Running his hands over his hair to smooth it back into place, David Blatt emerged from the visitors locker room at the United Center with a bit of a dour look on his face.
It was Nov. 1, 2014, only his second game as an NBA head coach, but what he was about to say was the first crack in the foundation, and it would lead to one of the more stunning firings in NBA history nearly 15 months later.
That night, the Cleveland Cavaliers had defeated the Chicago Bulls for their first win of the season and Blatt's first win as an NBA coach. The players waited for him in the locker room, and when he emerged from his office they mobbed him, mussed his hair and yelled. They presented him with the game ball. Blatt accepted it with a smile, but he was also annoyed.
"Not all of you know me that well," Blatt told the media, "but I've probably won over 700 games in my career."
Image and perception of a rookie coach
At the very heart of the matter, this is why the Cavs fired Blatt on Friday, despite a record of 83-40 and a Finals appearance. Blatt viewed himself as a coach with numerous championships in Europe, an Olympic medal and 20-plus years on the sideline, a career that made him one of the most experienced coaches in the world.
The Cavs players, especially the veterans, saw him as a rookie.
"That's his first NBA win," Kyrie Irving said after the game. "He deserves the game ball. It's his first time in the NBA. I call him the virgin of the NBA."
Both Blatt and his players, specifically LeBron James, made concessions to deal with this chasm of perception. Such courtesies probably would have continued through this season too, as James made a glaring attempt to publicly support Blatt.
But the fissure between Blatt and the players was irreparable and had been for some time, a reality general manager David Griffin finally accepted when he executed Blatt's dismissal, despite the Cavs' 30-11 record and Blatt's likely berth as All-Star coach.
The issues started before James returned to the franchise in July 2014. The Cavs were all over the place in their coaching search that summer. They offered the job to numerous big names, from John Calipari and Bill Self in the college ranks to Steve Kerr from the broadcast booth. Griffin also interviewed Alvin Gentry, whom he had worked alongside with the Phoenix Suns, and Tyronn Lue, a rising assistant who learned under Doc Rivers.
But team owner Dan Gilbert wanted to make a different kind of hire. He didn't want a retread or an inexperienced coach, which is why he chased the veteran college coaches. It's why he loved Blatt, who was a legend in Israel, something that appealed to Gilbert.
When James turned his attention to free agency after losing in the Finals with the Miami Heat, James' representatives were surprised the Cavs had hired Blatt and hadn't waited to see if James would have input. They were also surprised that despite wanting James to return, the Cavs didn't have enough cap space available to offer James a maximum contract.
From the Cavs' perspective, they had no clue James was serious about returning and had to conduct business. More proof of that came in early July, when Gilbert sent his jet to get free-agent small forward Gordon Hayward, whom the Cavs were seriously considering making a huge offer before they spoke to James.
No welcome wagon from the King
After James signed, he showed no interest in meeting Blatt. Weeks passed before James took a brief break from filming a movie in New York to have a face-to-face conversation with his new coach. It was clear James' respect for Blatt was limited, and soon it also became clear that Blatt assumed respect would be coming his way.
This set the stage for a traumatic tenure for Blatt. In fairness, this was not the team he had been hired to coach, as James had signed and the young player Blatt was primarily hired to develop, Andrew Wiggins, had been traded to acquire Kevin Love.
"David was hired to coach a developmental team and young players who would've wanted to please him," one team source said. "He ended up coaching a finished product where the players expected him to please them."
To complicate matters, the Cavs hired the runner-up for the job, Lue, to be Blatt's assistant. To keep him away from the Clippers, the Cavs gave him a record four-year, $6.5 million deal -- for an assistant. Gilbert would later call the coaching staff the best he had assembled in his time as owner.
Blatt endorsed the Lue move, which many in the league saw as an immediate undercutting of the head coach. Never before could anyone remember the runner-up for a job being hired as the lead assistant, and it was taken as an example of Blatt's NBA inexperience. Blatt also didn't understand that he would have to earn players' respect; it would not be instantly given.
"I've been a head coach for 22 years. People overlook that too easily and, I think, unfairly," Blatt said last season. "I am not now, nor have I have been for quite some time, a rookie coach."
