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David Blatt Deserves More Credit in Battle of NBA Finals Coaches

If you listen to narratives, Steve Kerr holds a monster coaching advantage over David Blatt as the teams head into the NBA Finals. The problem is that narratives are often slanted and one-sided.

Kerr has been billed the coaching genius who’s smart enough to let his assistants do the heavy lifting and just puts all the pieces together. His rookie coaching year is probably the best in the history of the NBA.

He took a Golden State Warriors team that more or less stayed intact from last year and turned them from a “pretty good” team with a 5.15 Simple Rating System (SRS) per Basketball-Reference.com to one of the best teams in history with an SRS of 10.01.

While Kerr sat on a relatively static roster, Blatt was hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers. His team and roster bear little resemblance to last year’s squad. In fact, there are only three players who totaled 1,000 minutes or more in both seasons. And only one of those, Kyrie Irving, was a starter both seasons.

Compare that with the Warriors who had six players both seasons, including this year’s entire starting five.

This fits a tidy narrative: All that changed with the Warriors was the coach, ergo the improvement is because of Kerr.

The Cavaliers’ improvement, though, was because of the monumental roster changes they experienced. Blatt was just lucky to be along for the ride.

And admittedly, Blatt’s inexplicably stupid time-out calling and getting overruled by his players on out of bounds plays with the game on the line are going to invite further criticism.

However, is it fair to bill Kerr as the prodigious genius and Blatt as a bumbling idiot? Not entirely.

In fact, what Blatt has done with the Cavaliers is a remarkable story, even if he’s getting slighted. It’s easy to throw darts without any actual knowledge of what’s going on. We assess performance by what we see on national TV, which accounts for less than one percent of one percent of what a coach does.

We’re not there in practices or film sessions or the like. It’s utterly disingenuous to paint an entire portrait based on a single feature. What do the players who are—you know—there, think about Blatt?

Even LeBron James had praise for Blatt, per Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

“We knew that a lot of people were going to say things that, you know, didn’t mean much, but that’s just what they have to do,” James said. “That’s what helps sales. That’s the, people love reading the negative things more than the positive things, so I think he’s handled his situation unbelievably.

“Being a rookie coach in the NBA, being able to take his team to the Finals, I think he’s done a helluva job.”

Also, per Vardon:

Kyrie Irving described Blatt’s positive traits as “being able to listen and be receptive to what the players are saying and going out and making changes.

“If he feels like it’s what’s best for the team he’s the coach and he’s going to make a decision and we all respect that,” Irving said. “It hasn’t been anyone stepping on anybody’s toes. Obviously there has been some disagreements here and there, but what team doesn’t have disagreements?”

Over the course of the season, Blatt took a team saddled with meteoric expectations, cleared a number of hurdles out of the gate, had the team go through major personnel changes—including problem child J.R. Smith—two months into the season, incorporated them into what he was doing, changed the defense to fit the new package and finished with the second-best record in the East.

And during the playoffs, it’s the Cavaliers, not the Warriors who are carrying a 9.8 net rating, which is ninth-best since 1985-86, per Basketball-Reference.com. And per NBA.com, (who determine possessions with a slightly different formula, so you can’t equate numbers) the Cavs are boasting a pretty stout net rating of 7.8 since James re-emerged into the lineup.

As coaching jobs go, you can do a lot worse.

Both coaches have systems which emphasize their best players doing what they do best. James and Irving were second and third respectively in isolation points scored, per Synergy. Virtually everything they do emphasizes James or Irving either in iso or pick-and-roll action scoring the ball themselves or setting up one of their teammates.

That system has turned Iman Shumpert into a consistent three-point shooter and Smith into a (dare I say it) mature player. Give Blatt credit.

For the Warriors, Klay Thompson scored 1.47 points per possession on spot-ups, the best rate by a wide margin of any player with 50 points on such plays. Stephen Curry was third with 1.33 PPP. He was also third in pull-up points per game, and among players with 4.0 pull-up points per game, he was first in effective field goal percentage on such shots.

The two coaches are in very different situations, run completely different offenses and defenses, and their teams look nothing alike. But there’s one thing that the two have in common, and for both teams it’s a major factor in why they’re in the Finals: They use their ears.

Kerr listens to and values the input from him assistants. Blatt listens to and values the input from his players. While the former has been extolled as a virtue, though, the latter has been belittled as a flaw. The popular stance is that it just makes Blatt a puppet for LeBron.

But if you set aside the narrative, Blatt should get just as much credit for being as open-minded as Kerr. After all, he’s the other coach in the NBA Finals. And maybe the two are closer to peers than legends would have you believe.

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