INDEPENDENCE, Ohio — Even after guiding a team wrecked by injuries to the NBA Finals in his first season, Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt can’t escape a narrative that’s shadowed him for months.
His relationship with superstar LeBron James remains a trendy, touchy topic.
On Thursday, as a national column painted an unflattering portrait of how James treated him during postseason games, Blatt said he considers coaching the four-time MVP a privilege and they have a positive connection.
“People sometimes judge things on a game or on a period of time and they forget that we’re in there working together and striving to make the utmost of our team and of our situation day to day,” Blatt said, “and a bond develops over time that is a lot more than what meets the eye.”
Two days after the Cavaliers’ season ended with a Game 6 loss to Golden State in the NBA Finals, Blatt and general manager David Griffin both addressed the team’s upcoming plans to rebuild its roster, re-sign several core players including James, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson and improve a bench — aging at the back end — that didn’t provide enough help against the Warriors.
And while there’s plenty of work to be done, Blatt, who said he “absolutely” intends to return next season, doesn’t believe his bridge with James needs major repair.
It’s no secret that James didn’t always seem engaged with his coach during timeouts — anyone who watched the Cavs this season witnessed that — and there were times when he disagreed with Blatt, even questioned his strategies. But James’ respect for Blatt seemed to grow as the season went on.
In fact, following Tuesday’s pregame shoot-around before Game 6, James and Blatt walked off the court at Cleveland Clinic Courts with their arms around each other.
Blatt, who joined the Cavs last year after winning numerous titles in Europe, was asked if he adjusted his coaching style to accommodate James, the world’s best player.
“Absolutely, yes,” he said. “He is a galvanizing player. He is our best player. He’s the league’s best player. He’s a winner. He’s a proven champion. I think it’s important that he feels empowered and at the same time that he knows that he’s very much a part of this team. He’s exhibited that, and always put the team’s success beyond his.
“Now if he has felt that he has something to say and wants to impose his will in terms of influencing in a positive way on those around him, that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for all, and I certainly encourage that and certainly respected the fact that LeBron’s heart was in the right place.”
Griffin pointed out that just two weeks ago James, in the midst of a playoff run made more challenging because of season-ending injuries to Love and Kyrie Irving, praised Blatt’s performance this season by saying he had done “a hell of a job.”
“That’s what the man said,” said Griffin, who agreed with James’ assessment, adding the Cavs went 33-3 in their last 36 games in which James, Love and Irving played together.
Griffin has grown tired of the negativity directed at Blatt.
“It never has to go away because it’s all conjecture,” he said. “So I think one thing David did as well as anybody I’ve ever seen, and I wish I did better, was just ignore the noise from the media perspective. Because frankly, none of that means anything. We know what actually takes place here.”
The Cavaliers had a remarkable run, making the finals for just the second time and pushing the Warriors as hard as they could before running out of bodies. Griffin hoped to keep his roster mostly intact, but he could be faced with some big decisions.
He expects both James and Love to opt out of their contracts and become free agents. James signed a two-year deal last summer with the ability to opt out after one, and he may re-sign a one-year deal in order to capitalize on an expected surge in the salary cap following the 2016-17 season. Also, James wants to keep pressure on the Cavs to continue to add quality players.
Love’s situation may be more complicated. After he underwent shoulder surgery, Love said he expects to be back with Cleveland next season. He, too, might prefer signing a one-year contract, but it’s possible the Cavs will offer him a longer package and more security to gauge his commitment.
Griffin said the club intends to re-sign forward Tristan Thompson, a rebounding force who was invaluable when Love got hurt and could demand a maximum-level contract. Griffin will extend qualifying offers to restricted free agents Iman Shumpert and Matthew Dellavedova.
He would also like to add younger bench players, “guys that are more in a 26-to-30 range perhaps. Maybe finding the peak of their careers.”
Above all, Griffin wants to keep the momentum going for the Cavs, who lived up to expectations, overcame adversity to beat Chicago and Atlanta in the playoffs, and came within two wins of a title.
“We very much intend to keep this group together,” he said. “You look at that as a group that’s the potential to be special, special good.”