David Blatt, Darussafaka and Istanbul: A Respected Coach’s Rocky and Quick Road Back to Europe

“Make no mistake. I have won everywhere I have been…and I plan on doing the same here.”

When he was hired in May of 2014 by the Cleveland Cavaliers, David Blatt echoed those words to the media public. Blatt, was fresh of a Euroleague championship victory with Maccabi Tel Aviv over longtime European and Spanish power Real Madrid, and the Cavs, who had missed the playoffs for the fourth straight season, were looking for a refreshing voice to lead their team going forward. And it made sense for the Cavs to hire Blatt. Not only did he prove he could win at Maccabi, both in the Winner League in Israel and in the Euroleague, but he also found success as an international coach, leading Russia to a surprising bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. For Blatt, the lure of coaching a NBA franchise was a lifetime challenge he coveted and desired, much like any coach who looks for the next “step up” in the coaching ladder. Cleveland, with the top draft pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, had some valuable young pieces like Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Dion Waiters and Anthony Bennett at the time, and Blatt, who had a history of producing overachieving teams with limited talent, seemed to be like a good fit, and a breath of fresh air that the organization needed after retreads like Byron Scott and Mike Brown (again) failed in four playoff-less seasons Post-Lebron.

Of course, Blatt didn’t expect to be a head coach so quickly in the NBA: when he stepped down originally from Maccabi Tel Aviv, he appeared to be headed as an assistant to Golden State or Minnesota to situate himself with the NBA game, similar to Ettore Messina before him, who became an assistant with the Lakers and then Spurs after a successful tenure with CSKA Moscow. (Apparently, Steve Kerr wanted Blatt badly and it seemed to be a done deal until Cleveland called and interviewed him.) Nonetheless, he was given the opportunity as NBA head coach, and Blatt wasn’t going to turn it down, even if he was not as familiar with the American game like the European one. However, with his Princeton-influence, strong defensive mentality, and fiery personality, Blatt looked like he would have some success, and would make the necessary adjustments over time to become a successful NBA head coach. After all, he was going to coach the Cavs, who had suffered mediocrity since Lebron James left town. Just getting them into playoff contention would be enough; a playoff berth, even as an 8 seed, would be cause for celebration and validation of his hire.

And then less than two months later, this happened.

Who would have thought that it would be the beginning of Blatt’s long, painful, and frustrating march back to Europe?

The relationship between Blatt and Cavs star Lebron James seemed strained and doomed from the start.

To be fair, Blatt never asked to coach Lebron and Lebron probably would have never asked Blatt to coach him either. Blatt was coming to coach a young team, one that was going to be led, in his mind, by No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins and former No. 1 pick Irving and supported by Thompson and Bennett (oh yeah…I forgot Bennett was a former No. 1 pick too…somehow) in the block. In Blatt’s mind, his young guys would grow into his system, be used to his authority and demands, especially considering Wiggins and Irving had been used to demanding coaches in college like Bill Self at Kansas and Coach K at Duke (Wiggins and Irving, respectively). And though Blatt had not really achieved anything in the American game as far as coaching, that was going to be fine: neither had any of the young players on the Cavs.

However, with Lebron now on board that all changed. After Summer League, Wiggins was traded to Minnesota along with Anthony Bennett and some other pieces for Kevin Love, a NBA Veteran and All-Star. Now, the hope in Cleveland, with the Big 3 of Lebron, Kyrie and Love wasn’t just to make the playoffs, it was to win the Eastern Conference AND a NBA Championship. Blatt of course didn’t back down from the challenge, but in retrospect, I don’t think he realized the magnitude of media scrutiny as well as intensive player ego management that would haunt him for his one-and-a-half season stint in the city of Cleveland.

On paper, there is not much you can argue with when it comes to Blatt’s tenure. He went 83-40, including 53-29 in his first season with the Cavaliers, leading them to an Eastern Conference Championship, as well as 2 wins in the NBA Finals, the first two wins ever in Finals history for the franchise. He also did this without Kevin Love throughout most of the playoffs, and without Irving from games 2-6 of the Finals, as well as some games during the playoffs. This year, the Cavs started 30-11 and Blatt had them as one of the better teams in terms of offensive and defensive efficiency this season (they were 3rd and 10th in those categories this year).

