Thursday, June 19, 2014

David Blatt, Princeton Influence and Adjustment to the NBA

David Blatt's International Experience, Princeton Influence and Offensive Style of Play Make Him an Ideal Candidate as a NBA Head Coach.

One of the hottest coaching names being circulated right now has to be David Blatt, the long-time European coach who is coming off a Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, who knocked off bigger European powers CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid in the Semifinals and Finals, respectively. Blatt, who interviewed with the Cleveland Cavaliers for their vacant head coaching position on Wednesday, stepped down from his position as the head man of Israel's top club to pursue his lifelong goal of coaching in the NBA. While it is yet to be determined how serious a candidate he is for the Cavaliers' head coaching position, it sounds like at the very least he should find an assistant coaching position, as Golden State is making a strong push for Blatt to join first-year man Steve Kerr on the bench.

Right now, the feelings are mixed about Blatt. Blatt comes with a successful coaching background not only on the European level, but the international one as well. While his success with the Tel Aviv club is obviously noted (144-17 record in the Domestic League; 90-52 record in the Euroleague, basketball's equivalent to the Champions League in soccer), Blatt had tremendous success as the head coach of the Russian National team, as he led them to the Gold Medal in the 2007 Eurobasket tournament, and a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. Considering Russia lost a lot of talent when the Soviet Union broke up in the 90's (most of the Soviet talent came from Lithuania), the rebuilding job Blatt did with that national program is remarkable. Not only has the program stood on its own in International play, but much of the talent that has played for Blatt and the Russian national team has gone on to have good professional careers either at home (playing for CSKA Moscow) or even in the NBA (Andrei Kirilenko and Victor Khryapa are two notable Russian players who have had careers in the NBA).

In terms of credentials, Blatt may be the most qualified coaching candidate left on the market. And yet the feelings about him taking a head job in the NBA are still mixed. columnist Steve Fedor was critical of the idea of Blatt being the head coach due to the NBA being a "different" game from the international one, and he was unsure how Blatt would adjust to the personalities and talents of the current Cavs roster, especially star Kyrie Irving (in all honesty, Irving has no reason to go primadonna on any coach considering he hasn't accomplished jack in terms of team accomplishments since graduating high school, but that's a commentary for a different time). On the other hand, in a Eurobasket interview with former Memphis Grizzly and current CSKA Moscow point guard Jeremy Pargo, a lot of sentiment is out there that not only could Blatt handle the rigors of coaching a NBA team, but he could be successful as well. Here's what Pargo said about Blatt in the interview about how Blatt would adjust to coaching in the NBA:

"NBA coaches deal with lots of different things such as, players who are pretty much the coach themselves or guys that don't agree with the coach, and you need to be able to work it all out and get wins in difficult situations - and I think Blatt is pretty good at that. If he gets the opportunity it's a good opportunity for him."

Pargo kinda dumps on Fedor's argument there pointing out that Blatt has the personality and patience to deal with the diversity one would see in a NBA roster. And Pargo's point is valid. Many Euroleague rosters, especially Tel Aviv, fluctuate constantly and are composed of not only different kinds of personalities, but players who come from all over the worlds who are used to different cultures and different styles of play. And yet, Blatt found consistent success on the court on an annual basis and was able to compete despite facing clubs who had much more money and resources than the club he coached. CSKA Moscow had former NBA players like Khryapa, Pargo, Sonny Weems and Nenad Kristic and yet, despite not having that kind of NBA talent, Blatt's squad was able to ouster the bigger, more highly priced CSKA club in the Euroleague Semifinals. That says something, and shows what Blatt can do with clubs and teams with limited resources. Just imagine what he could get with a NBA club with much more resources and much more talent on hand.

But what makes Blatt's coaching style so successful? On the court, it's a mix of things, as Blatt has blended European-style ball with some principles he learned from early in his basketball career. For those who aren't aware, Blatt played at Princeton for Pete Carril, who is known for creating the "Princeton" offense. Now, the Princeton offense is a lot of things. It is known for ball control and helping less athletic and smaller teams with bigger, more talented squads. The Princeton Offense crowning moment was the Tigers' first-round upset over the defending national champion UCLA Bruins in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. When you watch it, a lot of things are obvious: a lot of less athletic, smaller guys moving around, getting to the hoop without the ball and draining time off the clock. Watch the end of the game in all its tension and Ivy League glory:

The Princeton offense has a lot of fans and a lot of critics, but it is a system of success that has become quite well-known in the basketball world at all levels from high school to even the NBA (the Sacramento Kings were widely known for employing Princeton concepts when Carril was a special assistant to the team, and Eddie Jordan, who was with the Kings when Carril was there, carried those concepts to his head coaching stops in Washington and Philadelphia).

But, the key to the Princeton offense (as with a lot of motion offenses, which the Princeton offense essentially is), is movement. And its movement not just in terms of ball movement, but player movement as well. The backdoor cut is an essential staple of the Princeton offense. Reversing the ball is an essential Princeton concept. Many people who criticized Jordan for the Princeton offense "not working" with his squads really didn't understand what he was trying to do. He wasn't trying to replicate Carril's Tigers teams, he just wanted to find ways to get easy baskets with players who couldn't traditionally do so in isolation. The Kings under Rick Adelman were the prime example of this. They relished with Princeton concepts because they had players who could not only move well and get to the basket without the ball, but they had adept passers from all spots on the floor. Vlade Divac and Chris Webber made the Princeton concepts so successful because they could easily hit cuts from the high and low post. Jordan didn't have those kinds of players in Washington or Philly (he had players who were more prone to Iso ball, especially in Washington with Gilbert Arenas and Larry Hughes) and thus, he wasn't able to find much success with the system.

