By In Baseball, Basketball

The Blatt-Hillman Conundrum

I wrote The Fall Guy about Cleveland’s firing of head coach David Blatt over at SportsWorld. Here are a couple of other thoughts about it.

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Eight years ago, the Kansas City Royals tried a bold experiment. The team has been terrible for more than a decade, so general manager Dayton Moore figured: Hey, why not? He and his staff went all the way to Japan and hired a guy named Trey Hillman to be the manager.

Who is Trey Hillman? He had managed a Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, to consecutive Pacific League pennants and a Japan Series title. Hillman had no Major League experience as a player, coach or manager. He had managed for many years in the Yankees minor league system — where he helped develop young players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mile Lowell and so on. But the core of his experience had come in Japan where he’d done extraordinary work, especially when you consider the language barrier and the very different style of play in Japan.

When Hillman started, there was a problem, one that I don’t think any of us anticipated.

Hillman believed that his experience in Japan mattered.

The players, for the most part, believed that his experience in Japan did not matter at all.

You really couldn’t blame either side. Hillman had accomplished amazing things in Japan. He deserved to be proud and he had every reason to expect that he’d earned respect.

On the other side, though, Major League Baseball players don’t follow what’s going on in Japan. Almost nobody in America follows what goes on in Japan — when I went to the Japan Series to write about Hillman, I was the only American journalist there. To Major League players, you earn your respect in the Major Leagues.

So, yeah, it was awkward. Hillman came in expecting respect. Players came in expecting him to prove himself. There were numerous clashes. The whole thing got off to a bad start, and while HIllman tried to adjust, he was let go just 35 games into his third season.

I did not make the exact connection when the Cleveland Cavaliers hired David Blatt. I guess I thought it was different. The NBA seems much more aware of the world game than Major League Baseball did a few years ago. Blatt’s success overseas seemed to be admired throughout the league.

But you know what? It’s the same thing. Blatt came to Cleveland feeling sure — with good reason — that by winning a Euroleague Championship in Israel and coaching the Russians to an Olympic bronze medal, that he was coming into the NBA as an accomplished coach. He had built a worldwide reputation as a tough and smart coach, and he expected that reputation to travel with him back to America.

But, like it was with the Royals, the Cavaliers players really did not care about Blatt’s overseas success. To them, he was a rookie coach, someone who needed to learn a lot and prove himself anew.

It didn’t help, of course, that two weeks after he was hired, his job changed dramatically. He was suddenly coaching the best player in the world. But I’m not sure it would have worked anyway. In soccer, this kind of stuff works all the time. A coach’s success in Italy can carry over to Germany, success in Spain means something in England, success in the Netherlands matters a great deal in the Untied States.

But as of right now, international success in basketball just doesn’t matter much in America.  A coach could come over from Spain or Italy or Israel and have success here, of course, but he or she would have to prove it in the NBA the way, say, a college coach would have to prove it.

Blatt, reportedly, chafed at the notion of being considered a rookie coach, and I don’t blame him. But this is the reality. He could have won 10 Euroleague Championships. It’s just different in the NBA.

Look, Blatt was doomed anyway. That was the point of my SportsWorld piece. The day LeBron James came to Cleveland, it was “Championship or Bust,” and somebody was going to pay for the haphazard and chaotic attempt to just throw together title team. David Blatt was that guy.

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20 Responses to The Blatt-Hillman Conundrum

  1. Greybearded Yahoo says:

    Haphazard and chaotic? Doesn’t that describe the Los Angeles Lakers? Maybe there is a column there. Just sayin’…

  2. Davan Mani says:

    Both guys should have brought their guys from their respective countries they coached in. Which leads me to the next question why not bring the guy from that country instead of an American who managed and coached there like Carlos Tosca of the Blue Jays who came from and managed the Mexican league. It’s an experiment?

  3. nycgeoff says:

    The interesting contrast is with Phil Jackson: does a coach get more respect coming from Russia or from the Albany Patroons?

    • Jaunty Rockefeller says:

      Jackson won 2 NBA championships as a player and was assistant coach for the Nets & Bulls before taking over for Doug Collins. Neither Hillman nor Blatt had comparable credentials.