Within days of the start of the past season, James began expressing doubt that Blatt would work out as the Cavs' long-term answer. That was crystallized during a road trip to the West Coast in the second week of the season, when James and Irving began a bit of a tug-of-war over control of the offense. Blatt seemed powerless to control them, and if he tried, it didn't work.
Shortly thereafter, James changed his role in the Cavs' offense and began playing point guard while moving Irving off the ball. In conjunction with the move, the Cavs, naturally, started moving away from the Princeton sets Blatt had installed during the preseason. James nonchalantly told the media he didn't consult Blatt on the changes.
"No, I can do it on my own," James said. "I'm past those days where I have to ask."
King's connection to Lue
From that moment forward, it was clear James gave little more than lip service to Blatt. As the days passed, James seemed to connect more and more with Lue. For years, he had admired Lue's former boss, Rivers, and that helped them establish a connection. At times over the years, James grumbled about having not played for a former NBA player since his first season and a half, when Paul Silas coached the Cavs. In the time since Silas, James played for Mike Brown, Erik Spoelstra and Blatt.
James had played against Lue, who enjoyed great success against James' teams as a point guard for several teams. For a while, media who covered the Cavs referred to Lue as "Killa," which was short for "Cavs killer."
"It was like an 800-pound gorilla as the season moved on," one person involved with the team said. "You could just see LeBron connecting to [Lue] and turning his back on David."
That didn't stay a secret. James' and other players' complaints about Blatt's style got out quickly. During games, Cavs players complained about the coach to opposing players. Once, while on the road, an injured Cavs player used the home team's therapy pool and complained about Blatt, with his thoughts literally echoing throughout the home locker room.
At one point during the challenging stretch, media members went looking for an endorsement of Blatt from James.
"Listen, man, I don't pay no bills around here," was James' response, though he said the players and coaches were getting to know one another, and Blatt still had the team's attention.
By late December 2014, with the team hovering around .500, the Cavs realized they were at a crossroads. Griffin made it clear he thought the struggles were partially his fault because he didn't provide Blatt enough of a bench. After trade talks over the course of several weeks, he was ready to execute some deals to try to solve it. But would Blatt be retained?
The issues with Blatt and the players, James especially, were clear. Dealing with strains in his back and his knee, James needed to take a few weeks off. The team knew it would struggle with James out, and the pressure would mount. The Cavs had to decide whether they would address the problem or support the coach. Stories about Blatt's job status started to appear in the media. Several days passed. Gilbert and Griffin debated the issue internally. Finally, they made a decision.
"No change is being made, period," Griffin said in an unusual pregame media session. "It's such a ridiculous assertion."
These comments were meant to get the media to back off Blatt, but they were clearly aimed at the players as well, as they made sure the franchise gave a strong vote of confidence for its coach. Griffin then executed trades to bring Iman Shumpert, J.R. Smith, and Timofey Mozgov to the team. James returned from his absence and looked vastly healthier, and the Cavs went from 19-20 at the midway point of the season to one of the NBA's most dominant teams.
A truce developed. Blatt backed off and gave James space, and James took it, whether it was calling plays, deciding when he entered the game and when he exited or even strategy. James stopped taking digs at Blatt in the media, and the complaints to opposing players stopped.
Not the same coach
Those who knew Blatt from Europe, where he was known as a fire-breather with players during games, were stunned at how he had changed. When Blatt was the coach of the Russian national team, he famously once kicked two of his best players off the bench because they were talking over him in a timeout. Now, spectators watched in awe as players barked at Blatt in timeouts. That was just one of many adjustments he made to try to make this unwieldy job work.
Blatt, meanwhile, retrofitted the Cavs' defensive system with his new players, and that helped launch the team's midseason turnaround. He melded in the new players effectively. He showed his experience as he found a way to give James space while looking for other ways to make a positive difference. At the same time, his yielding to the players -- James especially -- only further reinforced that Blatt wasn't a coach who demanded respect.
The respect issue presented itself again in the playoffs. With the Cavs playing a vital game in Chicago in the second round, James made perhaps the biggest undercutting of his coach of the entire season. He changed the final play of Game 4, which resulted in his hitting a game-winning 3-pointer that evened the series at 2-2 and effectively propelled the Cavs to the Finals. Blatt initially wanted James to inbound the ball, while James wanted the shot.