Blatt on the other hand has found success employing such concepts with his Maccabi squads. Maccabi spread out the floor and Blatt allowed his players to create with and without the ball. At :50 mark of the video below, Maccabi spreads the floor and point guard Tyrese Rice after he passes the ball, goes back a couple of steps and cuts to the middle of the floor. Tel Aviv gets another pass to the wing, who then finds Rice cutting through the paint, and Rice catches it and makes the floater in the middle of the paint. Look at this thing of beauty in their championship game against Real Madrid:

That is just the tip of the iceberg for Blatt. In the CSKA Moscow game, Tel Aviv utilized the backdoor cut on frequent occasions in the half court to get by the much bigger CSKA Moscow squad. But Blatt's teams aren't just settle in the half court, and drain the shot clock waiting for that basket cut at the hoop. Blatt's teams play very fast, and he encourages them to be aggressive and push the ball in transition. As a matter of fact, while Blatt does employ some Princeton concepts, he is far from a "Princeton" team. Blatt is very hands off and lets his team play. Tel Aviv was known for the speed and their ability to get to the basket, and Blatt allowed them to play in such a way. While it was common to see their wings cut to the basket and score on give and go possessions, he also allowed his guards to penetrate when they had the advantage. Tel Aviv hurt teams in a variety of ways with a variety of players, and that is what makes Blatt such an intriguing coach. He often didn't have the most dominant player on the floor against his competition, but his teams collectively were better because they all could score and they played unselfish as well. It was this kind of democratic style of ball on the offensive end that made them so effective, and while the Princeton concepts may have helped, it was the "team-sense" to scoring that helped them achieve so much success this season, especially in Euroleague play.

And, in all honesty, that is probably a huge reason why Blatt is such a hot commodity right now. The champion San Antonio Spurs won the NBA title through ball movement, unselfish play, and a multi-player ability to hurt teams on the offensive end. The Spurs won with a deep bench and multiple players who brought different skills and strengths to the table in terms of helping their team score points and thus, win games. Tel Aviv employed the same concept in Euroleague play: they were practically the Spurs of this year's Euroleague Final Four. They didn't have the star power by any means in comparison to their competition, but Blatt's system and his players ability to buy into and succeed in that system made them successful even though they couldn't match the size or athleticism of their opponents. Go online and watch more games of Tel Aviv if you get the chance. Their similarities to the Spurs and other great NBA squads like the D'Antoni Suns is uncanny.

Right now, every NBA team not in a major market (i.e. New York, LA or Chicago) is trying to replicate the Spurs model. They want to be that team with that coach who has installed a system that sets up their team for constant success regardless of talent turnover and age. The Atlanta Hawks hired a former Spurs assistant last year. Oklahoma City has a GM who is modeling the Spurs model, which he garnered from his days as a member of the Spurs' front office. The Spurs model is the hot ticket now more so than ever before, especially after the Spurs absolutely decimated the "Superstar" Heat in this year's NBA Finals.

And Blatt fits that mold. He has found success with an offensive system that has been successful despite facing constant turnover on an annual basis. His system accentuates a style of play that is in-line with what the most successful NBA teams are doing nowadays (i.e. playing small, having a deep bench, spreading the floor and being able to score with multiple players). And he has a history of reaching all kinds of players from different basketball and cultural backgrounds. He has worked with European stars, former US college castoffs and young players who are developing their game with the plan of making the jump to the NBA. Blatt is no one-hit wonder by any means. His pedigree of success rivals a lot of current NBA coaches now, let alone the current candidates on the market aiming for assistant as well as head coaching positions.

It probably is a long-shot that Blatt will get the Cavs job (the safe bet is that he will probably go to Golden State). There is too much on the line in Cleveland, and it is probably likely that Dan Gilbert will fear Blatt's lack of NBA experience. He will fear that Kyrie Irving won't want to play for a coach who never played in the NBA. He will fear that fans will want a "proven" coach like Mark Jackson or Alvin Gentry. (Really, are they that much more proven than Blatt at the professional level?) And to be honest, some of those fears are valid. I don't think that Irving and Dion Waiters' style of play will mesh with what Blatt will want to do on the offensive end (or at least initially). The Cavs' star players are too Iso-heavy and too reliant on effecting the team individually that I don't know if Blatt's democratic, "share the wealth" and "attack quickly" style of play will exactly resonate with those two young stars. Just look at the usage rates of Irving and Waiters last season:

Rk Player PER TS% AST% TOV% USG% ▾ ORtg OWS WS WS/48
2 Kyrie Irving 20.1 .533 31.6 12.1 28.2 109 4.6 6.7 .128
3 Dion Waiters 14.0 .508 18.2 12.3 26.9 99 0.3 1.6 .037
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 6/19/2014.

So maybe Cleveland isn't the right fit. Maybe the Cavs are just too "star-heavy" of a team. Maybe Waiters and Irving just have too many bad habits for Blatt to fix. He could turn them into tremendous success stories...but are Irving and Waiters to used to their own style of play that would it be worth the time and effort for Blatt to have them buy in? Maybe Cleveland should find someone else to fit their squad of players better. But to think that Blatt can't coach in the NBA? That's premature. He is exactly the kind of coach that would find success in this current NBA climate. With the game becoming more wide open and international, Blatt would find success not just on the bench as an assistant, but as a head coach as well. Let's hope that chance for Blatt comes sooner rather than later.

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