The Cleveland Cavaliers just should have waited.
Dan Gilbert never should have hired a coach in late June if he thought he had even the faintest hope of luring LeBron James back to his home-state Cavs in July.
But Gilbert didn't wait.
The Cavs' impulsive owner rushed out to hire David Blatt to keep him away from Steve Kerr and the Golden State Warriors, soon discovered he had more hope for burying hatchets with James than anyone in Ohio had ever dreamed, and now finds himself staring at two rather unappealing options ... provided, of course, that Gilbert is prepared to take a proactive role in preventing LeBron's less-than-storybook homecoming season from careening even further out of control.
Gilbert can opt to ...
(A) Step in front of the mounting criticism being aimed at his superstar, take the heat for sending Blatt away and then seek James' input in searching for a coach who, for starters, can get a more attentive response than Blatt's been getting. Something closer to the natural sequence of events, in other words, that Cleveland needlessly denied itself in the summer by hiring Blatt first.
(B) Go to LeBron and tell him that changing coaches not quite halfway through Blatt's first season is nonsensical and embarrassing and that it's time to get behind the guy immediately. It's frankly a conversation that's near impossible to imagine Gilbert and LeBron having, given how much power King James wields as we move into 2015 and the fact that these two are in the embryonic stages of rebuilding their partnership, but it's a message someone needs to convey to the NBA's newest 30-year-old -- and quickly -- for the Cavs to have any hope of preventing Year 1 of The Return from descending into total farce.
The Cavs are obviously in dire need of better health and roster reinforcements, too. LeBron himself finally acknowledged Wednesday that the sore left knee which, to this point, has prevented him from actually playing his first game as a 30-something "has been hurting pretty much all year." Yet it's likewise clear that this group, which often looks lifeless if not all the way fractious even at full strength, isn't going to get close to championship contention this season unless the Cavs pull together and start scrapping.
This goes way beyond the flammable video that surfaced in the final hours of 2014, which appears to feature LeBron plotting with Dwyane Wade right after their Christmas Day showdown in Miami about reuniting in the near future. (LeBron's official explanation can be found here.)
Far more troubling than that instantly viral interaction, whether or not you buy the explanation, is the way LeBron has so openly shown little interest in Blatt's authority so far.
On Monday, ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst and I reported that the Cavs are growing increasingly concerned about Blatt's ability to reach this team.
The whispers about LeBron tuning out in huddles or freelancing offensively, in circulation for weeks, have only grown louder since the story hit.
The volume didn't go down any, either, after James' alarmingly tepid endorsement of Blatt, when he responded to a question about the Cavs having the right coach by saying in part: "Yeah, I mean, he's our coach. What other coach do we have?"
That's the same James who didn't hesitate to announce earlier this month that he alone decided to take on more playmaking responsibilities because he's at the stage of his career where he doesn't need to ask his coach for permission. The distinct impression he leaves, with each passing day, is that he does not want to be coached. At least not by an NBA novice.
Blatt, mind you, is by no means blameless here. He's indeed had his share of novice moments when it comes to game management, most notably in a high-profile home loss to San Antonio on Nov. 19. His offense has rarely flowed even when the Cavs had their full complement of players -- probably because folks in Europe say he's actually more of a defensive coach no matter what you read coming into the season -- and player complaints about his communication skills are already making the rounds. Most worrisome of all, Blatt hasn't yet found a way to integrate Kevin Love into this offense.
The roster holes GM David Griffin has been working to fill, furthermore, are well-documented. The Cavs were lacking on the front line even before losing Anderson Varejao to a season-ending Achilles tear. They still need a rim protector and more wing depth on top of the sudden Varejao void and the various injuries that have hampered James and Love and Irving lately.
But let's face it: Blatt has zero chance to succeed without the star's backing. No matter how good he is at his tactical best.
And that was always the worry here. Executives from rival teams have raved unreservedly about the 55-year-old Boston-area native's X-and-O acumen, but the fact remains that he showed up in Cleveland as a virtual unknown to every player of consequence on that roster. Doesn't matter, as one veteran GM told me in May, that Blatt just took a Maccabi Tel Aviv squad that "was outmanned at every position except coach" to a Euroleague championship that ranks as the second most prestigious club trophy in the sport behind the Larry O'Brien Trophy. The question with Blatt from the start was: Would NBA vets who don't care one whit about his international accomplishments buy into the new program?
Answer: Based on the available evidence, LeBron has not.
As part of Wednesday night's session with reporters to address the Wade video, LeBron seemed to acknowledge that it's incumbent on him to start setting a more positive tone, saying: "My tolerance for patience is not that great and it's something that I knew I had to work on. ... I try not to have my body language be as bad as it can be sometimes."
Among the Cavs' many issues, though, is the real possibility that no one in the organization possesses the requisite hammer to make him try harder. When we heard similarly widespread gloom and doubt about Erik Spoelstra's ability to lead the LeBron-Wade-Chris Bosh Heat in the maiden months of the 2010-11 season, Pat Riley and Wade were there to support Spo.
The job Blatt accepted, by contrast, unexpectedly became a win-now job three weeks later as soon as LeBron chose Lake Erie over South Beach. But Blatt's Maccabi hammer, regarded as somewhat Gregg Popovich-like in Euro circles, clearly never got close to customs.
Don't forget that the Heat also had LeBron under contract for a full four years at the time. That long-term security, as much as the fact he was Pat Riley, enabled Riles to essentially tell all of the Heatles to zip it and focus on figuring things out.
In Cleveland, LeBron and Love can (and will) become free agents in July. The Cavs have no choice but to do things LeBron's way.
It's thus incumbent upon Dan Gilbert, at the very least, to rush out as fast as he can in the new year to find out what James really wants. In an Eastern Conference that isn't so Leastern at the top anymore, with the likes of Toronto and Washington and sneaky-good Atlanta all looking like tougher outs than anyone imagined, Cleveland is running out of season to save faster than you think.