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.

Who You Should Cheer for in the NBA Playoffs: Eastern Conference

I’m not going to go all analytical like I usually do with my NBA posts. To be honest, while I have been up to date with the NBA season thanks to League Pass, a swirl of coaching, job and other things have kept me from really being fully immersed in the NBA season as I have been in years past. That being said, I wanted to do some kind of NBA Playoffs preview, even if it was brief and more tongue-in-cheek and less “stats-based”. In fact, rare for one of my basketball posts, I am not going to use any stats at all. This is just a 100% from the gut, totally biased look in terms of who you should cheer for in the Eastern Conference first round playoffs. If you like it, great. If you feel my opinions are un-founded, I get it and agree with you. They probably are, but that’s not going to stop me from expressing them.

Enough with all that. Let’s take a look at the Eastern Conference First Round.

No. 1 Cleveland Cavaliers vs. No. 8 Detroit Pistons

I have a love-hate relationship with LeBron. I loved him when he started out his career, defended his Rookie of the Year award over Carmelo, and thought his performance against Detroit in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals was one of the single-best playoff games in history. However, I hated him his first year in Miami for all that “Decision” hoopla, but I grew to love how he adjusted his game (mainly his back to the basket game) and truly became the alpha dog on those two championship Miami Heat teams. I liked that he came back to Cleveland, but I didn’t like how he used mainstream media again as his own personal PR firm (really when you think about it, the “Decision” and the SI “I’m Coming Home” piece really weren’t all that different, it’s just that we all liked the message more because we all resonate with that “coming home” feeling at one point or the other in our lives…more on that later). I really admired LeBron in the playoffs, especially in the Finals, as he pretty much won 2 games against the Golden State Warriors by himself.

And then Game 5 happened…and then all the “I’m the greatest player in the world” stuff…and then he got David Blatt fired mid-season this year, even though Blatt took them to the Finals and had them in first place in the East at the time and is a very good coach whom I liked from his Russia and Maccabi Tel Aviv days who didn’t sign up for the “LeBron circus” but adjusted anyways for the sake of his superstar and his team.

Seriously, Fuck LeBron. I am not questioning his talent or his hall-of-fame status. But he isn’t the player he once was, and he has gotten so into his own “persona” as Cleveland’s savior that everything he does both on and off the court just comes off as pretentious and disingenuous. And he hasn’t even been that good this year, as he is nowhere in the conversation when it comes to MVP, a rarity we haven’t seen in almost a decade. Add that with a supporting cast that includes a talented, but often-injured point guard (Kyrie Iriving), a post player who ransomed his old franchise to just become a spot-up shooter (Kevin Love) and a bunch of overpaid role players (Shumpert, Smith, Thompson…the list goes on) and it’s hard to cheer for this Cavs bunch. They’re talented, they deserve the No. 1 spot East, and when they are on, goddamn it they are tough to stop. But unless you’re from Cleveland, it’s hard to really get behind them and they don’t offer anything endearing except for the fact that they could bring a long-suffering city their first title in decades.

The Pistons on the other hand, really don’t have much of a chance. They lack a true point guard, and Andre Drummond, though a beast and one of the best “pure” low post players in the league currently behind Demarcus Cousins and DeAndre Jordan, is so bad at free throws that you can’t play him in crunch time (as evidenced in their Game 1 loss). However, this is a Stan Van Gundy team and you can guarantee a couple of things:

1.) They are going to launch it. SVG made his bread in Orlando by surrounding Dwight with a whole bunch of shooters. The Magic went deep in the playoffs thanks to guys like Rashard Lewis and JJ Redick launching it from deep. The Pistons are built in that mold with guys like Marcus Morris and Tobias Harris as the Lewis-type stretch 4’s and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ad Stanley Johnson providing the Redick-esque support. Unfortunately, SVG lacks a Jameer-like point guard. Reggie Jackson is too much of a gunner and ball killer, and unlike his former teammate Russell Westbrook, when he loses his shit, he loses his shit in a way that takes his team out of the game. His stupid technical foul basically killed any shot or hope the Pistons had in terms of coming back.

2.) SVG makes great adjustments, and he has them play with great intensity and tempo. SVG knows how to coach. He finds weaknesses well and makes great adjustments. He did that with the Pistons often-times this year, and got them in the playoffs for the first time since the “Sheed” days because of his ability to adjust on the fly. And furthermore, SVG is a great motivator. Yes, superstars butt heads with him, but this Pistons team doesn’t have a Dwight or Shaq or DWade superstar. Drummond is still young and impressionable, and he doesn’t have the kind of ego that sunk the Dwight-SVG relationship. These Pistons will go through a brick wall for SVG and that will be key, especially considering it is yet to be determined how Tyronn Lue will handle in his first playoff series as a head coach.

3-point-oriented, tough, a great coach, young, and playing against LeBron…I don’t see how you cannot cheer for the Pistons this first round.

