Despite last season’s NBA Finals appearance, and a 30-11 record and current first place standing in the Eastern Conference this year, the Cleveland Cavaliers sent head coach David Blatt packing on Jan. 22.
With Blatt gone, the team promoted assistant head coach Tyronn Lue to take over, and ensured his tenure with a three-year extension. Lue will take over a ship that has LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love aboard. Blatt’s strategies and techniques were less a problem than his relationship with his players. Lue, a former NBA player himself, carried more credibility, but will it be enough to win the title this season? Perry Green and Stephen D. Riley of the AFRO Sports Desk debate this question.
Riley: Lue’s promotion will serve James’ comfort and ego, but it won’t alter the probable outcome that the Cavs will lose in the Finals at the hands of either Golden State or San Antonio. Cleveland’s East-leading mark looked like a joke after the Warriors blasted them by 34 points in mid-January, and another coach wouldn’t have improved their 0-3 record against the Warriors and Spurs this year. The fact remains that the Warriors and Spurs are better teams and, based on salaries, there really isn’t too much Cleveland can do to change that. Blatt was just the unfortunate one to catch the blame.
Green: Blatt shouldn’t have been there in the first place considering he was hired before Cleveland remade its roster with the additions of James and Love. The team’s superstar, LeBron, wasn’t meshing well with Blatt’s personality and the front office made a much-needed move. The talent is there to challenge Golden State and San Antonio, but perhaps the team cohesion wasn’t. The difference between the three teams isn’t talent, Riley, it’s camaraderie and the Cavs haven’t had that this season or last. Sometimes changes can be as simple as a different coaching voice, and now Cleveland has that. Look at what happened to the Warriors once Steve Kerr took over for Mark Jackson.
Riley: Make no mistake, this is all about James. Regardless of which coach is on the Cavaliers sideline, this team is controlled by LeBron—and that may be the issue itself. During James’ time in Miami, the Heat leadership boasted more accolades and accomplishments than he did, so he had no choice but to buy in. In Cleveland, Lue will bring some championship experience, but even he was just a marginal role player on a title team dominated by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Will James respect Lue’s voice when it’s time to make critical decisions? Can James get his teammates to buy into a first-time coach? There are too many variables right now that aren’t in Cleveland’s favor.
Green: I agree that this is definitely a LeBron-driven team. I’ve always said that James had a better chance at winning another championship in Miami than anywhere else. He only left because he was tired of answering to Pat Riley, an old-school NBA mind who wasn’t into coddling his players like babies. Now LeBron has a hand-picked coach in Lue, who will let him continue do what he wants, instead of being held accountable. I’m not saying that Lue won’t make his own imprint on the team—he’ll do that by taking the leash off of James and Irving and giving them more freedom on the offensive end while also lightening the mood around the locker room. But there won’t be much difference in the destiny of this team. Cleveland was already largely penciled in for a return trip to the Finals. As long as they remain healthy and their role players make shots, unlike last year, they’ll have a 50-50 chance of beating whomever they square off with from the Western Conference. Lue doesn’t have to be the savior, but he does have to create a working environment and extract stronger play from the Cavaliers’ stars. I suspect he’ll do both.