journalist who writes for Eurobasket.com. “From his current players to former players to agents to league personnel and team sources — EVERYONE was talking Blatt.”
That’s how revolutionary Blatt’s move from the international sphere to the NBA is. It’s wedding-stopping, league-conversation-starting, head-scratching, and applause-inducing all at once.
And if you listen to those who know Blatt and have played for him, it just might work.
True, Blatt has no NBA experience. He is a Framingham, Mass., native, a product of Pete Carril’s Princeton system, who left soon after graduation to play in Israel, began his coaching career a decade later in that same country, and has spent the last 20 years coaching internationally.
The question, now, is whether he can bring to the NBA the success he’s had with Maccabi Tel Aviv (2014 Euroleague champion), the Russian national team (2012 Olympic bronze medal, EuroBasket 2007 title), and teams in Italy and Greece.
“To me it’s almost comical we’re making a big deal about the adjustment for Dave,” said Anthony Parker, the former Cavaliers player and current Orlando scout who played for Blatt in Israel. “There’s not as big a deal made about Steve Kerr and Derek Fisher adjusting. This is a guy who has coached for 20 years. He’s been a head coach. He’s been in games in the Olympics and pressure situations.”
It’s just that it’s never been done before. But if it can be done successfully, Blatt might be the one who can summit the mountain simply for his unique mix of a brilliant offensive system, an intelligent and personal approach to players, and the simple fact that this is the opportunity for which Blatt has been waiting 20 years.
As a former captain at Princeton, Blatt was a student of the game who soaked up all that Carril taught. In retrospect, his move to coaching was inevitable, said Craig Robinson, the former Oregon State coach who was his Princeton teammate.
“Dave was one of those guy always interested in the game,” Robinson said. “Whether it was playing it, watching it, scouting, or knowing what the other team was doing.
“At that time, I didn't know anything about being a coach, so I’m using hindsight to come up with this evaluation, but he did all the things you do now as a coach. He knew the other team's scouting report as well as, if not better than, the other team, he played the game with the sense of being ahead of everybody because he had the great ability to see things that other people didn’t.”
That unique eye for the game wasn't something that translated to his own play on the court at the highest level, however. When someone suggested playing in Israel when his college career was done, Blatt jumped at the chance.
More than a decade overseas eventually led to his first opportunities to coach in Israel in 1993. From the start, Carril’s Princeton offense has been a bedrock of every team he’s coached.
“He’s done a great job of incorporating the kind of things you learn playing for Coach Carril to the game today,” Robinson said. “The spacing, I see.
“The looking out for each other, and even more importantly, seeing the game ahead of what’s going to happen. That was a big part of Coach Carril’s philosophy: Who could see. That was his term, and what he meant was, ‘Who could see what was happening ahead of time.’ ”
When Blatt took over the Russian national team in 2006, the team was disorganized and not accustomed to structured practices, let alone structured offensive sets. Blatt called the team together and told them, “If you want to be a part of something special, let’s get to work.”
Practices became disciplined. Players were held accountable. And within a year, the team had won the 2007 FIBA European Championship with a fluid offense that focused on team play.
“He’s one of the best offensive coaches I’ve played for,” said J.R. Holden, who played for Blatt on the Russian national team. “He puts you in a situation to be successful, and he’s very good in games. We can be going through a stretch where we’re struggling shooting, and he’ll call a timeout and get us back on track. I think he's one of the best at in-game adjustments.”
Granted, the game is somewhat different in the NBA, so Blatt’s game adjustments are something that will be scrutinized with the Cavaliers.
“Maybe some things that are successful in Europe you could do there and maybe wouldn’t have success here and vice versa,” Parker said. “But he’s obviously followed basketball. He’s not isolated over there. He’s coached internationally. I just think they’re not going to present insurmountable obstacles for him to be successful in Cleveland. I think he’ll face the same obstacles that any other coach coming in to Cleveland right now — or anywhere else in the NBA — would face.”
Along with Blatt’s game strategy comes an intelligent, humorous personality that players have found easy to connect to.
“He’s a player’s coach,” said Steve Mills, the New York Knicks general manager who was Blatt’s backcourt mate at Princeton. “I think he holds players accountable, but he understands things from a player’s perspective.”
Said Holden: “He’s not one of those coaches where you step off the court and say, ’‘Man, I’m glad I don’t have to see him until tomorrow.’ We’ve all had those kinds of coaches. He’s not like that all. He’s a guy you can laugh with. You can sit at the front of the bus with him and talk about movies with him.”
But is he the type of coach who can relate to a talented, young point guard such as Kyrie Irving?
“That’s the $64,000 question,” Robinson said. “But I have a lot of confidence in him. First of all, he played point guard at Princeton. Second, what a lot of people don’t realize in playing for Coach Carril and the Princeton mystique is it’s about player development. It’s not the Princeton offense and playing for Coach Carril.
“What I’ve noticed in my years of playing and coaching, and I’ve seen this with Dave and his teams and players, is everybody gets better. Every single person gets better if they’re willing to listen to what you’re teaching. ... I would venture to say Kyrie would keep his learning curve steep with Dave Blatt as head coach.”
Some say the Cavaliers landed a gem. Some say it’s a risk to bring in an unproven NBA coach.
“He'll figure it out,” Mills said. “The grind of the schedule and how that impacts players, and just managing the personalities of NBA players are all things that every coach at every level has to deal with. He and I would share stores of how hard it was to coach at Maccabi because of the importance of Maccabi's team to the city of Tel Aviv and how much pressure there was coaching that team.”
Added Parker: “This is huge news in Maccabi. The fact is, we’re talking about the high-pressure situation of Maccabi. It’s what have you done for me lately there. He had a rough road this year. This wasn't an easy year for him. The fact that he persevered and ... he’s always, in my opinion, had to do more with less in terms of budget. Maccabi is not one of the biggest budget teams in Europe, so he’s always had to do more with less.”
The time — and the offer — were right for Blatt.
“It’s been a Catch-22 for him,” Mills said. “He’s had so much success as a coach in Europe and he was a head coach — and a very successful head coach. A lot of times there were jobs that were in the NBA that were assistant coaching jobs, and I just think he didn't feel he wanted to come over as an assistant.
“It’s rare for a guy who has his coaching resume to have a head coaching job in the NBA. [But] he’s a perfect guy for it to happen to.”
The Plain Dealer’s Mary Schmitt Boyer contributed to this report.
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