The fall guy

David Blatt won the lottery -- and it cost him his dream job

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You have probably seen some of the many horrific statistics out there about people who win the lottery. It’s hard to tell how accurate these numbers are, but the National Endowment for Financial Education has said that 70 percent of the big lottery winners lose their money within five years. Many get divorced. Many lose friends. Many lose their way.

Now think about David Blatt.

On June 20, 2014, Blatt got the job he’d been working for all his life. Blatt had played point guard for Princeton’s legendary Pete Carril, where he learned every backdoor cut known to man or woman. The kid loved basketball. He emigrated to Israel, served in the military and played professional basketball for a decade.

When he was finished playing, he wanted to stay in the game. He became an assistant coach. He became a head coach in Israel and Russia. He studied the game intently, researched and experimented with the geometry and physics and poetry of what five players can do as a team. He coached the Russian national team to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics. He coached Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague Championship, a run that included a stunning 15-point comeback in the semifinal against CSKA Moscow.

He jumped around the European world of basketball for almost 30 years, learning, improving, perfecting. And then, finally, he was ready for the best league on earth. A couple of teams offered him the chance to be an assistant coach. And then the Cleveland Cavaliers tapped him on the shoulder and gave him the chance to be the head coach of a real live (sort of) NBA team.

“David Blatt is going to bring some of the most innovating approaches found in professional basketball anywhere on the globe,” Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert said. Yes, it was exciting. The Cavaliers were coming off a terrible season, which had followed a disastrous season, which had followed two pathetic seasons. They had blown the first pick in the draft on bust Anthony Bennett. They had made a couple of terrible coaching hires in a row. They had lost their own city.

But there were a few cracks of light. They did have the remarkable Kyrie Irving. Hard-working Tristan Thompson looked like the sort of defensive player and rebounder who could spark a team. And they had the first pick in the draft again, which they used on the preposterously talented Andrew Wiggins.

“He’s a kid I love and respect,” Blatt said happily. Yes, he knew it would be a challenge rebuilding the Cleveland Cavaliers. But this was the sort of challenge Blatt craved, the one he had prepared for all his life.

Then, two weeks after he was hired, David Blatt won the lottery.

“In Northeast Ohio,” LeBron James wrote in an open letter to the world, “nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have. I’m ready to accept the challenge. I’m coming home.”

Think of it: One day, David Blatt was coaching a young and struggling team that had fired two coaches in two years. The next day, he was coaching the best player on planet Earth and the most-anticipated team in the entire world.

Yes, one day, he had a chance to win coach of the year just by getting his team to a .500 record.

The next day, he was all but guaranteed to be fired in his second year, even if he did have the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Congratulations, David, on winning the lottery.

* * *

Yes, the Cavaliers fired Blatt on Friday. Yes, they fired him even though Cleveland has the best record in the conference and has won 11 of its last 13 games, the last victory a drubbing of a good Los Angeles Clipper team (though, one without Blake Griffin).

Without context, it makes for a somewhat shocking headline: “Coach With East’s Best Record Fired.” But it wasn’t shocking at all. It was inevitable. David Blatt was hired to do one job, one he was well qualified to do — turn around a beleaguered franchise.

He was then given a different job — take the blame (and, eventually, the fall) for everything that goes wrong with a thrown-together team that everyone demands win a championship.

Blatt brought some of this on himself, of course. He had a terrible stretch in the playoffs. You might remember the game in Chicago in May, with Cleveland down two games to one. Blatt lost his head in the final seconds with the game tied; he called a timeout the Cavs did not have, a disaster he managed to skirt because the referees did not see him. If they had seen him, Blatt would have been fired at the end of that game.

Instead, with 1.5 seconds left, he called a play that had James inbounding the ball. This made no sense at all, and James overruled the play (or, in the words of Blatt, “he didn’t veto the play, he just felt strongly about what a better situation would be”). James then shot the last shot, made it, and the Cavaliers won.

“It turned out that was the right thing,” Blatt said. “It could have been the right thing the other way too.”

Yeah … probably not. There was no getting around it: Blatt had demonstrated a stunning lack of competence in a big moment. The Cavaliers reached the NBA Final and, without Kevin Love and Irving, lost to Golden State in six games. Everyone seemed willing to give Blatt and the Cavaliers a pass because of the injuries.

Everyone expected much more this year.

The Cavaliers took hold of the Eastern Conference more or less from the start. Vegas lists the Cavaliers as 1-4 favorites to win the Eastern Conference — bet four dollars to win just one — and I doubt many people are betting against them.

But being the best team in the East is simply the prerequisite for being the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coach; it’s like having a 15-percent gratuity added to your bill. Cleveland has not won a sports championship in 50 years. The Cavaliers have never won the title. James left Miami and spurned the bigger markets. The team traded for Love and spent a fortune to keep Thompson and Irving. Winning the East is nothing. There’s only one acceptable outcome. A title.

The trouble is, the Cavaliers have showed pretty conclusively that they are not good enough to win that title. Golden State came into Cleveland on Monday and embarrassed the team, exposed Love’s defense, made James look old. It’s hard to know Blatt’s role in the blowout loss. If the postgame grumbles were any indication, he did seem to have lost the faith of his players.

“The gameplan is the gameplan,” James said testily.

“I don’t want to get into that,” Love said when asked why he can’t get more involved in the offense.

“That lack of mental preparation more than anything else really hurt us,” Blatt conceded. “I told our guys, ‘That starts with me.'”

The minute that game ended, the final clock on Blatt began ticking. A couple of days later, he seemed to realize that, and he lashed out at the prevailing wind.

“You know what, we didn’t get here right now by being a bad team or by having all these problems that suddenly surface when you have a bad game,” he said. “We work pretty hard to be, as of today, midseason, in first place in our conference.

“That guarantees nothing, but it shouldn’t be overlooked either. I don’t think it’s fair. Well, I’m not going to say that, excuse me. I don’t like it. Fairness is not something I’m going to talk about, excuse me.”

Blatt had to know that using the word “fair” was a huge mistake. There’s nothing fair about being the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Less than 24 hours after he said those words, he was fired.

That was always the way this story was going to end. The Cleveland Cavaliers have to win the NBA title, and they’re probably not good enough to do it. Somebody was going to take the fall for that. That somebody was always going to be David Blatt. This was his destiny the moment that he won the lottery.