INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — The Cavaliers weren’t connected on or off the floor under coach David Blatt.
On Friday, he paid the price for that lack of unity.
Blatt was fired by general manager David Griffin, who didn’t think the title-chasing Cavaliers were handling expectations well or acting like a championship team under the second-year coach. Despite Blatt taking them to the NBA Finals last season and a current 30-11 record, Griffin sensed his team was going in the wrong direction.
“Sometimes you can win games in the regular season and get worse,” Griffin said at a hastily-arranged new conference at the team’s practice facility. “We were regressing over a period of time. There’s a lack of connectedness and spirit that I just couldn’t accept.”
Griffin said he did not consult superstar LeBron James or any players before making the move to dismiss Blatt, who was surprised to learn he had been dismissed after going 83-40 in two seasons. Griffin also met with owner Dan Gilbert, who supported the move.
“Over the course of my business career I have learned that sometimes the hardest thing to do is also the right thing to do,” Gilbert said. “Our ownership group supports David Griffin’s decision.”
Lue, who was hired as the team’s associate head coach shortly after Blatt came to Cleveland, will make his debut Saturday night when the Cavs host the Chicago Bulls. Griffin stressed that Lue is not an interim coach and said the team is discussing a contract with him.
“He has the pulse of our team,” he said.
As social networks hummed with speculation and opinion about James’ role the team’s inner workings, Griffin said he made the decision with the basketball staff — not the star.
“I had a conversation with ownership where I got their approval to make this move. I’m not taking a poll. My job is to lead the franchise and to lead an organization where it needs to go,” Griffin said. “That’s what I’m tasked with doing and that’s what I did. I didn’t ask anybody’s opinion on the team. I’m in the locker room. I’ve done this a long time and I know what it’s supposed to feel like. I didn’t need to ask questions.”
Blatt’s dismissal came one day after the coach was defensive before and after the Cavs beat the Los Angeles Clippers. Blatt had been bothered by criticism his team received after a 34-point loss to the defending champion Golden State Warriors earlier this week.
A person close to James said that the four-time NBA MVP was told of Blatt’s firing about one hour before reports of the move surfaced. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.
Blatt seemed to be adjusting to the NBA game following his well-documented struggles in 2015 — James’ first season back in Cleveland. One of the most successful coaches in European history, Blatt was feeling good about the way his team was performing amid overwhelming expectations. However, there was a discord he couldn’t seem to fix.
The relationship between James and Blatt was a running saga last season as the Cavs got off to a disappointing 19-20 start. However, the two worked through their differences and won the Eastern Conference title. Despite injuries to All-Stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, the Cavs took the Warriors to six games before losing the title.
Following Thursday night’s win over the Clippers, Blatt shared a moment with James at his locker. The pair shook hands and smiled at each other, without any hint that a coaching change could be forthcoming.
Moments earlier, Blatt was on the defensive given the Golden State blowout. He argued that although the Cavs were prohibitive favorites to return to the finals they deserved more credit than they were getting.
“It’s about my team,” Blatt said. “It’s about my guys and I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. My guys are out there fighting for the Cavaliers and doing the best job they can in a tough NBA — very tough — especially because this is a team that night after night has a target on its back.
“They go out there and they fight and they play and they deal with adversity like we’ve had to deal with all year. We are far from perfect and we are still not at our best, but it’s not for lack of effort and it’s not for lack of good group of guys that want to do their job as best as they possibly can and I think have done pretty well so far,” he said.
Blatt is the third Cleveland coach to be fired in the past four seasons.