INDEPENDENCE, OHIO – Even after wins, and there were a bunch of them, the Cavaliers didn’t celebrate. Everything was too easy for them, way too easy.
Loaded with talent, they’re lacking chemistry and cohesion. A championship roster without championship heart.
David Blatt took the fall.
The second-year coach, who guided the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2015 and had them sitting atop the Eastern Conference standings this season, was shockingly fired on Friday by general manager David Griffin.
Griffin didn’t think the title-chasing Cavaliers were handling prosperity, expectations or acting like a championship team under Blatt, who was 83-40 in less than two seasons. Griffin saw a team going in the wrong direction.
“Sometimes you can win games in this league in the regular season and get worse,” Griffin said at a hastily arranged new conference at the team’s practice facility. “We were regressing over a period of time. I’m in our locker room a lot, and I knew that there’s just a disconnect there right now. There’s a lack of spirit and connectedness that I just couldn’t accept. And frankly, halfway through the season, I think we have the time to right the ship.
“I know that sounds crazy when we’re sitting with a 30-11 record. I understand that. But we were 30-11 with a schedule that was reasonably easy. And I’m judging a lot more than wins and losses.”
Griffin said he did not consult superstar LeBron James, who never seemed comfortable with Blatt in charge, or any of Cleveland’s other players.
“This is my decision, this is our basketball staff’s decision,” said Griffin, who released Blatt just days after an embarrassing home loss to Golden State. “I’m not taking a poll; my job is to lead a franchise and to lead an organization to where it needs to go. I’m in the locker room. I’ve done this for a long time and I know what it’s supposed to feel like. I didn’t need to ask questions.”
Griffin did meet with owner Dan Gilbert, who supported the move to fire his third coach in four seasons.
“Over the course of my business career I have learned that sometimes the hardest thing to do is also the right thing to do,” Gilbert said.
Blatt’s firing stunned Dallas coach Rick Carlisle, president of the National Basketball Coaches Association.
“It’s just a real shocker,” Carlisle said. “I’ve gotten to know David in the last year and a half since he came over. He’s one of the greatest coaches in European history. The ironic thing about all this is that he adjusted and adapted to the NBA game in my opinion, much quicker than any of us ever could have adjusted and adapted to the European game. He did a tremendous job just from a strategic standpoint. If you look at his record, this is bizarre.”
Tyronn Lue, who was hired as the team’s associate head coach shortly after Blatt came to Cleveland and was the highest-paid assistant in the league, will make his debut Saturday night when the Cavs host the Chicago Bulls. Griffin stressed that Lue is not an interim coach and said the team is discussing a contract with him.
“He has the pulse of our team,” he said.
As social networks hummed with speculation and opinion about James’ role in Blatt’s removal, Griffin dismissed the notion that the four-time league MVP is a “coach killer.”
“LeBron doesn’t run this organization,” Griffin said. “LeBron is about this organization. This narrative that somehow we’re taking direction from him, it’s just not fair. It’s not fair to him, in particular, but frankly, it’s kind of not fair to me and our group anymore. 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. You may hear that from our players. They don’t have to like it. They have to respect that this is what we’re trying to do.”
Griffin said the home loss to the Warriors was not a “last straw” for Blatt. Before and after Cleveland’s win on Thursday over the Los Angeles Clippers, Blatt said he was bothered by criticism directed at him and his team.
Blatt seemed to be adjusting to the NBA game following his well-documented struggles in 2015 — James’ first season back in Cleveland. One of the most successful coaches in European history, Blatt was feeling good about the way his team was performing amid overwhelming expectations. However, there was a discord he couldn’t seem to fix.
His rapport with James was a running saga last season as the Cavs got off to a disappointing 19-20 start. However, the two seemed to work through their differences and the Cavs won the Eastern Conference title before losing to the Warriors in the Finals, where they played without injured All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
Following Thursday night’s win over the Clippers, Blatt, who had defended his team amid recent criticism, shared a moment with James at his corner locker. The pair shared a smile, an innocent exchange without any hint of forthcoming change.
A day later, they’re on separate paths.
In other NBA news, Josh Smith is headed back to Houston after the Los Angeles Clippers traded him to the Rockets on Friday.
Smith finished last season with the Rockets before signing with the Clippers in the offseason. Houston also received the draft rights to forward/center Sergei Lishouk and cash considerations in the deal that gave Los Angeles draft rights to forward Maarty Leunen.
Clippers coach and president of basketball operations Doc Rivers said Smith was a good teammate, but that the team wanted to go in another direction.
“I wanted Josh to work out. It just didn’t for us,” Rivers said.
Smith signed with Houston in December 2014 after being released by Detroit. He played 55 games for the Rockets last season where he averaged 12 points, 6.0 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.2 blocks. The 12-year veteran, who was the 17th overall pick in the 2004 draft, has averaged 14.8 points and 7.6 rebounds in his career.