INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Hanging on the first wall you see when you enter David Blatt’s office is an image, stretching three feet tall by five feet wide, of the inside of Quicken Loans Arena appropriately adorned and packed with Cleveland Cavaliers fans.
The photo, taken during last June’s NBA Finals, serves as an ode to the heights the Cavs reached in Blatt’s first season in the NBA. But for a man used to taking photos surrounded by trophies, it also represents one of his rare failures.
Four months removed from a 4-2 Finals loss to the Golden State Warriors, a series that the injury-riddled Cavaliers once led 2-1, the glory that ended up just beyond his team’s grasp is on the minds of just about everyone at Cavs training camp.
But despite 11 players returning from last season’s Eastern Conference title team, an array of injuries and a disjointed 1-6 preseason has already put the “Cleveland Vengeance Tour 2016” storyline on the back burner.
“In our opening day, we talked a little bit about it,” Blatt told ESPN.com of the Finals defeat. “But I think the kicker is we knew that we just ran out of gas. It wasn’t a play and it wasn’t a moment and it wasn’t even a game, I think, that got us. I think it was the fact that we played against an excellent basketball team, Golden State, all the credit to them. And the fact that we just were not whole that sort of did us in. So what, am I going to come back and say, ‘OK, we have to stay healthy’? Matter of fact, I actually did joke about it.”
Three key pieces — Kyrie Irving (fractured kneecap in Game 1), Kevin Love (dislocated shoulder) and Anderson Varejao (torn Achilles) — were on the sidelines against the Warriors, and health is still a major question mark this season.
LeBron James missed most of training camp while rehabbing his lower back. Irving has yet to practice as he continues to recover from offseason surgery to fix his left kneecap. Iman Shumpert hurt his right wrist just days before camp opened, requiring surgery that will sideline him until late December at best. Love, Varejao and Timofey Mozgov (knees), are all in varying states of disrepair.
Even Blatt joined the injury list, recently undergoing surgery for telangiectasia — a genetic problem that causes capillaries in certain parts of the body to break — to address frequent nosebleeds.
“I’ve been working all week, but I was really supposed to be off all week,” Blatt said. “But I worked.”
It’s the same approach he took last season in the face of much scrutiny.
“I don’t look at things in terms of what kind of shake I got or not,” Blatt said of the critics calling for his job when the Cavs stumbled to a 19-20 record. “I went out and did the best I could. I had a lot to learn. I only realized it after I went through it, honestly, because I had had so much coaching experience beforehand as a head coach. But it was a different environment and things were and are very different. That’s the biggest realization that I came to.
“I don’t mind, and I understand the fact, that there’s going to be criticism and there’s going to be fingers pointed and in many cases there are going to be agendas or non-agendas. That’s all OK. I do understand now better than ever that this machine runs on something and I’m part of that machine. And I like to think that at the end of the day your results are what speak for you and your commitment to what you’re doing is the thing that carries you through.”
Blatt bristled last season at any mention of his “rookie” status. But he willingly referred to himself as a “first-year coach” in a wide-ranging interview.
“I do feel a lot better, I feel a lot more comfortable,” Blatt said. “What I went through last year, I don’t know if anyone has ever done it before. And I made my share of mistakes. I went through my share of trials and tribulations. I grew from it. I learned from it. I came through it, I think.
“I coached numerous places, but they were very different places than the world of the NBA in almost every respect. Man, it was tough. It was tough. Like I said, sometimes I handled it better, sometimes I handled it worse, but I think I’m the wiser for it and I’m definitely more comfortable for it.”
“I coached numerous places, but they were very different places than the world of the NBA in almost every respect. Man, it was tough. It was tough.”
But it took a lot of controversy to get there.
In a crucial Game 4 in the second round of the playoffs against Chicago, Blatt signaled for a timeout when his team didn’t have any. In the aftermath of the mistake, Blatt explained “a basketball coach makes 150 to 200 critical decisions during the course of a game, something that I think is paralleled only by a fighter pilot.” The internet had a field day, churning out “Top Gun”-inspired Photoshops with Blatt wearing aviator sunglasses.
