INDEPENDENCE — David Blatt cracked quite a few jokes Wednesday, but the new coach of the Cavaliers made one thing perfectly clear — he plans to win … a lot.
“Make no mistake, I have won everywhere I’ve been, from Maccabi through Benetton through the Russian national team and back to Maccabi, and I plan on doing the same here,” he said in an introductory news conference at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Winning in Israel, Italy and Russia is one thing. Blatt, the first NBA head coach from overseas with no previous experience in the league, now must do so in Cleveland, which has compiled a 97-215 record (.311) and made no playoff appearances since LeBron James left town in 2010.
“Absolutely, it’s a challenge,” said Blatt, who became the Cavs’ third coach in as many years when he was hired Friday. “But I’ve got to tell you, the game is not so different as people think it is.
“It’s not like playing baseball and soccer,” he added. “It’s still the same game. I’ve coached in enough international games, participated in enough events that include NBA players and NBA teams, to know that when you play the game right, it doesn’t really make any difference where you play it.”
Blatt, who grew up in Boston and played for the legendary Pete Carril at Princeton, favors the offense he ran as a point guard in college, but isn’t married to that system. One thing he will emphasize, however, is ball movement and playing fast.
“Basketball is a great game,” the 55-year-old said. “It’s a team game played by great individuals trying to become more as a unit than they could be as a collection of ones. We will be committed to playing as a team and being good on both sides of the ball. I’m not an offensive coach or a defensive coach. I’m a basketball coach, someone who through teaching and working with people and getting the most out of my players and staff has always seen the success of the team as paramount.”
Blatt played 12 seasons overseas and coached there for 21 more. He won six titles in six years as Maccabi Tel Aviv’s coach, but resigned two weeks ago to pursue his dream of coaching in the NBA.
Blatt had an offer to join Steve Kerr’s staff in Golden State as associate head coach, but the Cavs went one better and offered him their head coaching job. He received a three-year contract for $10 million — incentives could push that total to $15 million — with a team option for a fourth season.
“I know that I’m carrying a torch,” Blatt said. “I hope like hell I don’t drop it. I don’t plan on it.”
Asked why it took so long for an overseas coach to become an NBA head coach, he said, “I think it was more about the stigma than it was about the qualifications. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are plenty of great coaches in Europe, just as there are many, many great players in Europe who have already found their way over and become significant players in the best league in the world.
“The fact I have not come over before is more a function of me not finding the right situation,” he added. “The moment that I interviewed with Cavaliers ownership and saw their vision and was ultimately given the opportunity to say yes, it took me a nanosecond to agree.”
Of course, there was another reason he wanted to return to his native country.
“Somebody told me the reason I did it is because I missed Boston lobster and macaroni and cheese,” Blatt said with a chuckle. “There’s something to that, honestly.
“Growing up, as I did, with a transistor radio stuck to my ear hearing (Celtics play-by-play man) Johnny Most do broadcasts, I kind of had that NBA dream in my ear and in my heart. I found a great life in Israel and in other countries. I was happy and fulfilled in what I was doing, but I never, for a moment, lost the hope that I would come full circle and make my way back to the places where I grew up.”
A fiery coach who isn’t afraid to get on his players, one of Blatt’s biggest challenges is expected to be dealing with the egos of some NBA stars, but he downplayed that.
“I don’t buy that,” he said. “I’ve had wonderful discussions with the players with the Cleveland Cavaliers. I find a group of guys that want to be coached, that want to learn, that care about winning. Those are things I have to emphasize with them, that I have to strengthen and help them understand the right way to do it.
“I’ve coached enough great players in my life to know that when guys are happy playing together and are seeing that doing it the right way brings and fosters the spirit you need to win, it doesn’t make a difference where you coach.”
Cavs general manager David Griffin, who led the search to find Mike Brown’s replacement, said he conducted serious interviews with “five or six” candidates and talked to 11 people about the job before hiring Blatt.
“He’s truly the embodiment of every characteristic we most sought in a coach,” Griffin said, mentioning Blatt’s passion,creativity and intelligence. “As a coach, he’s able to adjust in ways that make him special because of those things.
“He lives those things as a man as well. Because of all that, the players all feel him in a very powerful way. David is an authentic leader. I believe very strongly that’s what drew all of us to him.”
Blatt and Griffin answered only questions about the coaching hire, but a few others were snuck in. In an obvious reference to free-agent-to-be LeBron James, ESPN’s Mark Schwartz asked what impact Blatt’s hiring would have on players signing with the Cavs.
“I would hope they would choose the Cleveland Cavaliers first,” Blatt said. “I wouldn’t want to put myself in a beauty contest against (Los Angeles Clippers coach) Doc Rivers. He’s a great-looking guy.”
Said Griffin: “This is a man who builds deep, meaningful relationships with the players that last a lifetime. I have no doubt whatsoever he’s going to be able to connect with anybody we put in front of him”
Later, Blatt was asked whether the Cavs would take (Jabari) Parker or (Andrew) Wiggins with the first pick tonight in the NBA Draft.
“Anthony Parker,” he responded. “I took him once (with Maccabi) and so did the Cavs and it worked out great.”
Skip to my Lue
Blatt raved about being able to hire former Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue as associate head coach, saying, “I like to start things off with a bang and I think we did that. … When we were able to bring Tyronn over to the team, no one was happier than me.”