Will Firing David Blatt Really Do Anything for the Cavaliers?
To the surprise of almost everyone in the NBA community, the Cavaliers decided to fire head coach David Blatt on Friday after only a season and a half.
Blatt was hired before LeBron James decided to come back home to Cleveland last season, and while Blatt had seemingly won over the organization with a trip to the NBA Finals last year and a 30-11 start to this season, recent losses against the Warriors and Spurs may have proven too much for an organization where anything short of a championship is a lost season.
While the debate about whether Blatt deserved to be fired is warranted, the proof is in the Cavs’ play this season versus the top tiered teams in the league. Against the other top three teams in the Eastern Conference and against the top four teams in the West, Cleveland is only 4-5, and against the Spurs and Warriors, they're 0-3.
The Cavs also had some pretty strange losses earlier in the season before Kyrie Irving was back from his kneecap injury, losing to the likes of the Pelicans, Pistons, Bucks, Wizards and Blazers. While a random loss can happen once in a while, the Blazers blew them out, and they lost by double figures at home to the Wizards. These losses can't happen to championship teams.
Looking Beyond the Record
Other than a few bad losses, the stats still tell the story of a team that was well on their way to cruising past the rest of the Eastern Conference once again. The Cavs are third in the league in points allowed this season at 95.7, and while their pace was one of the slowest in the league at 92.9, they are currently the fourth best team in the NBA in Offensive Rating at 108.1, and their Defensive Rating is fourth in the league at 102.1.
According to nERD, which is our own metric that helps show and predict a team's ultimate winning percentage, their 65.8 score is currently fifth best in the NBA and the best in the Eastern Conference.
However, despite their record and impressive numbers on both ends, Cleveland’s strength of schedule (SOS) is somewhat lacking this season. Through the first half of the season, the Cavs’ SOS has been the second easiest of any Eastern Conference team at -0.65, with only the Magic having an easier schedule through the first half.
There has been a lot of talk about how Blatt lost the locker room and was increasingly being ignored on the sidelines. This can be seen most in their road-scoring differential, especially in the second halves of those games -- since the Cavs’ Christmas Day game against the Warriors in Golden State, Cleveland is only +3 in second half scoring differential, and if it weren’t for easy wins against the likes of Minnesota and Philadelphia, they would be -16 in the second halves of their last nine road games.
Rotation Question Marks
Last season, the Cavs spent two first-round picks to bring in Timofey Mozgov to give their lineup more of a defensive presence in the middle, and while he was a huge part of their success last season, offseason knee surgery and a shoulder injury earlier in the season have really hampered his play. Mozgov’s rebounding has fallen off so far this season -- his Total Rebounding Percentage has fallen to 13.5 percent, which is the lowest since his rookie season in New York and Denver, and his PER of 13.7 is the lowest it’s been in the last three seasons.
Despite this, Blatt has been loyal to the big man. Mozgov has split time at center with Tristan Thompson despite Thompson outplaying him in almost every facet this season (Thompson has a player nERD of 7.0 versus Mozgov's 1.6), and even after benching Mozgov for a stretch recently, Mozgov found his way back into the starting lineup over the last four games. He had a plus-minus of -14 compared to Thompson's +12 in those same four games.
Even though Blatt has had some growing pains coming over from the Euroleague to the NBA, in no way has he been a bad coach. His firing likely boils down to his inability to beat the Spurs and Warriors this season, and his inability to get James to buy into what he was selling. While it remains to be seen how the Cavs will respond to Tyronn Lue taking over as head coach, there's also the possibility that the Spurs and Warriors might just be far better than Cleveland, and a coaching change might not make much of a difference.