What a life for David Blatt, and what a last couple of weeks. Blatt is the NBA’s new mystery man, plopped in charge of perhaps the league’s most intriguing team. He has coached all over the world for the last 20 years, winning consistently in Israel, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Israel again.
He capped a half-decade run at the Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv in May with an improbable run to the Euroleague title. He coached the Russian national team to the EuroBasket title in 2007, a massive turnaround for what had been a moribund program, and then to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Blatt sat down in Las Vegas for an extensive one-on-one with Grantland to talk about the influence of the Princeton offense, his defensive principles, and landing that LeBron guy.
When you interviewed with the Cavs in June, did you have any idea it might be possible to sign LeBron?
We did not talk about LeBron during the interview process. But Cleveland has been talking about LeBron for a while now, so it’s always in the air.
The more we learn about the Sports Illustrated story in which LeBron announced his return, the more it’s clear this was quietly in the works in the first week of July. When did you know you had a real chance to get him?
When I got the job, and I was spending time with Griff [David Griffin, the team’s GM], working on the draft and on free agency, and trying to offer my insight into building the team — they made me aware of the slight possibility of bringing in LeBron.
And the neat thing is, we never even mentioned his name. He was just “the guy.”
It was “the guy.” That’s it. LeBron — it reminds me of that Superman movie, the last one, when he comes down and sees Lois Lane, and he says, “I’m always around.” LeBron is part of Ohio, and part of Cleveland, and Akron. So when you’re thinking about anything, if there’s the slightest possibility that he would come back, then he’s always around. He’s in the collective thought process.
Did you know LeBron was locked in before that SI article came out?
I did not. I knew it was a possibility. But on purpose, and I think this was the right way, it was kept very much under wraps. From what I understand, this thing went down to the wire, and it was in the interest of everyone that it was kept quiet.
Were you concerned LeBron didn’t want to meet with you before making his choice?
Not at all. LeBron and his people did this in the best possible way. He could not have played this more properly. I had met LeBron before, not really up close and personal. But I know who he is, he knows who I am. He’s played against my teams. He knows almost everyone that I’ve coached, and I’m sure he was doing his homework. He didn’t need to make me an integral part of the decision, other than to know I was a guy he could work with. And that I could coach. And I’m sure he found that out.
How did you approach the work after taking the job? Did you watch all 82 games from last season, like Stan Van Gundy did in Detroit?
I’ve taken a good long look at the team from last season, but I haven’t been here long enough to watch all 82 games.
Yeah, that’d be a lot of games every day.
This team is going to be significantly different, obviously. It’s almost a new team.
Three or four days ago the world changed. We say in Hebrew the world changed from katze to katze, which means “from end to end.” Watching last year’s games doesn’t help me a whole lot. What I did more of was to look at clips of individual players — to understand what they can and can’t do. And now I’m locking in on how we’re gonna move forward with the present group.
I need to get used to the NBA game. That’s why I’m coaching summer league. I know how to coach. I’ve been doing it for 20 years. But this is a different environment, and I gotta learn the lay of the land.
Your whole family, wife and kids, is staying in Israel, right? So for better or worse, you can work as much as you want.
Most coaches will tell you coaching is a lonely and tough business. Even when you’re living at home, you’re not really living at home. That’s the profession I’ve chosen. I’ve been through this before, because not in all of the jobs that I’ve worked did my family come.
You’re known as a Princeton offense guy, but that’s only one end of the floor, and everyone I’ve talked to says it’s unfair to pigeonhole you with the Princeton stuff — that you’ve played very different styles depending on what players you have. You pressed for an entire season when you had Jeremy Pargo. Forget the Princeton offense. What are your defensive principles?
My teams have always been multifaceted and multitasking on defense — a lot of different looks, different kinds of presses, different matchups, matchup zones, trapping schemes. I don’t know that that’s gonna change all that much. Defense is the side of the floor where you adapt less and teach more.
Did you press for just that one season? Or is it something in your toolbox all the time?
It’s in the toolbox. I haven’t always used it. Sometimes we didn’t have the personnel for it. That particular year we had a tremendous lineup of guys that were athletic, and had length, and speed, and great anticipation. We pressed 40 minutes a game for the whole season.
