In the final minutes of last night’s closeout game over Atlanta, David Blatt pow-wow’ed with LeBron James on the sidelines, and told him, “What you did for this team and this city … coming back … you deserve it.” Each postgame presser this series has been more effusive than the last. This isn’t to say that LeBron, who is playing at a historically great level in these playoffs, does not deserve to be lavished with praise. But, it’s fascinating that Blatt, a proud man who has been disrespected as a figurehead by LeBron every step of the way this season, has essentially capitulated and accepted his role as LeBron’s PR guy.
Though the Cavs’ ascent to the NBA Finals — LeBron’s fifth consecutive trip — feels inevitable in retrospect, it’s barely been two weeks since Blatt’s phantom timeout nearly cost Cleveland Game 4 against Chicago. After the game, LeBron made sure to tell everyone that he’d overruled Blatt’s call for him to inbound the ball on the final play where he ultimately hit a buzzer beater. Had that all ended differently, the Bulls would have been up 3-1 in the series, and the tenor would have been entirely different. Instead, Cleveland has won every game since, and has over a week to get Kyrie Irving healthy for the NBA Finals.
Imagine you’re David Blatt, though. You’ve spent decades coaching professional basketball and won championships overseas, yet your players deride you as a rookie coach. The team starts out 19-20. Amidst all that LeBron just ups and takes weeks off in Miami. He shoves you out of the way when you’re arguing a call. He continually ignores your plays, calls his own, and you have to parrot his decisions from the sidelines to save face. LeBron gets all the praise when the team wins, and credit for the swift ascents of JR Smith and Tristan Thompson, yet you get all the blame for losses. What’s the upside?
If I were Blatt, I think I’d have had multiple meltdowns this year and I’m not sure I’d have made it through. The frustrations were unrelenting. And yet, he’s embraced it all, and understood that his best survival tactic is to just give LeBron whatever he wants. Not that there was a choice in the matter, but Blatt has deferred all of the power to his player, and accepted the optics from the general public that he’s just along for the ride.
Blatt also could’ve just taken his lumps and stay silent, neither bucking nor endorsing LeBron as the man in charge of the team. However, the coach has spent the last week showering him with praise. Blatt has said he’s run out of superlatives to describe LeBron. Last night, wearing a smile from ear-to-ear, he talked about LeBron’s “courageous” and “honest” decision to return to Cleveland, “where his heart and his family is.”
That stuff was certainly part of it for LeBron, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the whole equation. As Dan Le Batard said on our podcast together last week, the move was perhaps equally also about having absolute power in the organization. This is something that would never have been ceded by Pat Riley, but has been ostensibly granted by Dan Gilbert, David Griffin, and David Blatt.
Though nobody would say they’re satisfied with just appearing in the Finals, the ends have already justified the means at this point. LeBron was granted his power precisely because he’s still the biggest individual difference maker in American team sports. On a transactional basis, his talent is more than worth the melodrama. David Blatt appears to have finally settled on this flavor of humble pie, and that’s probably the optimal strategy for holding onto his position.