    • Dan W. says:

      Pat Riley was more of a surprise than Phil Jackson

      • Pat Riley came out the Laker’s radio booth with no head coaching experience. He had been the 6th man on the Laker’s 71-72 record setting championship team. That did mean “something” in LA. But he was literally a rookie coach on a team expected to win the championship. There were clashes with the stars, but Riley did not back down. I remember a couple of instances where he benched ALL of the starters for lack of effort during the game. He never let them mail in a tough road game, even the infamous back to back games. Believe me, the players hated when he did stuff like that, but they concluded that the guy was serious & eventually gave him respect. There aren’t many coaches, especially rookie coaches that would have the stones to do that today.

        • EnzoHernandez11 says:

          IIRC, Riley had been Paul Westhead’s assistant coach for a couple of years before Magic ran Westhead out of town. So he didn’t go directly from broadcasting to head coaching.

  4. He was suddenly coaching the best player in the world.

    When did we start talking about Luke Walton?

  5. john says:

    “Untied States” is a delightfully appropriate typo when referring to U.S. soccer, I say leave it as is sir.

  6. Brad says:

    Also Marc Trestman coming to the NFL after coaching the Montreal Alouettes in the CFL to three Grey Cups, winning two.

    • Ed says:

      Trestman had experience in both NCAA football and NFL football, though. He hadn’t been a head coach in either, but he’d been an OC.

      He also did the worst job as an offensive coordinator that I’ve ever seen when he was at NC State, but since I’m a UNC grad, I enjoyed it. To elaborate, since I’m sure most people have no idea what I’m talking about — NC State had several horrendous QBs and ended up having to play a walk-on because he was the “best”. They also had two four star HBs (one of whom was Andre Brown, who ended up being a 4th round NFL pick). But Trestman threw the ball nearly every down. They were throwing 50+ times a game with a QB who couldn’t get the ball on target from 8 yards away despite having several solid RBs. It was hilarious and unbelievable; I miss the apoplectic reactions from their fans.

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  8. NevadaMark says:

    Vern Rapp, no major league experience of any sort before he got the Cardinals job.

  9. John Autin says:

    If Blatt was surprised to be viewed as an unproven rookie coach by NBA players, then he was grossly unprepared for his job, and deserved just what he got. NBA players rightly view their league as the sport’s pinnacle — you don’t get there unless you’re highly accomplished at lower levels, so Blatt’s international titles are as irrelevant as any player’s NCAA championship. And even if that belief were wrong, its existence is obvious to even a casual observer.

    That Blatt was surprised to have to prove himself afresh speaks poorly both of him and of the Cleveland front office.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      The impression I get, though, is not that Blatt came in too strong but that he was not strong enough. The perception is that LeBron James was coaching the team. That suggests that Blatt was too timid. If he was going to win the team over, he needed to show strength, not weakness. So, perhaps he was aware of how he was viewed and was too deferential. As far as coaching, I don’t see how it really matters where you coach; it’s not as if there are different rules in the NBA (except that traveling is not a violation apparently). But I agree that the players don’t see it that way.

      In any event, if the front office thought that Blatt was not the right person to lead the team, they were right to fire him. He gets paid anyway. Frankly, though, I don’t really understand why they hired him in the first place. As you said, it should have been obvious that he would have difficulty being accepted by the players and it’s not as if there were no other qualified candidates out there. It’s as if the team said, oh this might be a neat idea. I could understand if it was a young team trying to develop, but why experiment with a championship caliber team?

  10. Iggy says:

    Mike D’Antoni

    Though he did have a cup of coffee in the NBA/ABA in the mid-1970s.

  11. Brent says:

    I am a little too young to remember the reaction to Marv Levy in 1978 in KC, but I think it might have been similar. Unfortunately, Marv never had the players to really prove himself in KC (and Joe Delaney’s untimely demise doomed him when it looked like he was building something), so it was left to the Buffalo Bills to discover his brilliance.

    For those who are too young to remember, the Chiefs hired Levy from the CFL after a VERY successful run for the Montreal team. He had a little assistant coaching experience in the NFL prior to that.

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