The NBA is a pick-and-roll league. More defenses like to drop back against that play, but there are still a few that attack it high on the floor. Which style do you prefer for this team?
We’ll see. There are two schools of thought in coaching, and neither one is more right than the other. There are coaches that have their system, and they are gonna use that regardless of what the team makeup is. And there are coaches that are adaptive, and take their roster, and play according to their skill set.
I’m more from the adaptive school, with a few principles that are consistent throughout my career. But we have to see what the team looks like before I can tell you exactly how we’re gonna play.
I watched the press conference you held after you guys won the Euroleague this year. You said something that surprised me: that the team you beat in the final game, Real Madrid, would have beaten you in a longer series. Do you think NBA playoff series should be shorter, so that there would be more upsets?
No. I think the seven-game series is great. I love the history of it. I love the tradition of it. [John] Havlicek stole the ball in the seventh game, man! He didn’t even steal it, either. He deflected it. And Johnny Most goes crazy: “Havlicek stole the ball! Havlicek stole the ball!”
But that’s the beauty of it. It’s a moment that’s frozen in time, and it can’t be in the fifth game. It has to be in the seventh game. Now, in Europe, the final four is how you determine the Euroleague champion. And that’s fine. And what I said was true. The teams we beat in the final four were much stronger than us on paper. If we had to play them in a seven-game series, I don’t believe we would have won.
You won’t play the full Princeton offense in Cleveland, right?
In the full Princeton, there are no plays. Well, there are plays, but there are not called plays. According to the movement of the ball, and the movement of the center, you’re gonna get into certain sets that you read according to how the defense plays you.
That’s the part of the Princeton offense you can see in my teams — the reading and the multi-option possibilities off of any play. The Princeton offense is something that takes a long time to develop. It requires a particular kind of player, and more than anything else, it requires the giving up on the part of all the players of almost everything they know.
But elements of the Princeton offense, in my mind — they are the right way to play.
Are you worried about spacing when Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson share the floor? Varejao has become a better midrange shooter, but neither guy is shooting from outside 20 feet, and LeBron is coming from a place where they surrounded him with real shooting.
I got hired to find solutions. You know what I mean? And I’m not afraid of that challenge. I’ve been finding solutions my whole life. We’ll figure it out.
LeBron never really played the 4 [power forward] in Cleveland, but he played it a ton in Miami. Will you use him in that role, with just one traditional big man on the floor?
I just came from the land of the stretch 4s. Stretch 4s became popular in the United States because of Europe. If anyone knows that style of play, it’s probably me. Yeah, you’ll see LeBron there. You’ll see LeBron all over the floor, just like he’s used to playing. I don’t have to change him.
He’s obviously a foundation-shaking piece. Someone was telling me it might take you a full year to figure out exactly how you want to use him.
I mean, it took Miami almost two seasons and one injury to Chris Bosh for them to really commit to smaller lineups and figure it out, right?
You’ll see it a lot faster here. But obviously, Miami figured it out, and they’ve been fabulously successful. I give them all the credit in the world, not only for the achievements they had, but for the way they played.
The Heat had Shane Battier to guard power forwards so LeBron wouldn’t have to all the time. And Battier could shoot 3s. Can you envision Anthony Bennett as sort of a bigger Battier in that same role?
I’m really happy with the way Anthony has come to our camp. He’s worked extremely hard, has improved his body, has improved his approach. He’s maturing. He’s on the right track. We’re gonna see what we can do with him.
But does he fit that Battier role?
I think that’s a pretty fair assumption.
Now I have a really pressing, serious question for you.
They weren’t serious up to now?
They were, but not like this one.
Are you setting me up?
The dress code in your stops in Europe and Israel varied a bit. Are you upset that you can’t ever wear jeans at games anymore?
The only place I wore jeans to games was in international competition. I always wore a suit in the Euroleague. In the Israeli league, it was just a jacket — not a suit and tie.
I’m not known for my sartorial splendor, but I’m gonna raise my game for the NBA.
Like, pocket squares and stuff?