Usually, with any other team in the NBA, there would be talk of an extension after a 30-11 start. But this was Cleveland, and “Lebron’s” Cavs, and while one couldn’t argue with the record, the marriage between Blatt and Lebron and the Cavs never really felt stable over the one-and-a-half year time. Let’s just take a look at some of the issues that plagued Blatt as the Cavs’ head coach:

  • People questioned Blatt’s authority on the team, as Lebron had grown a reputation for tuning out or overruling Blatt during timeouts and play calls.
  • There was widespread consensus on the team that Tyronn Lue was more respected and listened to on the coaching staff from the players; what makes this more awkward is that Lue was a finalist for the Cavs job, though Lue on frequent occasion has gone out of his way to say he didn’t agree with Blatt’s firing.
  • There were reports that Blatt seemed to be overwhelmed by big moments, as he froze up and panicked when diagramming plays during timeouts during crucial stretches of the playoffs (the Chicago series having several reported instances of this).
  • Blatt treated other Cavs players differently from Lebron during practice, as he would go out of the way to criticize role players while not saying anything to Lebron, even if James was the main culprit of the mistake.
  • The media and Blatt did not get along, as Blatt chastised the media with sarcastic answers and patronized their questions during press conferences and interviews.

As with anything, some of those were true to an extent and some were most likely overblown. As stated in the last point, Blatt and the media did not get along well, and with Lebron a superstar in the NBA, and being an “Ohio Native,” it was obvious what side the local media (and many cases national media) would side with, and thus Blatt never seemed to get any kind of positive momentum in the public eye during his coaching tenure. And hence Blatt, a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year, not only was let go by the Cavs, but his legacy in America is somewhat tainted, as he is known for being successful as a NBA coach “only because of Lebron.”

For any basketball coach, being typified in such a way is not only an insult to the work and sacrifices one makes to be a head coach (as is especially true with Blatt who really had to work hard to get every head coaching job he earned, especially in Europe), but also a death stamp of sorts when it comes to future jobs. Just look at Mike Brown, who cannot get another head coaching position in the NBA after failing in Cleveland a second time (granted without Lebron, but it confirmed the “cannot win without a superstar” talk).

It really is unfair. It’s one thing if Blatt had no coaching experience. It’s one thing if he came to the States openly wanting to coach a Lebron James-led team. It’d be one thing if he wasn’t a four-time Israeli coach of the year, a Russian Federation coach of the year, and a Euroleague coach of the year as recently as two years ago.

But here we are…after 123 NBA games, David Blatt is going to Turkey.

Former coach Oktay Mahmuti wasn’t the coach to help Darussafaka surpass other Turkish rivals like Efes and Fenerbahce

Darussafaka is a totally different landscape than Blatt’s previous European stop, Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel. Of course, there is a cultural change that Blatt will not only be making from America, but his last experience in Europe. Blatt is Jewish and Israel is primarily a Jewish state, so Blatt fit in very well not just in the organization and city of Tel Aviv, but the culture of Israel as well. On the contrary Darussafaka is located in Turkey, primarily a Muslim country. And hence, it will be interesting to see how a mostly Muslim fanbase will react to a Jewish coach leading their team, though I think Blatt understands there may be some bias against him due to his cultural background. (And to be fair, Istanbul has really grown as a city and is more progressive than most Muslim-majority countries; simply look at many of the non-Muslim Europeans and Americans on clubs in the Turkish Basketball League).

And yet geographic culture is not the only issue; there is also a difference in basketball culture from Maccabi as well. Last season was Darussafaka’s first season in the Euroleague, and the club only has a modest history of success. The last time the club won the Turkish Basketball League Championship was in 1962 (and the other time was in 1961) and from 2010-2013, the club was regulated and participated in the Turkish League’s second division. And honestly, it makes sense that Darussafaka has struggled to be in the limelight: they share the same city with other bigger clubs like Fenerbahce, Galatasaray, and Efes, three traditional Turkish powerhouses with fervent fan bases and wealthy ownership groups (and who will also be participating in the Euroleague next year; Galatasaray missed last year, but will participate again after winning the Eurocup last season).

However, in 2013, Dogus Holding (a financial conglomerate based out of Turkey) bought the club and has made an effort to help Darussafaka compete with the traditional basketball powers based out of Turkey. It started with hiring of long-time Turkish coach Oktay Mahmuti, who had coached other Turkish clubs like Efes and Galatasaray to various degrees of success (he also coached Italian club Bennetton Treviso).  In 2014, Darussafaka won the Turkish Second Division and were promoted back to the first-division domestic league. And the following year, they finished 3rd in the Turkish Division and qualified for the Euroleague as a wild card.

This season was a bit of an up and down campaign for Oktay in his third year. Despite it being the first year in club history in the Euroleague, Darussafaka qualified for the Round of 16, ousting long-time power Maccabi in the their group to do so for the final spot. However, the Round of 16 was far less kind as Darussafaka missed the playoffs by going 5-9 and finishing 6th in their division, also behind Turkish rival Efes, who went 7-7 (though as consolation, Darussafaka did finish better than Cedevita Zagreb of Croatia and Unicaja Malaga of Spain).