Star players consulting on a final play happens routinely. But the way James explained what happened made his continuing viewpoint of Blatt very transparent.
"To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it," he said.
That was after Blatt nearly cost the Cavs their chance at that shot when he called a timeout he didn't have, and official Scott Foster saved him by not granting the timeout, which otherwise would've resulted in a technical. The result, even at a pinnacle moment in the season, put Blatt in the spotlight for the wrong reasons.
Timeouts had been an issue already. Blatt mismanaged them early in the season and sometimes turned to Lue about when to execute certain timeouts. Teams can take advantage of certain mandatory timeouts and conserve options, something with which Blatt had issues. When he tried to explain what happened, he made the situation worse.
"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," Blatt said.
Yet even some of the simplest tasks -- such as staying on message about the injury status of Anderson Varejao in the days leading up to the Finals -- he failed in executing. Varejao, out since December because of an Achilles tear, had hoped to return to the court in the championship round. The team decided against it. Rather than giving a straight answer about the center's availability in the Finals, Blatt hinted he could play by saying, "Stranger things have happened in this world."
When a team source was later informed of Blatt's quote about Varejao, he responded incredulously: "What the f--- is he doing?!"
It was a turbulent season. By the end, however, Blatt had won over some critics for his managing of injuries during the postseason as the Cavs put a scare into the Golden State Warriors in the Finals, despite missing Love and Irving.
The second season
When the Cavs entered the 2015-16 season, both Blatt and James were determined to have a new outlook. Blatt said he wouldn't look to engage as much as his first season and admitted there was more of a learning curve than he had anticipated. James, after repeatedly blistering Blatt with commentary and overt on-court actions, decided he would attempt to support his coach as much as possible. Also, almost everyone on the roster was happy in new, more lucrative contracts. Everyone had decided they wanted to be there.
In a key moment after back-to-back losses in early November, James was perhaps as supportive of Blatt as he had ever been publicly.
"He does his job as great as any coach can do in this league," James said. "It's up to us to go out and produce."
That was the strongest quote among others along those lines, and it seemed as if Year 2 with Blatt would be much smoother. The Cavs were performing reasonably well on the court. Despite a bad preseason, with Irving, Love, Mozgov and Shumpert still recovering from injuries and James recovering from an anti-inflammatory injection in his back, the Cavs got off to a strong 8-1 start.
But in reality, little had changed from the previous season, other than the rancor not spilling over publicly. James still made many decisions without consulting Blatt (once he took himself out of a game without saying anything and received a technical foul). It was clear the players still connected better with Lue, during both practices and games.
Much of the early season was spent plugging holes as Blatt managed a roster that was the banged up into early December. But just when everyone got healthy, things took a turn.
On Christmas Day, the Cavs made a much-anticipated visit to Golden State for a premier game on the NBA schedule. With a fully healthy roster, Blatt coached as if it were a playoff game, and he slashed his rotation. Richard Jefferson didn't play for the first time all season. Mo Williams and James Jones saw their minutes reduced. Roles were changed on the fly. Certainly, Blatt had to make some tough choices with the healthy roster, but all of them came as surprises to the players, and that triggered a cascade of anger and frustration.
Trouble grows on the road
Although it might seem minor to offend back-end rotation players, the move ripped open some wounds from the previous season pertaining to the lack of respect for Blatt within the team. Privately, the players cursed Blatt, and their agents started complaining heavily behind the scenes. Whatever goodwill had been fostered seemed to be blowing up.
The next night at a game in Portland, the Cavs put forth an embarrassing effort in a blowout loss to the Trail Blazers. They gave almost no effort and were out of the game from the start. Calling it a boycott game might be too strong, but there was a noticeable chill that enveloped the team.
James tried to stick to his edict of not attacking Blatt in the media after the Cavs' next game, a win in Phoenix. The Suns were going through their own turmoil, with one star suspended (Markieff Morris) and another star out for the season because of impending surgery (Eric Bledsoe), not to mention Jeff Hornacek's having two of his coaches fired by ownership. Rather than pummel the Suns, the Cavs barely pulled off a win, with James visibly frustrated all night. He was terse in his postgame comments -- unlike his usual, engaging self.
