“Basketball is a great mystery. You can do everything right. You can have the perfect mix of talent and the best system of offense in the game…. but if the players don’t have a sense of oneness as a group, your efforts won’t pay off” – Phil Jackson
For Jackson, tactical advantages - those gained by a smarter application of X’s and O’s or sports science - are fleeting. He argues that any scheme, no matter how revolutionary, will be studied, copied or countered by opposing coaches paid to do exactly that. What will endure is a belief shared by each individual that their contribution is optimal when the team has success.
Jackson’s coaching career was, of course, blessed with some of the greatest talents the game has ever seen. The retort to his deifying will always be “How hard is it to win with Jordan and Pippen or Shaq and Kobe?”
Like the Miami Heat before them, this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers almost act as a referendum on Jackson’s status as a genius or merely a babysitter of players destined to win with or without him. The Heat’s run to 4 straight NBA Finals, although impressive, can barely hold a candle to Jackson’s haul of three 3-peats in 12 years.
When graded on that curve, did Coach Spo actually underachieve with a roster overflowing with Hall of Famers? And if so, just how high is the bar for David Blatt this season - his first as an NBA coach, mind you - and beyond?
Before July 11, 2014, Blatt’s mission was to navigate out of the East’s bottom half (“the dumpster fire,” as our Michael Collins calls it) and land a playoff spot. Despite lucking into three #1 overall picks, and attempting to make a splash in free agency and at the trade table, the Cavs had not reached the post season since Act 1 of the LeBron Era ended in 2010.
The announcement of Act 2 brought with it championship hopes and, a month later, the acquisition of Kevin Love upgraded them to championship expectations. Blatt’s challenge was no longer Steve Clifford but more, well, Phil Jackson: ”How hard is it to win with LeBron, Kryie and Love?”
From afar, the Cavs new triumvirate of stars looked to be a mutually beneficial arrangement.
The table for Kyrie was already set. LeBron and Wade, whose skills once uncomfortably overlapped, spent 4 years solving the equation in Miami. Kyrie, one of the league’s most dynamic off-the-bounce scorers, could simply pick up where Wade left off. Moreover, the deficiencies in Kyrie’s playmaking game could be balanced by LeBron’s.Love, the stretch 4 by which all stretch 4′s are measured (besides perhaps Dirk), would enjoy open looks never afforded to him in Minnesota. He’d clean the glass at an NBA-leading rate, providing the framework for a potent fast break should Blatt look to run.
LeBron, master of all disciplines, would keep doing what he does.
The Cavs underwhelmed out of the gate. At Christmas the record sat at a mediocre 17-11 and their story seemed to be supporting the axiom that championships are not won on paper.
A let down in itself, 17-11 was still a flattering appraisal of their situation. LeBron had been bothered by knee injuries, to the point many had begun to question his mortality. Anderson Varajeo, roleplayer extraordinaire, was lost for the season with a torn Achilles and Love – owner of Charles Barkley stat-lines – had regressed to Charles Smith stat-lines.
Their issues, however, were less apparent in boxscores than they were when evaluated against Jackson’s ideals. Love was frustrated by his reduced role, Dion Waiters’ cries for the ball became legendary and LeBron chided Kyrie for his score-first approach. What looked to be a strategically coherent roster was undone by personality clashes. Individual perceptions that their role should be bigger or different or that someone else’s should be smaller or different had evidently caused the group to lose focus on the common goal.
Calls to fire Blatt became so loud they had to be addressed by GM David Griffin and his endorsement was the smallest of three favours he’d afford to his coach that week. Griffin furiously worked the phones in search of solutions and acquired Timofey Mozgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith in two quickly consummated deals. In exchange, malcontent Waiters was shown the door, proving to be addition via subtraction.
The improvement in the team’s play since the first week of January has been so pronounced the date belongs on the calendar with the LeBron signing and the Love trade.
Obviously, there is no valid comparison between a mid-season trade which netted three role-players and an off-season which landed two of the best in the game. Griffin should be lauded for landing LeBron and Love first and foremost, as his moves thereafter don’t matter if not for those two. January 7 is not a franchise changing date like July 11 was, but it’s a signpost for when the Cavs finalised their roster and got the mix right. Since then, the Cavs are 30-11, tied with the Hawks for the 2nd best record in the association and only trailing the historically good Warriors. Their offense is #1 per 100 possessions, outpointing Kerr’s revered group in Oakland. Irving has averaged a Curry-esque 23 per game on 48-45-88 splits and LeBron a LeBron-esque 26, 6 and 7.
Of the new arrivals, Smith and Mozgov have made the most impact.
Smith’s reputation as an all-world knucklehead is deserved, but he has proven to be a useful piece when locked in. He was the Sixth Man of the Year in 2012-13, as part of the best Knicks team since Ewing, and his play as a Cav has a similar feel. Unlike Waiters, he’s embraced the role as a locked and loaded shooter: 82.3% of his 3 point makes as a Cav have come from an assist. A perimeter already featuring Kyrie and LeBron needs no more ball-handlers and Smith is in his element.
Mozgov’s low usage, highly efficient game is reminiscent of Tiago Splitter’s in San Antonio. He rolls, catches and finishes. He has also added rim protection to a defense sorely in need of some before his arrival.
Crucially, both men are comfortable in their positions. Yet, for as well as Griffin has recruited, the championship question may end up being answered by someone who still isn’t.On the face of it, Love has a justifiable beef with his place on the totem pole. Fresh from a season scoring 26 a night, he’s largely deployed as a floating, spot up big man in the mould of Channing Frye. It’s jarring watching him, once the first, second and third options in Minnesota, seemingly go an entire quarter without a meaningful touch. It’s an exorbitant luxury granted to Blatt that he can use Love this way and he appears to have decided on it as the way forward. It’s become more about how he makes Love feel valued while he’s cast as an extra rather than if he’ll make any changes to involve him more.
Title-winners are littered with former alpha dogs who have taken a back seat for a good of the team. Jackson’s way saw him convince Ron Harper, who averaged 20 with the Clippers the season before, to buy-in. He only cracked double-figures once more in his career but retired with a handful of rings.
As unfair as it may be, Blatt’s season will be viewed as a failure if the Cavs’ don’t win the championship. Oddly, what he will need to achieve to capture the trophy has little to do with the game itself. In the words of the Zen Master himself, ‘basketball is a great mystery’.
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