“Did that become a joke?” asked Blatt, a stranger to social media.
“You got to understand where I come from,” said Blatt, who spent three decades living outside the U.S. “Where I come from the Israeli Air Force is a very, very dominant and highly respected part of the society and the community of Israel. And it’s common for people to quote and to use examples from that particular profession or field. So I was just using my own experiences.”
For his second season, Blatt has tried to strengthen his relationships with his players, which now include two (Mozgov, Sasha Kaun) he coached on the Russian national team.
Love, whose numbers took a noticeable dip in his first season in Cleveland, sat down with Blatt this summer to discuss the plan moving forward before agreeing to a five-year, $113 million extension.
“I really think that now that he’s got a year under his belt and he knows the guys and the system better, I think he needs and deserves more responsibility,” Blatt said of Love. “We’re going to give it to him. I really hope and want for him to be completely confident in the things that he needs to do and wants to do on the court.”
And then there is his much-discussed relationship with James.
“I think that both of us have the same goals in mind,” Blatt said. “I think both of us understand the type of communication and the type of level of expectation that we have from each other and from our team in terms of helping us reach our goal. Bron is a special, special person. A special, special unique player. One of the greatest in the history of this game. He’s not like anyone else in any respect.
“And it’s a process also, learning to work with him and learning how to best help him achieve his goals and feel good in the environment that he’s in. Now, I think he’s also coming in here this year with a much, much better feeling. I mean, what he had to go through last year coming back, I take my hat off to him 10 times. Because that’s not an easy thing. More than that, just having to be LeBron James every day, I don’t know if there’s another guy in the world that could do it. I really don’t. So my respect for him and my appreciation for what he has to go through on a daily basis is just off the charts. And I understand that he needs to be as special as he is and the whole process that goes on around him needs to be unique. Because there’s no one like him. No one.”
Blatt’s bravado is also starting to show in Year 2. He may have said in training camp that the Cavs don’t “have the right” to talk about being a championship contender yet, but at a private speaking engagement in Israel this summer, he said his team is going to win it all.
“I wanted to excite the crowd and talking about our team it was one of those, ‘This year we knocked on the door, next year we’re going to barge in.’ You know, that kind of thing,” Blatt said. “And of course, as is natural with the media, that became a story. But honestly and realistically, our team’s goal is clear and we certainly have the potential to compete for the NBA championship.”
But after spending his first season with his guard up, Blatt’s swagger began to peek through several other times during a 25-minute interview.
On the Cavs’ payroll being expected to exceed $170 million this season, including luxury tax: “Come next year, this is going to look minuscule.”
On whether players overseas ever held out during contract negotiations the way Tristan Thompson did: “No. If you don’t want to play, they find somebody else. That’s it.”
On the popularity of the Cavs since he started coaching them: “We garnered seven million new Cavaliers fans from the state of Israel.”
He relishes the spotlight he finds himself in. But if last season taught him anything, it’s that it’s not all about him.
“I do like to say, ‘We are what we do.’ With everything that’s going around — the names, the expectations, the payroll, the storylines — at the end of the day, we are only what we do,” Blatt said. “Do we go out and do we work hard every day? Do we commit ourselves to the task? Do we believe in and trust each other in such a way that we can go out on the floor and play for each other? And play hard every single time we get out there, whether it’s practice or a game? I think ultimately that’s what separates you from others and is what helps you get to where you need to go. None of the other stuff matters. It matters what you do.”
Blatt has won just about everywhere he’s been in his career. Now he looks to continue that trend in Cleveland, where a title banner hasn’t been raised in 52 years.
“Expectations are high. The goals are lofty. The need to win and succeed is paramount. And we all understand that. We all understand where we are and what we’re in and who we have,” Blatt said. “But I think you have to take that as part of the challenge and part of the process and believe in yourselves that much more because you know who you have to work with and you know that you have the ability and the potential to be great. Don’t let the fact that there’s pressure to be great slow you down. Take the challenge. Accept it. Embrace it. Go after it.”