This is one of the risks of entrusting your fragile title contender to a head coach with no NBA experience. In Europe, David Blatt could get away with challenging his best players in the media. He had real control, real power. Based on all of the reports of his time overseas, he carried a Popovichian air.
But he's not in Europe, and he doesn't have remotely that level of pull in the NBA. Not yet, and maybe not ever. He will soon be reminded of that reality.
As Blake Ellington of Sactown Royalty noted, Blatt made an odd comment about Kevin Love's contract status after the Kings destroyed the Cavaliers in Sacramento Sunday night. It was Cleveland's fifth straight loss, and Love had a good game all told with 25 points and 10 rebounds. He was the best Cavalier on the floor, even taking defense into consideration. After the game, Blatt erased any notice of that.
Reporter: "Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love they are two max players, they're here." Blatt responds quickly: "Kevin's not a max player yet."— Blake Ellington (@BlakeEllington) January 12, 2015
According to Ellington, Blatt then expressed confusion at the question's relevance. There's some more context in Yaron Weitzman's write-up -- Blatt appears to have been unhappy with the question, so he turned it back on the reporter, and in the process exacted some collateral damage.
For the record, Kevin Love is making max money, which only adds a layer of chuckle to the whole thing. It could turn out to be the worst #WellActually of the season. The problem here is that Blatt and his boss, general manager David Griffin, have one job this season: convince Kevin Love to sign a new contract with the Cavaliers in July. The most obvious way to make that happen is to win lots of games, something Love's never experienced in the pros. But beyond that, Blatt and Griffin need to heap on the royal jelly.
It's not like Love is known for taking grievances lightly. Remember that his biggest issues in Minnesota came from the insult former GM David Kahn offered in not offering a five-year max. (Had he done so, Love would have accepted and would likely still be a Timberwolf. Instead, Kahn offered up a four-year max with a third year opt out, which Love signed.) Love openly expressed his anger at Kahn and the franchise, and that (plus all of the losing) set a path that led the power forward to be traded before his contract came up. To be fair to Love, most stars would take offense as he did. He was right to be insulted.
That's what makes Blatt's lack of care puzzling. Your star big man just put up 25-10 in a losing effort. That's not the time to get cute with the media. That's not the time to talk about his contract status, because it's never time for a coach to talk about a player's contract. That's one of the NBA's few taboos: coaches and players do not talk about the contracts of other players or coaches, unless it's in the harmless "worth every penny!" or "really hope to have him back!" context. Blatt crossed an unmarked line by subtly implying Love may not be getting a max deal at season's end. And it's a totally unforced error, given that he eventually answered the question anyway. He knew what the reporter was getting at all along.
Barring a catastrophic injury to LeBron, the Cavaliers were always going to make the postseason, something Love nor Irving had ever done. They could still win a playoff series and may even still compete for the East crown.
But the season is not a failure if Cleveland fails to win the title or even if the Cavaliers fail to make the Finals. This season is only a failure if Love walks in July. Griffin gave up Andrew Wiggins, the presumptive Rookie of the Year and an apparent future All-Star, to get Love. Cleveland cannot lose him in free agency after one season. That'd be an utter disaster.
We point to the Lakers losing Dwight Howard as a similar failure, but remember that L.A. only gave up a broken-down, expensive Andrew Bynum to land D-12 in the first place. The Cavaliers gave up No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, on a rookie deal, to get Love. The margin of error at the top of the NBA is so slim. Teams rarely get away with burning assets like that.
Again, Blatt really had one job this season: convince Love to stay. The Cavaliers are one game ahead of where the Wolves were last season with Love.
But that 19-19 record apparently isn't enough to cost Blatt his job. The self-inflicted drama over Love's contract might be. As it turns out, the margin of error for rookie head coaches is pretty small, too.