The NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, under first-year head coach Dave Blatt, won the Eastern Conference title last season (losing to the Golden State Warriors in the finals). They entered the season as the betting favorites to win in all this year, and have hardly disappointed in amassing a 30-11 record halfway through the season, the best in the East.
None of this stopped Cleveland from firing Blatt yesterday, reports ESPN, and replacing him with former player and assistant coach Tyronn Lue. No coach had ever been fired during the season with a better record.
Sports Illustrated answers the first question on everyone’s mind: “Already there are credible reports insisting that James was not directly consulted in the decision to fire Blatt”—note the intriguing use of the word “directly,” also mentioned in the same verbiage in the ESPN article—in an article headlined “LeBron James’s imprint on Cavaliers evident in firing of David Blatt,” referring to the Cavs’ superstar and face of the league.
It seems that Cavaliers’ general manager David Griffin doth protest a lot: “I didn’t talk to any of the players before this decision” and “LeBron doesn’t run this organization.” And the media was also quick to pick up the spin. “A team source told ESPN’s Dave McMenamin that Blatt’s firing means ‘everyone is in the crosshairs right now.'” ESPN published various sympathetic pieces about the firing.
Even with the absurd turnover in the NBA coaching ranks, this seems surprising on its face. There were vague rumblings about Blatt’s cultural fit (this was his first NBA job after spending most of his playing and coaching career in Israel, though he was born in Boston and graduated from Princeton):
“What I see is that we need to build a collective spirit, a strength of spirit, a collective will,” Griffin said. “Elite teams always have that, and you see it everywhere. To be truly elite, we have to buy into a set of values and principles that we believe in. That becomes our identity.”
“I am more than confident that [Lue] has the pulse of our team and that he can generate the buy-in required to start to refine the habits and culture that we’ve yet to build,” Griffin told ESPN’s Brian Windhorst.”
Perhaps the money quote: “James fondness for Lue and his desire to be coached by a former player were well-known throughout Cleveland’s organization. . .”
We don’t pretend to be qualified to understand the dynamics involved in basketball coaching. Like any business, leadership and the culture created by management are no doubt as important or more important than employees’ sheer talent.
But this episode strikes us as a bit ugly. We have one question. If a team of white players, say in Major League Baseball, were grumbling that their short-tenured, winning black coach was unable to relate to them, or unable to bring out their best “collective spirit” or “principles” or “identity” or “habits and culture” or “buy-in,” and they needed a white former player with no head-coaching experience to instill these values, wouldn’t the likes of ESPN and Sports Illustrated be screaming racism!? The media is already saturated with complaints that black coaches don’t get a fair chance due to, of course, management’s racism that overrides their desire to win. They would likely call the bit about needing a “former player” a dog whistle alluding to all of the racist narrative about black coaches’ inability to lead.