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Cavs coaching candidate David Blatt and what it’s like to play point guard for him

When the Associated Press reported on Friday that the Cleveland Cavaliers were looking at David Blatt to potentially fill their head coaching vacancy I was immediately encouraged. Maybe even excited. In any case, it was the first time since Mike Brown was fired that my initial reaction involved positive enthusiasm related to a candidate linked with the opening.

I wouldn’t need to talk myself into the idea of hiring David Blatt. I’ve been aware of who he is and what he’s accomplished for a while now. He’s an offensive innovator who has succeeded at every level internationally. He is also credited with being the “architect” of Maccabi Tel-Aviv’s defense during their championship-run as an assistant under Pini Gershon. But if being known, simultaneously, as both an offensive guru and a defensive architect isn’t encouraging enough, I also remembered what Ohio State legend Scoonie Penn once told me about his experiences playing for him.

I’ve spoken with Penn over the last few years at length about his professional career overseas. I wrote an article highlighting some of his story for The Locker Room Magazine. I’ve also been involved in a couple projects with Penn, one of which I hope to talk more about in the future. So when Blatt’s named surfaced recently, I couldn’t help but recall our conversation about the coach he played for in Turkey.

David Blatt is a Massachusetts native who played point guard at Princeton under Pete Carril. He went on to study the game as an assistant in Israel for six seasons under Pini Gershon before becoming a wildly successful head coach himself.

Scoonie Penn Stepien Rules
Penn’s experiences with Blatt and Gershon began in 2006. After Pini accepted the head coaching position with Olympiacos in Greece that year, Penn signed on to be his point guard. The following season, he’d do the same with Blatt in Turkey.

“During my 11 seasons in Europe, I had the privilege of playing for two of the best coaches ever in Euroleague—Pini Gershon and David Blatt,” Penn said. “I played for Pini with Olympiacos in Greece and then for Blatt the year after in Turkey. Blatt had already become a head coach by the time I was in Greece,  so he wasn’t with Pini and I that year. But their styles and philosophies were similar, and I always knew Blatt was a coach I’d love to play for too.

The object of our offense in Olympiacos that year was to get a shot up in 10-12 seconds. If the other team scores, we’re pushing it right back down your throat. We’d push it ahead and attack. As a point guard, it’s a great system to play in. And at the time, this type of philosophy wasn’t something I was necessarily used to in Europe. It wasn’t that common, but it was effective for those guys.

After that season, I was moving on from Greece, and had an opportunity to play for Coach Blatt. It was a great decision for me because I truly enjoyed playing for him. He was coaching Efes Pilsen in Turkey that year and I had a number of other offers. But after talking with him during the offseason, and knowing what he was about, that’s where I wanted to go. His style of basketball was great. More than that, though, he was a guy I really loved playing for. He was a real hard-nosed, smart coach who I respected a lot. As a point guard, he’s a coach you love playing for because of the way he wants to attack.

When I played for him, we had a really good player-coach relationship. But even after that, we stayed in contact. I’d keep up with him from time to time and see how his teams were doing. He’s got great energy and he’s a great guy to be around.”

I first asked Scoonie about Blatt after reports surfaced last summer linking his name to the Boston Celtics opening eventually filled by Brad Stevens. I have not reached out to ask him about Blatt and the Cavs. But the idea of an NBA team hiring his former Euroleague coach didn’t surprise Penn when we talked about the Boston job last June.

The primary question about Blatt’s ability to succeed in the NBA would obviously relate to the transition from Euroleague to the NBA. It’s all basketball, sure, but there’s still a huge difference between the two leagues. In Europe, for example, teams practice twice a day. Both practices are full-throttle, and they’ll even run practices like that on game days. It’s ridiculously challenging for players but it’s also the accepted norm overseas. There isn’t an NBA player who ever lived that would accept anything remotely similar to those conditions. Nor would Blatt consider implementing as much. But his practice schedule and method of training would be a necessary adjustment. It would be a break from what he’s used to as a coach overseas. If he filled out his staff with veteran NBA assistants, though, I’m sure it’s a transition he can make.

Despite that, Blatt appears to be innovative enough to make the leap. He also could be the type of offensive mind who is capable of putting a point guard like Kyrie Irving in a position to succeed. It is imperative for the Cavs to build an offensive structure that will maximize Irving’s ability moving forward. He needs to live in an offensive environment that allows him to attack systematically, while moving his teammates around him in way that keeps them engaged. I think Blatt would be able to build that structure. It would be interesting to see him get the chance.

Terry Pluto reports Cavs will offer Irving max-extension

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My position has always been that the Cavaliers must offer Kyrie Irving a max-extension as soon as they are able to do specifically that. There was, and is, zero debate on this point in my mind. The Cavs must do everything in their power to build the franchise around Irving immediately and never look back.

Despite suggestions to the contrary, The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto offered this report over the weekend to hopefully end all speculation on the topic.

“The Cavs will offer Irving the full 5-year maximum contract. There have been reports that they were having second thoughts — that’s simply not true. Reports about the Cavs even considering backing away from a maximum contract are simply wrong. My sources tell me that the Cavs have had no doubts about offering Irving the 5-year deal, and will do so. Once July 1 arrives — the first date that an extension can be offered — the Cavs will set up a meeting with Irving. They will present their All-Star guard with a contract extension, a 5-year deal in the $90 million range (or whatever is the maximum number).”

Irving will begin the 2014-15 campaign as one of the two best players in the NBA under the age of 23. Anthony Davis of the New Orleans Pelicans being the other. Building a franchise around a player like that is an awesome way to build a franchise. Especially if that point guard has also entered the conversation of being among the top-5 players in the League at his position, and one of the best 15-overall players in the world. All of which is why Pluto’s report should be encouraging news for anyone who needed encouragement on the subject.

Next step is to hire an offensive innovator to build a team and structure that allows Irving to flourish.

Photos via AP

Brendan Bowers

About Brendan Bowers

I am the founding editor of StepienRules.com. I am also a content strategist and social media manager with Electronic Merchant Systems in Cleveland. My work has been published in SLAM Magazine, KICKS Magazine, The Locker Room Magazine, Cleveland.com, BleacherReport.com, InsideFacebook.com and elsewhere. I've also written a lot of articles that have been published here.

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