The next night, the Cavs won in Denver, with James enjoying a turn-back-the-clock performance with family and friends in attendance on the eve of his 31st birthday. Overall, it was a sloppy game against a middling team, but it was a win. James was asked about his bizarre behavior in Phoenix -- both his demeanor on the court and his postgame remarks -- after most of the locker room had cleared out at the Pepsi Center.
"Thank God we play in the NBA, with a game the next day, and not the NFL," he said. "Because if it was the NFL, I would have went off and let the quotes fester for a week."
Watching it all was Griffin, who was on the trip with the team. The veteran Jones came to the GM at one point and told him, "I wouldn't want to be you," according to a source. Jones said it because he knew Griffin was dealing with the beginnings of an uprising.
But the Cavs were still in first place. The team finished the trip salvaging a 2-2 record, but there was no ignoring the growing issues. After the players had two days off to celebrate the new year, they gathered for practice back in Cleveland.
Griffin sat in on a film session and jumped on James for not getting back on defense against the Nuggets, one of his bad habits. James accepted the criticism in stride, sources said. But this moment only inspired less faith in Blatt because it is supposed to be the coach -- not the GM -- holding the players accountable.
Within days, both Williams and Smith showed up late for games, arriving less than an hour before tipoff. Blatt said it was dealt with internally. Some around the team expressed surprise that multiple players did that, and it was thought of as another example of a lack of accountability.
LeBron maintains public support
Still, James supported Blatt when given the chance. A couple days before the Cavs played a key game in San Antonio last week, he offered positive comments.
"I think every game is another learning experience for Coach Blatt," James said. "There's coaches with more tenure in our league, obviously, and there's guys with a better résumé than he has. But one thing he tries to do is just put us in a position to win, and then it's up to us."
The Cavs lost to the Spurs. Then, in the most important home game of the season, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day against the Warriors, the Cavs were flattened by the defending champs' unrelenting attack.
Playing expertly, Golden State destroyed Cleveland by 34 points and led by 43 points at one point. Gilbert sat next to the Cavs' bench until the bitter end. James spent much of the fourth quarter sitting in Blatt's seat on the bench and talking with Lue while Blatt stood a few feet away.
"That's my responsibility to get them ready, and our guys have got to be better than that, and they know that," Blatt said in accepting blame for the loss.
After the game, James took care to not take aim at Blatt. He rebuffed a reporter when he tried to get James to pile on Blatt's comments.
Meanwhile, Love had played poorly since Irving's return to the lineup, and he was not included effectively in the game plan against the Spurs or Warriors. In the next two games, a win in Brooklyn and a quality home win over the Los Angeles Clippers, Love piled up 35 points and 34 rebounds. Asked to explain the change, Love credited Irving -- not Blatt -- with making a strategy suggestion.
Blatt, for his part, chided the media for not giving the team enough credit for being 30-11, despite an 0-3 record against the Spurs and Warriors.
"I hear a lot of far-reaching conclusions, and personally, I don't like it," he said. "I think this team is in pretty good position, although people choose to overlook that, which I don't think is fair."
The last straw
In the locker room after the Cavs beat the Clippers, Griffin noticed an absence of joy over a nice win. He saw Blatt's comments about how there isn't enough credit being given to the team, despite its $110 million payroll and extreme expectations.
He knew the players would use Blatt as an excuse if they came up short again this season, and he would probably have to confront this issue at some point. He decided to confront it now.
A little over one year after he and Gilbert decided to not let Blatt go, Griffin talked with Gilbert again. This time, there would be no vote of confidence. Griffin didn't call James or any other player. He met with Blatt and fired him, and he promoted Lue.
When the players were called together to receive the news, some thought a player had been traded, sources said. Several players speculated they were going to be told Love had been dealt. But it was Blatt.
It was nothing James or Irving or Love or anyone said that got Blatt fired. If it had truly been up to James, sources said, Blatt might have been fired a year earlier. As it turned out, the actions of the entire team, Blatt included, over the past 15 months brought Griffin to this conclusion.
"This is supposed to be a results-oriented profession, and look at the results [Blatt] got," a source close to Blatt said. "This is unbelievable."
There was surprise in the timing, but to the Cavaliers' locker room, the clues had been piling up for a while.