In the excitement of the Lakers being granted permission to interview Warriors’ assistant coach Luke Walton and Spurs’ assistant coach Ettore Messina, it’s easy to forget the team will actually look at other candidates too. Yes, Luke and Messina are the presumed front-runners, but an expansive search will include more than just them.
Now, what if I told you one candidate the Lakers plan to interview (scroll down) has a resumé similar to Ettore Messina, but also has NBA experience as a head coach. And what if I told you in his one and a half seasons as an NBA head coach he won 67.5% of his games and reached the NBA Finals in his one full season. That he’s considered a top flight offensive mind, that he showed tactical flexibility in the face of an evolving roster, and that he also got his team to play good defense.
This guy sounds intriguing right? Now, what if I told you his name is David Blatt.
I have a feeling this sound just went through a lot of your heads. A Blatt hiring just doesn’t excite as the potential of other candidates. I get it. I really do.
His departure from Cleveland certainly affects the perception of his ability to manage an NBA locker room. Fair or not, the reports of his kowtowing to his superstar players to the point that he lost the respect of other guys on the team is worrisome. The fact that he wasn’t able to generate the level of buy-in needed to run his preferred man + ball movement heavy offense — instead settling on more P&R heavy attacks — also concerns.
If you put most of your stock in that line of thinking, I can understand your hesitation on considering Blatt. I just don’t think this is the best way to view his potential as a solution for the Lakers.
I think it’s best to go back to the job Blatt was hired to do in Cleveland and relate that to the job he would be expected to do in Los Angeles. When the Cavs hired Blatt, they did so under the premise of coaching a team who had drafted Kyrie Irving two years prior, had drafted Anthony Bennett the year before, and had just landed the #1 overall pick. This team also had Tristan Thompson — another high lottery pick — and a mish-mash of veteran players who were supposed to help establish a winning culture.
Blatt, with his pedigree as a coaching legend in Israel, Euroleague, and the Russian National Team to go along with a history of getting the most out of his players, was supposed to be the guy who took a young team and molded them into a group who would be ready to compete for deep playoff runs in a few years. His American roots and success in Europe gave him a unique perspective which would help guide the team which was in place when he was hired.
Of course, he never coached that team. LeBron “came home”, Wiggins was traded for Love, and, later, trades were made to bring in even more veterans (JR Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov). Blatt did his best to adjust to this group and there was a lot of front facing success. They made a trip to the Finals, after all.
But along the way, he dealt with the types of things that come with coaching a contender with the best player in the league all while being new to the NBA. His experience and previous success got downplayed, his pride pushed back against those ideas, and he tried to navigate a locker room where, as a new coach, he was no longer viewed as one of the most important pieces to the team’s success.
This isn’t to excuse Blatt nor to blame the players who, based on rumblings, were ready to move on from him, but rather to add context to his time in Cleveland and how the perception of his time there really can contrast against the results on the floor. This context matters. At least it should to Lakers’ fans.
Here is what one writer who roots for the Cavs had to say about Blatt and whether fans “missed” him:
The term I came to use for David Blatt was progressive. Progressive in the sense that he seemed open to lineup data, open to modern NBA offenses, attempted different forms of pick and roll coverage, and was willing to try out smallball lineups with different personnel. Despite having lineups with constant injury concerns, roles were pretty clearly established and rotations made sense. With Lue, there has been fiddling with lineups, and the best lineups haven’t always been on the floor consistently. I think that’s what Cavs fans miss the most.
Blatt seems to check off a lot of key boxes, then. Professional success, smart tactically (especially on offense), NBA experience, open to the new waves of thinking in the league, and willing to adjust to the talent at his disposal. These are things the Lakers should want in the next person who leads their huddle.
Now, the other things matter too. Knowing he can control a locker room or relate to his players — especially star players — is important. The Lakers don’t have those guys now, but hope to develop their young players into that caliber of guy and recruit them via free agency. His ability to navigate the media and effectively diffuse stories rather than fuel and/or create them is also important. Los Angeles is not Cleveland and the Lakers, while not nearly as good as his Cavs team, bring a certain amount of media (and fan) borne pressure which needs a deft touch when handling.
Getting a sense of whether he has learned from his time with the Cavs and can appropriately respond to these other types of demands which come with the job should be a point of emphasis for the Lakers’ front office. But that’s the goal of an interview, right? And his resumé affords him the chance to get in the room and speak to these (and any other) concerns.
Remember the last time the Lakers had an opening. They limited their search to candidates who only had NBA coaching experience. They interviewed Byron (at least) 3 times and the other names on their list — Hollins, Gentry, Dunleavy, Karl — were all retreads who didn’t inspire much confidence the team was really upgrading from their previous coach.
With Luke and Messina, we see a departure from that. I think Blatt is more in line with them than he is with the group who met with Mitch Kupchak and Jim Buss two years ago. This is a positive thing and, even if he would not be my first choice, he’s worth considering as an option should other candidates not pan out as hoped. That may not sound like a ringing endorsement, but I can think of multiple other names who are brought up to me daily who would not get even that type of endorsement.
With that, I’m happy to include Blatt on any short list and see him get his chance in the room to impress enough to be a strong consideration.