For the first time in seven years, LeBron James will not be featured on opening night when the NBA season commences in three weeks.
Don’t get it twisted, though: All eyes will be on James this season, again, like they have since he was drafted in 2003. His exceptional combination of skill, size, speed and strength, along with his record of single-handedly shifting the league’s balance of power – twice – makes him a most uncommon hoops commodity.
It’s no surprise that the Cleveland Cavaliers, with their new Big 3 of James, Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving, are tied with Oklahoma City and the Los Angeles Clippers for the most national TV appearances (not counting games on NBATV) on the upcoming season’s schedule.
More incentive is unnecessary. But there’s another reason to keep tabs on Cleveland this year; they might speed up the revolution that San Antonio has struggled to pull off alone.
Everyone raved about the beauty of Gregg Popovich’s offense as it sliced and diced James’ Miami Heat in the NBA Finals last season. The ball moved, the players cut and the Spurs’ shots ranged from good to great to unbelievable. It was downright embarrassing at times for the bewildered Heat.
In scooping David Blatt from Europe and installing him as head coach – before anyone knew for certain that LeBron was headed back – the Cavs took a step toward spreading that style of play.
The league should send a thank-you note.
The new-look Cavs defeated Blatt’s old team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80 in an exhibition game on Sunday night. James spent the entire second half on the bench, resting his sore back, but the Cavs provided enough instances of fluid, unselfish play to give us the idea.
Cleveland has enough talent to be dangerous regardless of scheme. Truly mastering Blatt’s offense is likely to require a season or two, but players can see the direction they’re headed (southwest) and they like it.
“There’s great ball movement, which is very key in the game of basketball,” center Brendan Haywood told SLAM magazine. “There isn’t as much of one-on-one. There’s a lot of the ball being kicked from one side of the court to another, which is very important. It’s ‘Spurs-esque,’ because it’s really all about ball movement – like how the Spurs create those mismatches with defenses by moving the ball so precisely. It doesn’t let the defense lock in one guy.”
James will still receive the most attention when Cleveland has the ball, because old habits die hard and teams prefer to take their chances against opponents’ secondary options. Just like in Miami, James’ teammates should enjoy a steady diet of open looks, enhanced by the floor spacing that’s crucial to Blatt’s system.
NBA teams haven’t embraced that style en masse because it’s a lot easier to run clear outs, isolations and pick-and-rolls, letting your best players overwhelm the defense with their individual skills and athleticism. Besides, precision offense take a lot of time and practice to implement and be highly effective, while the 24-second clock keeps on ticking.
Thinking outside the box sounds like a good idea, but it also involves risk and requires an independent stand. Otherwise, every team would run the triangle offense like Phil Jackson’s Bulls, Lakers and, now, Knicks.
San Antonio has gone against the grain for a while, from scouting and developing international players, to giving stars a break every now and then, to relying on its system more than its parts.
Cleveland saw an opportunity to do the same thing with Blatt, a Boston native who’s the first European coach to run an NBA team. He won 19 trophies in 21 seasons in Europe, where he was widely praised for his offensive prowess. Forward Mike Miller, re-united with James in Cleveland, calls the coach’s offense “borderline genius.”
But he’s far from an establishment type. After playing for Pete Carril at Princeton (where he learned the principles he uses today), Blatt spent three decades as a player or coach overseas. The Cavs decision to hire him is a bit of an experiment. The likelihood of a positive outcome increased exponentially when James was added, which should make other NBA teams more willing to look across the pond.
“To a certain extent I feel a responsibility (as a trail blazer), recognizing that I spent 30 years of my life overseas,” Blatt told reporters last weekend. “I learned a lot of basketball overseas and came into contact with a lot of great people over there that helped me and taught me or competed with me and raised my level.
“But I’m really focused on the here and now and how happy I am and how proud I am to coach this team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. That’s really what’s on my mind.”
His team and its star players will be on a lot folks’ minds this season.
The NBA should benefit in more ways than one.