Coach Dale: “All right, listen up, listen up. Here’s what we’re going to do. Jimmy, they’re going to be expecting you to take the last shot. We’re gonna use you as a decoy. Buddy, you get the ball, and then Merle will have a picket fence. He’s going to take the last shot. All right let’s go. … What’s the matter with you guys? What’s the matter with you?”
Jimmy: “I’ll make it.”
Coach Dale: “All right. Buddy, get the ball to Jimmy, top of the key. Rest of you spread the floor.”
* * *
Coaches are important for teams, everybody knows that. They set a standard. They instill discipline and confidence and a certain style of play. They try to create a winning environment, whatever that means. The best of them see potential in people that the players themselves cannot see. Beyond all that, coaches are also strategists, architects, designers, chess players. In the big moments, they order the intentional walk, decide to go for it on fourth down, determine when to pull the goalie, chalk up the final play.
It is this part, the strategy part, that most people talk about when discussing coaches.
And it is this part, the strategy part, that matters least of all.
Sunday afternoon in Chicago, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt had a bad day. A really bad day. He signaled for a timeout after the team was out of timeouts, a move that — if it had been caught by the officials — would have gone down in Cleveland history with Red Right 88, the Fumble, the Jordan shot over Ehlo and countless comical but horrifying blunders by an old Cleveland Cavaliers owner named Ted Stepien. There’s a whole book to be written about Ted Stepien’s hijinks, like the time he decided to promote his professional softball team by dropping softballs from the top of the Terminal Tower (broke a woman’s arm) and the times he traded away draft picks that turned into James Worthy, Sam Perkins, Derek Harper, Detlef Schrempf and Dennis Rodman and alas the time he decided to make the Cavaliers fight song a polka.
David Blatt was this close to finding himself in Ted Stepien land. If he had been clocked with a technical foul in the final seconds for calling a timeout he did not have … there is no place he could have hid.
Then there was this: With 1.5 seconds left in a tied playoff game the Cavaliers HAD to win, Blatt seems to have determined that his team’s best chance was to have LeBron James inbound the ball. If James inbounded the ball, you understand, that would mean he would not have been on the floor to take the final shot. If he had not been on the floor to take the final shot, well, it’s probably best not to talk about it.
This was exactly the sort of thing that made the kids of Hickory High roll their eyes in “Hoosiers.” There, the almost mute Jimmy Chitwood said simply, “I’ll make it,” and he did make it. In Chicago, in LeBron’s words: “I scratched that. … I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out, unless I can shoot it over the backboard and it goes in.’ Have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball, and everybody get out of the way.”
LeBron’s description — someone else take it out, give him the ball, get out of the way — is precisely what happened, and James hit the shot to tie the series and give Cleveland fans faith again.
Now, Blatt explained on Monday that it wasn’t EXACTLY like LeBron overruled him. No, it was more like, Blatt said one thing, and LeBron made a counter-suggestion, and they talked about it and came to an understanding. Blatt told reporters, “He didn’t veto the play. He just felt strongly about what a better situation would be, and as it turned out that was the right thing. It could have been the right thing the other way too.”
Seems weird that Blatt would STILL be trying to defend the LeBron inbounds plan. I mean, sure, J.R. Smith might have made the game-winning shot. Timofey Mozgov might have made the game-winning shot. But what sense does any of that make? There was a saying in Kansas City about the Royals back when every move they made seemed impossibly dumb: “Well, you know, it COULD work.” Taking LeBron out of the final play COULD work. Hitting on 20 in blackjack CAN work. Screaming at the guy you’re trying to sell a car to CAN work. But, you know, maybe it’s better to go with the smarter play.
I think it comes down to that thing about coaches and strategy; it is so easy when you are sitting in that chair to believe that YOU are the one controlling the action and making things happen. Coaches spend so many countless hours thinking about strategy, considering possibilities, breaking down the game … and it can start to go to their heads. There’s a famous story about the old manager of the Boys of Summer Dodgers, Charlie Dressen, when his team was trailing. “Don’t worry boys!” he reportedly shouted. “I’ll think of something!”
It’s a heady business, having great athletes do more or less what you tell them to do. You can become confused about what matters. You can become confused about what wins games (talent, depth, cohesion, a collective understanding of what the team is trying to do) and what generally does not win games (brilliant strategic moves).
David Blatt is obviously a good and knowledgeable basketball coach. He learned the game from Pete Carril at Princeton, and he went on to great success in Italy, Russia and especially in Israel where he coached Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague title. The guy knows the game deeply.
But this is a whole new challenge for him. LeBron James said on Monday that Blatt catches heat because “he’s coaching me.” And that’s true — it’s a tiny sliver of space where a coach can allow LeBron to be his sensational self AND hold his own ground as the man in charge. Every coach of every legendary player has had to find that space. Many have not.
Blatt, best anyone can tell, has not found that space often. He has never looked especially comfortable and seems to shift in the wind depending on what suggestions people write and talk about. There have been rumors all year that James coaches the team, that players look to LeBron and not to Blatt. Sunday afternoon, that all seemed to come back to life.
But, you know, when you win it doesn’t matter. We’ll never know what Coach Dale of Hickory High told the press after his team won the game in the final seconds. He might have taken full credit for calling the play. We do know that he didn’t lose track of timeouts. Blatt will want to work on that one.