Cleveland — In some parallel universe this week, Steve Kerr is huddling with trusted assistant coach David Blatt to break down video and strategize ways in which their Golden State Warriors can attack the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night at Oracle Arena.
The Cavaliers are countering with a defense designed by Tyronn Lue, a rookie NBA head coach like Kerr. Win or lose, meanwhile, Blatt's contributions to Golden State's storybook season were so well-regarded that he'll be moving to New Orleans to take over immediately after the Finals as new bench boss of the Pelicans…
There's nothing wrong with the above scenario — except for Alvin Gentry, the Warriors' assistant who actually played the Blatt role this season and earned his promotion in the Big Easy. But it only would have unspooled that way if Kerr and the Warriors had blocked Blatt — their newest hire to the new coach's staff — from interviewing at the last minute for the Cavaliers job last summer.
Kerr already had a verbal agreement with the successful former coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Russian National team and assorted other international outlets. They had been brought together by the agent they shared, Mike Tannenbaum, now a Miami Dolphins vice president. The two hit it off during conversations at the Los Angeles airport and a Marina del Rey hotel.
Then Tannenbaum told Kerr that the Cavaliers had contacted him asking about Blatt for their head coaching job. So the Warriors coach gave his blessing, thinking he had a good chance — with Cleveland also looking at Lue and Gentry — of getting the guy back for his debut season.
“No way we could've guessed back then that we'd be facing each other in the NBA Finals less than a year later,” Kerr said the other day. “It's crazy to think about.”
Said Blatt: “We both got exactly what we wanted. We wanted to be part of a successful team that competes for the championship of the NBA. And it's happened, only we're on different sides.”
Having arrived by starkly different routes.
Kerr, for all practical purposes, is an NBA lifer. He was coached by and learned from two of the league's all-time best, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. He filled his role as a 3-point specialist alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, helping the Bulls to three titles. Then he did much the same thing, twice winning titles with Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs. Prior to being hired as Warriors coach, Kerr served as Phoenix Suns general manager for a stretch and was a popular television analyst.
Blatt is a newbie in the NBA, so accomplished overseas with Israeli championships and Euroleague titles that he sometimes tried too hard to school folks who described him in verbal shorthand as a “rookie coach.” It came off as a little defensive for what, after all, was going to be a steep learning curve regardless of his past.
Kerr, who chose the Golden State job over Jackson's pursuit from New York in part to be close to family, took over a team that won 51 games in 2013-14 and had reached the playoffs twice under predecessor Mark Jackson. His team overachieved, in fact, winning a league-best 67 games and riding a Most Valuable Player performance by guard Stephen Curry.
The Cavaliers made an even bigger leap — from 33 to 53 victories — but it came with an asterisk. The team Blatt signed on to coach changed overnight in July from a step-by-step building project to an instant contender when LeBron James decided he wanted to come home from Miami. The planet's greatest player dropped into Blatt's lap, helping trigger a trade for All-Star forward Kevin Love to go with James and Kyrie Irving and putting them all on a new arc and timeline.
“As I told him, he just became a much better coach two days ago,” Kerr said after the news of James' return broke during the summer league in Las Vegas.
The Warriors wound up second in the NBA in offensive rating (111.6) and first in defensive rating (101.4), outscored opponents by an average of 10.1 points, had the depth and talent to match whatever style was required on a given night and tapped into Kerr's penchant for keeping basketball fun.
The Cavaliers? Not so much. While experts preached patience for all their newness to blend, critics gave them none. The learning curve was steep — Cleveland's low point came nearly halfway through the schedule at 19-20. But trades by GM David Griffin for center Timofey Mozgov and wingmen J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert plugged obvious holes, Blatt found ways to coordinate the diverse skills of his three stars and, slowly, James' apparent wait-and-see view of his head coach began to warm.
Yet, even in the playoffs, there were awkward moments. For instance, Blatt drew up a last-second play in Chicago that James vetoed before hitting the game-winner. But now they have each other, four victories away from what seemed like a reach five or six months ago.
Speaking last week of Blatt, whose family stayed back in Israel this season, Kerr said, “Any time you're put in the spotlight like he was early in the season, when things weren't going well for them, that's when your character shows, that's when your grit comes out. I thought he handled all that stuff beautifully and just kept going and they righted the ship. I'm glad to see that he's getting the credit that's due.”
One thing is certain: A rookie head coach is going to win the Finals for the first time since Pat Riley in 1982. It's the first time two have met for the championship since 1947, the league's first season.
And it's all due to the road not taken.
“Steve and I basically are different people who love the game of basketball and want to play it in a way that suits the teams that they have and leads to success,” Blatt said. “I'm sure we would have got along great. He's a great guy who's done a fabulous job.
“This is kind of a special thing on many levels. That's one of the lines in the fabric of this story.”