Domestically in the BSL (the Turkish Basketball League), the results were a little more disappointing. Darussafaka finished fourth in the regular season standings at 20-10 and were ousted in the semifinals by Efes convincingly 3-0. Though there had been considerable steps taken by Oktay and his club since his hire, Oktay didn’t exactly generate the most excitement out of Turkish basketball fans as well as the Darussafaka fan base, which is run by new owners to the European basketball scene who are more akin to the “tech” owners that we see in the NBA today like Robert Pera of the Grizzlies and Vivek Ranadive of the Kings.

The biggest pitfall for Oktay in his tenure in Darussafaka was his defensive-oriented style of play, and his teams lack of ability to generate consistent offense. Granted, that has been Oktay’s calling card in his coaching career, and he did a decent job at it with Darussafaka last year, as their 102.8 defensive rating was actually 5th best in the Euroleague last season. However, the offense was not just boring, but borderline atrocious, as they posted an offensive rating of 99.2, which was seventh-worst out of all Euroleague teams last season. This led to a negative efficiency difference rating of minus-3.6, which put them below average and barely over Bayern Munich (minus-4.0) and Maccabi (minus-4.8), two teams who didn’t even qualify for the Round of 16.

With the combination of an ineffective, lackluster offense and rather mediocre attendance numbers (Darussafaka was 5th lowest in the Euroleague when it came to home attendance), it made sense that a change was deemed essential by ownership. Oktay was a consistent force and was going to keep them competitive as the head coach. However, with only 16 teams now qualifying for the Euroleague starting in 2016-2017, Darussafaka not only needed a big name who would help Darussafaka make the transition from a “B-quality” team to an “A-quality” one. Oktay wasn’t going to give them that, and Oktay wasn’t going to help them attract bigger names on their roster as well.

And that is where Blatt comes in.

Already in his comfort zone in Europe, Blatt talked to European prospects at the Adidas Eurocamp this summer.

Apparently, Darussafaka was in talks with Blatt in April and had made him an offer around that time. However, Blatt wanted to test the NBA coaching waters, as he interviewed for vacant NBA jobs such as the Knicks one (apparently his desired choice), the Kings position (his second choice) and the Rockets job. After all three jobs went to other candidates, and not impressed by other offers (there were rumors that Blatt was asked to come back to Maccabi, but he passed on the offer), Blatt signed with Darussafaka, impressed by their commitment from ownership and management (he has a multi-year contract worth around 3 million euros per year), and motivated by the chance to build something special in Istanbul.

The cupboard certainly won’t be bare next season for Blatt. Darussafaka has a nice collection of American talent such as returning scorer Scottie Wilbekin, former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody, Reggie Redding, Jamon Gordon, and Marcus Slaughter; European talent such as Georgian Manuchar Makroishvili and Serbian Milko Bjelica; and domestic talent such as former Celtic Semih Erden and Emir Preldzic. And with Blatt now on board, it will be interesting to see what kind of other talent Darussafaka will be able to attract this off-season, especially considering Blatt’s European success and NBA experience (despite all the issues, he did still win an Eastern Conference championship, which is more of an accomplishment than a lot of NBA coaches not to mention current European coaches). It is to be expected that Darussafaka will be able to attract another name or two during this signing and transfer period.

Blatt has never shied himself away from a challenge and that certainly is evident in Darussafaka, though of a different sort. With Maccabi and Cleveland, he had to manage big expectations, and he was able to be successful with such lofty goals placed upon him from upper management. Darussafaka is a different challenge. The history isn’t there like Maccabi, nor is the superstar there like in Cleveland. Darussafaka’s most successful season was arguably last year, and yet, they fired their coach. If anything, this situation feels more like a Memphis Grizzlies or Sacramento Kings scenario rather than the Cleveland one he faced in the NBA (unrealistic expectations combined with a “no-so-elite” team).

And yet, this current job in Istanbul, might be more in Blatt’s wheelhouse. He relishes being the underdog and surprising people. He has done it in his coaching career countless times. He won an Italian League title with Benetton Treviso, even though they were one of the more under-the-radar teams in Italy. He upset two powers in the Final Four in CSKA Moscow and Real Madrid during his 2014 Euroleague title with Maccabi. And he led Russia, who had fallen off the global stage after the break up of the Soviet Union, to not only a 2007 Eurobasket title, but a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics, despite coming into each of those tournaments as heavy underdogs.

This is exactly the kind of coach Darussafaka needs. They need someone to help charge fan interest in Istanbul in their club. They need someone to utilize their talent to their maximum ability. They need someone that can help them go toe-to-toe with Turkey’s best clubs, not an easy task after Fenerbahce was one quarter away from nearly winning the Euroleague championship.

Yes, Darussafaka has not played a game yet, but they are a team that should be watched during the 2016-2017 domestic and Euroleague season.

Blatt and Darussafaka seem like a perfect match.

I just wonder how long this tenure in Turkey will be before the NBA starts calling again.

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