 

No. 4 Atlanta Hawks vs. No. 5 Boston Celtics

This is a tough one. Atlanta has a lot going for them. Al Horford and Paul Millsap are underrated and effective post players who go unnoticed because they play in Atlanta and don’t have the “big” personalities (i.e. they haven’t dated any major celebrity of note). Dennis Schroeder has an awesome name, an awesome nickname (“German Rondo”) and is a fun player to watch when he’s on. Mike Budenholzer is one of the best NBA coaches in the league, who still got a lot from his team this year, despite some down years from some key players (Kyle Korver especially).

But, damn, this Celtics team. They are…so…freaking…fun to watch. They blitz it on the court with their tempo, and they are all young, all fiery as hell (Marcus Smart, Evan “The Villain” Turner, Avery Bradley, Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, just to name a few, all play with serious “chips on their shoulders”, so much so that it comes off as endearing, unlike Jackson of Detroit or any white guard from Duke where it comes off as annoying), and play with the kind of tenacity that makes you forget about the pretentious “Unbuntu” days when Doc Rivers complained endlessly to refs (seriously did he do any coaching? Or did he just leave that to Tom Thibodeau and Lawrence Frank?), Kevin Garnett picked on point guards, and Paul Pierce was being carried out on wheelchairs, only to return 15 minutes later. I know Boston, that era brought you a title, but your current Celtics are way more endearing to us general NBA fans and make us forget not only about that insufferable team, but also the crappy weather and over-bearing nature of your New England population.

Back to the Celtics, they do have major some major issues. Isaiah Thomas is one of the most fun players in the league, and I hit myself on the head everyday as a Kings fan that they let him walk for practically nothing because DeMarcus Cousins didn’t like how he shook hands with Chris Paul after a meaningless mid-season loss to the Clippers. However, he’s going to struggle defensively against Jeff Teague and he is closer to Nate Robinson than Chris Paul when it comes to point-guard mold. And, they lack a true offensive post player (Amir Johnson gives you post defense, but not much post offense), which will make things interesting against Horford and Millsap. That being said, despite these glaring disadvantages, you still feel like the Celtics are the favorites in this series because of their depth (They can play 10-11 deep, though losing Avery Bradley hurts big time), their breakneck pace and 3-point heavy approach (they nearly came back on the road against Atlanta despite being down as much as 29 points at one point), and Brad Stevens, who really should be Coach of the Year along with Portland’s Terry Stotts.

Speaking of Stevens, I have totally turned around on him since he was hired away from Butler. I didn’t know if he was going to be a good fit at the NBA, because it seemed like his personality and style didn’t mesh well with the NBA game. He wasn’t a former NBA player, and he seemed to rely more on unheralded talent to gain long-term success. I figured he would be overwhelmed or struggle to mesh with top talent and egos, which he never had before at Butler. However, Stevens has totally turned around this Celtics team in the post-Unbuntu era, and somehow molded into the kind of teams he coached at Butler: tough, relentless and well-prepared on a night-in, night-out basis (though to be fair, Danny Ainge really built this team to his strengths as a coach; a poor GM wouldn’t have given Stevens the amount of young talent and patience in a market like Boston; case in point: New York). And, he’s really good at drawing up inbounds plays. Jon Barry on the broadcast was gushing about his in-bounds play artistry like a 42-year-old overweight divorcee would about Pornhub now offering VR videos.

This one is a coin toss. But, the combination of Stevens, youth and fun style of play not only make the Celtics more endearing in this one, but also in a potential second-round matchup with LeBron and the Cavs.

 

No. 3 Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Charlotte Hornets

This Hornets team came out of nowhere, really. Two years ago, in their final years of the Bobcats, they surprised everyone and made the playoffs. Then last year, in their first year of their rebirth as the Hornets, they acquired Lance Stephenson, and consequently chemistry went to shit, and they finished in the Lottery. With lower expectations this year, they acquired a bunch of guys coming off down years (Nic Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb, Spencer Hawes, etc.), got rid of Stephenson, drafted Frank the Tank from Wisconsin, decided to jack up more 3 pointers, and now they’re the six-seed in the playoffs. It’s fucking nuts how the NBA works sometimes.

The Hornets are the underdogs this playoffs, akin to Florida Gulf Coast in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s something endearing in that description. However, despite their “Island of the Lost Toys” roster, this Heat team is infinitely more interesting and worth cheering for. Here’s three reasons why:

1.) This Chris Bosh health issue sucks. Nobody deserves a playoff run without Lebron more than this guy. I watched him live when he was with the Raptors and he truly is a unique talent that sacrificed more than people think to win two titles with the Heat. I’m convinced that he and DWade could be just as competitive as LeBron and the “Misfit Army” of the Cavs. But, this health issue with the blood clotting is keeping him out, and thus, we are deprived of that potential Miami-Cleveland matchup that would be all kinds of intriguing and fun. And the worst part is that Bosh cares so much about all this. He really seems like a truly genuine guy who wants to be out there on the court, and is not just posturing because he’s the Heat’s top-paid guy (along with Wade). I freaking hate this. Fate can be so cruel. I just hope this issue doesn’t force an early retirement, as I want at least one more year where Bosh could have a shot against LeBron in the playoffs.

