Friday, January 22, 2016

It’s all about winning a championship

The Cavaliers didn’t fire coach David Blatt Friday. Blatt fired himself.

As absurd as it was to cashier the head coach of the team that owns the best record in the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference, it made sense.

The reason was buried deep in General Manager David Griffin’s explanations to the media as to why he pulled the plug on the second-year coach and elevated associate head coach Tyronn Lue to the top spot.

We’re not here to build a winning culture, he said in effect. We’re here to win a championship.

And the way this season has gone, it sure looks as though the Cavs are good enough to repeat as Eastern Conference champions, but not good enough to bring Cleveland its first major sports title since 1964.

Griffin called it a disconnect in the locker room. On the court, body language suggested LeBron James no longer enjoyed playing for Blatt. He seemed to confide much more in Lue than Blatt.

Now whether James was directly responsible for Blatt’s departure is a matter of conjecture. Griffin boldly denied it, claiming this decision was his and his alone.

Hired as an outsider because of his sterling coaching reputation in Europe, the whole team dynamic changed for Blatt when James opted to return to the Cavaliers and Kevin Love was obtained in a trade.

Here was this NBA rookie coach who had never played in the league, let alone coached in it, barking orders at some of the best players in the game. It stood to reason that Griffin, who recruited Blatt, was going to give him as much rope as possible to hang himself and hope he would turn out to be the correct choice.

It looked pretty good in season one when the Cavaliers made the finals and might have won the championship were it not for major injuries to Love and Kyrie Irving. No reason to make a coaching move at the time. That truly would have been a shock.

But as the 2015-16 season unfolded, the club did not seem to improve. Yes, the record is 30-11, but the team struggled along the way, winning several close games. Losing games to Western Conference powers like San Antonio and Golden State didn’t help.

Last Monday’s 132-98 blowout at home against the Golden State was more than embarrassing. It was a statement by the Warriors that even with the Cavs at full strength, just know last season’s championship was not a fluke.

Yes, the blowout was only one game. And yes, the Cavaliers were much more competitive in a 89-83 loss to the Warriors on Christmas Day. But Griffin said he could see this coming.

He said he was not satisfied with the team’s identity. There seemed to be a lack of “a collective spirit, a strength of spirit and a collective will” in the locker room and he assigned blame to Blatt.

Griffin wants a championship for this team. He wants a championship for Cleveland. And he realized after a season and a half with Blatt, it was not going to happen under his stewardship. Something had to be done, albeit dramatic.

Lue, the obvious choice, is much more NBA savvy than Blatt. Having played in the Association for 11 seasons and forged a strong résumé to eventually become a head coach, he knows the ins and outs of the league and definitely has the players’ respect.

Body language among the players again suggests Blatt never really gained that respect. That’s something Lue should now receive in abundance given his NBA gravitas.

It will be interesting to see how much differently the Cavaliers play in the second half of the season with a somewhat tougher schedule. The pressure now lies with the players.

Lue probably will make subtle changes as he embraces his new title. And he’ll have to deal with the pressure to justify Griffin’s judgment at a most peculiar time of the season. What fans need to watch for is the urgency with which the team plays from here on out.

Griffin gambled once on an untested European coach and failed. Now it’s up to Lue to prove the general manager made the correct move. The GM has made it perfectly clear that anything less than a championship will not be good enough.

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