The first thought that springs to mind is conspiracy—a LeBron James-led coup.
ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, a reporter whose spent over a decade chronicling James’ career, tried to put the kibosh on such speculation, tweeting that “James was informed of the decision to fire David Blatt today, he was not consulted on decision sources said.” But, according to Windhorst, “James' fondness for Ty Lue and his desire to be coached by a former player were well known in the organization. As were issues with Blatt.” [sic]
That was followed by this tweet from Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski: “Then again, since last season, LeBron James and his agent Rich Paul have been strong advocates of Lue becoming head coach, league sources tell Yahoo.”
Despite a record of 83-40 (.675%) in his first year and a half in the NBA, the whispers that King James wasn’t exactly thrilled with Blatt’s performance, and generally preferred communicating with Lue have been burbling since last January, when it was reported by Windhorst that, “[League scouts, executives and rival players] see players appearing to run different plays than the bench calls, see assistant coach Tyronn Lue calling timeouts literally behind Blatt’s back during games, and hear Cavs players openly talking about coaching issues with opposing players and personnel. Not once, not twice, but frequently over the past several months.”
In the midst of brutal stretch in which the Cavs had lost six in a row, during a particularly tepid effort versus a middling Phoenix Suns team, James actually shoved Blatt.
Just as all of this was coming to a head, the Cavaliers reeled off a 12-game winning streak and went 34 and 9 to close out the season. James in particular looked like his old, dominant self in 2015, a trend that continued through a finals matchup against the eventual world champion Golden State Warriors in which he carried a wounded, flawed roster on his voluminous shoulders.
Of course, the Blatt-James Cold War flared up again in the playoffs, when LeBron seemingly overruled Blatt’s decision to have him inbound the ball with 1.5 seconds left against the Bulls. (LeBron instead canned a game-winning jumper to even the series.)
Blatt was hired before James announced he was returning to Cleveland and the pairing has never quite worked out. Instead, as Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick described it, it’s a relationship that resembles “at best, an uneasy alliance and, at worst, an arranged marriage of extreme inconvenience, two people thrust together due to a timing glitch, then subjected to the constant parsing of every comment.”
But even if there is no smoking gun to directly tie Blatt’s dismissal to James, what has become wholly self-evident throughout the first half of the 2015-16 season is that the Cavaliers sit a distant third in the NBA’s power rankings. The defending champion Warriors have somehow improved upon last year’s model, going 24-0 to start the season and 39-4 overall. Steph Curry has transmogrified into an unstoppable, shot-making colossus, draining thirty footers with an impish, borderline-Zen ease.
And that’s before we get to the San Antonio Spurs. Led by the greatest coach in NBA history, Gregg Popovich, they have retooled their roster around an aging, but still gobsmackingly effective trio of sure-fire hall-of-famers in Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili.
In defiance of the smallball, three point-happy modern NBA, they’ve become a Galactus-like, plodding, half-court destroyer of worlds. Couple that with a historically great defense, and the Spurs may end up with a point differential (the average points scored minus points allowed per game) that might end up surpassing even the 1996 Chicago Bulls.
On Monday, the Cavaliers were beaten to a pulp by Curry et. al., 132-98, and honestly, it wasn’t as close as the score suggests.
While it may seem odd to send the coach packing when the Cavaliers remain the prohibitive favorites to get back to the Finals, there isn’t much that the team can do to catch up to the league’s twin titans, short of a radical, roster-reshuffling trade, which carries a not insignificant risk of making a fraught situation far worse.
Kevin Love has never really found a way to mesh his game with James’ and is an atrocious pick-and-roll defender—kryptonite for any team set to face a screen-heavy Golden State. Kyrie Irving is still working his way back into form from a devastating knee injury in game one of the finals, and a motley collection of wings have zero chance of keeping up with either the Warriors’ whirring offensive onslaught or the Spurs’ precise, tiki-taka attack.
Sure, canning Blatt’s not going to solve all of the team’s structural problems—though finding a better way to integrate and utilize the pieces they do have would be a start. But it is the one move that the team could make without totally upsetting the apple cart.
Fair or not, this will be perceived as a power move on LeBron's part. And should things go horribly wrong, more than one crooked finger is going to be pointed squarely in his direction. If this re-jiggered version of his announcement that he was returning to Cleveland is any indication, it’s already begun.