I don’t know. One of the things I firmly believe in, is that you should solicit the advice of those that know better, and I’m gonna find some really good advice. I never dressed badly, but I gotta raise my game. I’m looking forward to the challenge.
I wish I could coach in jeans, don’t get me wrong. I’ve always had this question: The players get to play in shorts, so why can’t I coach in jeans?
Drives me crazy. You saw some of those coaches in the World Cup wearing windbreakers. It’s just sports.
Yeah, man. You want to hug a guy after he makes a great play, and you’ve got on this $500 or $1,000 suit, and you’re getting sweat all over it. That’s no good.
Where do you want the Cavs to rank in 3-point attempts? Do you like the 3-point shot?
I do like the 3-point shot.
But what about this? Pop has embraced the 3-pointer, but he has said he actually hates the rule. Do you like it, just as part of the game?
That’s interesting. For a guy that’s won five championships with the 3-point shot to say that — that’s very interesting. And he has the right to say that. He’s a terrific guy. Pop’s a guy that has touched a lot of different people and coaches, and he does it in such a beautiful way, without asking for anything. He gives so much back to the profession.
He doesn’t give much to the media, but I kind of respect that.
And I can respect him for that too!
Back to the 3s: Do you care if you rank at the top, bottom, or middle in attempts?
No. I want to win games. That’s it.
The one guy people say is not a Blatt player — that he’s going to struggle with you — is Dion Waiters. He sometimes doesn’t get back on defense, his shot selection can get iffy. People are already worried you can’t coexist. Is that fair?
That’s grossly unfair. Grossly. I’m really excited about working with Dion. I hope I can help make him a better player, and reach the level I know he wants to be at. He’s got great talent. I’ve spoken to him, and I think he’s a really good guy. I’m excited as hell about working with him.
By the way, part of any player’s performance is how the coach works with him, and helps him find his way. Dion Waiters and any other player on the Cavs — it’s my responsibility. It’s my job to get the best out of him. It’s not his job solely to be this, or to be that. That’s my job.
You once said you “didn’t give a damn” what the score was.
Did I say that — that I don’t give a damn?
Yeah, I believe so. There might have been an S-bomb in there, actually. I can’t remember.
Did I say it right out loud, that I don’t give a damn? I might have said that. That sounds like me. Did someone send you the YouTube clip yet?
The Team Russia one, where you’re yelling at someone during a timeout and stomping your foot?
No, not that one. That’s the one where I threw guys off the team in the middle of a timeout. I’m talking about the one from Maccabi.
You didn’t actually throw those guys off the team, though, right?
Yeah. Sergei Monia and Alexey Shved. In the middle of the Olympics, I threw Monia and Shved right off the team, and then I brought them back before the end of that same game. Because I’m not stupid, you know.
You once told Shved to cut his hair, but then the next year, you told him he could keep it long, right?
Yeah. The first year, I said, “You gotta cut your hair.” And then the second year, when I realized we weren’t gonna be able to get the ball over half court if he wasn’t playing, I said, “Go ahead and look like a hippie. I don’t care.”
But the whole point of not caring about the score was that you just focus on each possession as its own thing, right? That you focus on the process of winning each possession, rather than the make-or-miss result?
I want to see the process. And not only that, but the ability to do things right from play to play is habit-forming. I love, love, love the quote from Vince Lombardi, where he says, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately, so is losing.” The things you do from moment to moment, in practice and in games, are habit-forming. We are what we do. It’s not what we talk about, and it’s not what other people perceive us to be. We are what we do, and when you’re doing things right all the time, it adds up.
That’s where the micro-focus on each possession comes from. I know I’m gonna get old faster and die young because of that, but that’s OK. That’s the way I am.
You were an English Literature major at Princeton. What kind of books did you like?
Honestly, my favorite literature more than English literature was modern American literature.
I love him. But really, sports novels, and novels with sports themes. I wrote my thesis on Bernard Malamud, the guy who wrote The Natural. Did you ever read The Natural?
A long time ago.
That was the kind of literature that I read as a kid, and as a young man. Sports literature, but with much more general life themes. Because for me, basketball is a microcosm of life. The heat of battle strips you of all your defenses and shows who you really are.