2.) Goran Dagic doesn’t get enough love or appreciation from NBA fans for his talent and impact. He played in the shadow of Steve Nash, then was on lukewarm Suns teams that never made the playoffs post-Nash, and then went to the Heat post-LeBron where nobody gave a shit about the Heat except for the 50 percent of the Miami sporting fan population who stayed around when Lebron left town. Dragic has just always gotten overlooked. People talk about Kyrie. People talk about John Wall. People talk about Jeff Teague and Kyle Lowry. But Dragic? Never. And it’s too bad because he’s one of the most complete point guards in the league. He deserves to get more pub, and a potential opportunity to carve up Kemba, Lowry and maybe Irving en route to an Eastern Conference Championship would be the perfect scenario to get him more of the respect he deserves when it comes to being compared to other point guards in the Eastern Conference.

3.) And speaking of people who don’t get love, what about Erik Spoelstra? I love him because he’s Filipino, but with all this Coach of the Year talk, Spoelstra doesn’t get mentioned in the convo. He was a hell of a coach pre-Lebron and is showing that he’s a hell of a coach post-Lebron, but he’s barely mentioned as one of the best coaches in the game. Spoelstra has done wonders with this squad, molding them into their own unique blend without LeBron and has them playing as one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference as of this moment (especially true after their demolishing of Charlotte in game 1). Spoels, like Dragic, needs more love, and a deep run would do so, not to mention it would be an especially juicy story if it came at the expense of LeBron.

This is a tough series, because I like the Hornets a lot and have enjoyed following them this year on league pass. But this Miami team has more long-term potential, especially since they may be the team best-equipped to de-throne the Cavs. And that is why you should cheer for them not just now, but in the further rounds as well.

 

No. 2 Toronto Raptors vs. No. 7 Indiana Pacers

I don’t think Toronto will get far in the playoffs. And this is a tough series for them. Paul George is looking like Paul George pre-broken leg. Frank Vogel is one of the more underrated coaches in the league. The Pacers play a tough, physical kind of game that I think guys like Demar Derozan struggle with. And that was on full display in game 1, as the Raptors dropped game 1 at home, continuing their trend from the past two years of disappointing in the playoffs despite the tremendous support and regular-season success.

That being said, I am pulling for them. Dwane Casey is a much better coach than people think, and I think he gets way too much shit for the Raptors’ playoff woes than deserved. He has put the Raptors in situations to succeed, it’s just that a combo of youth and lack of somebody stepping up in the moment has done the Raptors in these past couple of years, not something Casey really could control. (What’s he supposed to do? Put magic dust on Derozan?) The Raptors fans are great and really have pulled for this team the past five years or so in a way that shows how big basketball really is in the Maple State. They basically treat every playoff game at home like Kansas City does for the USMNT during the World Cup at Power and Light (and like those KC fans, the Raptors fans get their hearts ripped out in big games…seriously, beating Algeria is NOT THAT BIG A DEAL soccer fans). Lowry, despite his own issues, is a gritty type of player who really has come a long ways from his days with the Grizzlies, and Jonas Valanciunas, one of my favorite Lithuanian players ever along with Sarunas Marciulionis, Sarunas Jasikevicius, Arvydas Sabonis and Domantas Sabonis (see what I did with the names there?) has also developed into one of the more underrated bigs in the game who can bang and board down low with any other post player in the NBA while still maintaining some offensive skill and touch around the basket.

But the biggest reason? I want to see them break the playoff hex. Being in bad losing streaks like this suck, especially when it is on such a big stage (as a Gonzaga fan, I think we can relate to the Raptors’ playoff disappointment) These fans care too much and have been through too much shit after those losses to Brooklyn and Washington in consecutive years. Furthermore, this team is young and built in a way that is unique compared to other teams in the league, especially in the Eastern Conference. Their roster is filled with guys who overachieve and overcome the modest expectations people have for them year after year. Lowry doesn’t have what it takes to be an elite point guard. Derozan is too perimeter-oriented. Jonas doesn’t have the skills to compete with other post players. Demarre Carroll doesn’t have a position in the NBA. Casey is dubious as a head coach as evidenced from his Minnesota days. And despite those expectations, the Raptors continue to win and continue to get better and better. I don’t think anyone thought the Raptors would be the second-best team in the Eastern conference going into this year and here they are, the No. 2 seed after one of the best seasons in franchise history.

But that would all go to crap if they lose to the Pacers. And they don’t deserve that. Not after all the progress they’ve made and the season they had. I’m not saying they can or will go far. I think Miami would be too much for them in the second round. But they are better than Indiana and they need to step it up. The fans and the organization deserve to at least get out of the first round for the first time since the Vince Carter days.

And lastly…the Raptors have super-fan Drake. Let’s not see Drake jump off this bandwagon after another first round exit. I want to see him courtside cheering for the Raptors in Miami in the second round.

That would just be oh-so-fitting.