By Ed Odeven
TOKYO (June 23, 2014) — By hiring David Blatt as their new head coach, the Cleveland Cavaliers made one of the most interesting, bold coaching decisions in recent memory.
The 55-year-old Blatt is an accomplished head coach — he led Russia to a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympics and guided Maccabi Tel Aviv to five Israeli League titles in two stints, 2001-03 and 2010-14, plus the Israeli Cup and Euroleague championships this past season — but he hasn’t worked in the NBA. Now he is the first head coach to leave a European pro job for the same one in the NBA. So he remains a bit of a mystery man to casual observers.
Former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Brad Greenberg, who drafted Allen Iverson when he ran the Philly front office, competed against Blatt in Israel over the past two seasons while coaching the rival Maccabi Haifa (2012-13) and Hapoel Jerusalem (2013-14).
Greenberg’s Maccabi Haifa squad captured the 2012-13 Israeli League title. In addition, he also kept a close eye on how Blatt ran his team. He paid attention.
“David is mentally tough, fiercely competitive, and extremely confident,” Greenberg told me in an email on Monday. “And his teams reflect those strengths. His teams the last couple years in Israel were never out of the game regardless of whether they dug themselves a hole. When they needed to dig deeper and rally, they most often did. He is smart and knows how to best take advantage of his players’ strengths at the offensive end.
“And as his team showed in the Euroleague Final Four, they competed at the defensive end and out-toughed their opponent. They got a little lucky in those games, but their effort and execution put them in position to take advantage of a few lucky breaks.”
Greenberg believes the current climate of the NBA made now the right time for a team to hire Blatt, who has also led successful pro teams in Greece, Russia and Turkey.
“I think the success of San Antonio, a team with a lot of international players and more of an international style — not many ISO’s (isolations) in their playbook outside some low-post stuff to (Tim) Duncan — has gotten more NBA people open to international basketball play,” Greenberg wrote. “It will open up some more opportunities for sure …. especially with new NBA owners who may be more inclined to think outside the box.”
What was it like to compete against Blatt’s Maccabi Tel Aviv squad?
“I played against David a lot the last two years… and have the utmost respect for him,” Greenberg revealed. “He is a friend. Aside from his coaching acumen, he is a gentleman and a real professional. My team two years ago beat him for the championship and he was gracious in defeat. My team this year beat him on his court by 28, the worst home loss in Maccabi Tel Aviv history and he was gracious in defeat. There were times this past season where the media wrote he was close to being fired and some members even endorsed that.
“And while everyone around him was losing their heads, he never wavered in his belief in his team and his ability to get them to (produce a) championship performance. It was masterful how he maintained his focus and got his team (back) on track.”
Looking ahead to the upcoming NBA season with Blatt running the show for the Cavaliers, Greenberg concluded by writing, “I couldn’t be happier for him. He deserved the opportunity he just received and I think he will do well. He can coach, and he can lead.”