The sharks are starting to swirl around first-year Cleveland Cavaliers head coach David Blatt. With the team at 18-13 after another loss last night to the Atlanta Hawks, the great homecoming that many envisioned for LeBron James isn’t off to a strong start. Cleveland is fifth in the Eastern Conference and the subject of talk shows this week was whether Blatt has the King’s backing. Let’s consider this possibility—could Kentucky head coach John Calipari be in line as Blatt’s successor next season.
We have to break this down into two possibilities. The first, of course, is the Cleveland coaching job actually becoming open, and the second would be any interest on the part of Calipari.
It’s not hard to imagine Blatt being shown the door after the season. In fact, if the team doesn’t advance to at least the conference finals it’s hard to imagine him coming back. Remember, Blatt was hired prior to James’ return. The head coach, with no prior experience in the NBA, was chosen on the assumption that this was going to be a bad team, perhaps capable of squeezing out of a playoff spot in the lousy Eastern Conference, but nothing more. Cutting bait after one year wouldn’t be as dramatic as it looks, because circumstances have so obviously changed.
Furthermore, LeBron’s public statements regarding Blatt aren’t exactly ringing with praise. In a much-publicizing quote from this week, he said the following…
“Yeah, he’s our coach, I mean, what other coach do we have?”
“Listen man, I don’t pay no bills around here. I play.” (when asked if a change should be made)
To be fair, there is a fuller context to all these quotes, which include this much more positive statement…
“I’m happy who we have at our helm. He’s our coach. For it to make a feud between me and Blatt or the team and Blatt, it’s just to sell.”
That latter quote is obviously stronger, and if you see that as the quote that’s the foundation for the other two then any rift between the coach and the King is being overblown. But my foundation for seeing these quotes is that LeBron is a very media-savvy person, or has at least become once since the public backlash to “The Decision” of 2010. I can’t be persuaded he didn’t know how the first two quotes listed here would be taken.
If James doesn’t want Blatt as his head coach—and really, if you’re a two-time NBA champion and five-time NBA finalist, why would you want to play for a complete known—than Blatt has no chance of survival. Cleveland doesn’t necessarily have to win the championship for him to survive, but the days of looking way up in the standings at the Toronto Raptors weren’t what anyone had in mind for a homecoming.
So with it established that Blatt’s dismissal—at least at the end of the season—is a strong possibility, let’s ask whether Calipari would be ready to live his dynasty at Kentucky to return to the NBA, a place he failed when coaching the Nets.
I have to think Calipari would be interested. He has a dynasty, but it’s one that takes a lot more maintenance than most other dynasties in college sports. The coach may have mastered the use of the “one-and-dones”, or the “two-and-dones”, but that comes at a cost.
He’s starting completely anew every single year. Every college coach has a certain amount of turnover, but other legends of the sport—Mike Krzyzewski, Rick Pitino, etc., don’t have to flip the roster as rapidly as Calipari does. He does it with the expectation of a national championship every year by the crazed denizens of Big Blue Nation. That has to get tiring.
What it also shows us is that Calipari can function under the burden of expectations and that’s the first criteria—more than X’s and O’s—for any head coach of a team with LeBron James on it.
Calipari has accomplished about everything you can in college basketball. If he takes this year’s Kentucky team to a national championship and goes undefeated in the process, what more is there to prove? And even if they come up short, if you want to talk about challenges, isn’t rectifying the one failure on his resume—the NBA tenure in New Jersey—more pressing than just tacking on another NCAA title run in Lexington?
Unless you know Calipari personally, and of course I don’t, we can only guess what motivates him. Using a lot of the same logic (except the one-and-dones), I thought Nick Saban would leave Alabama a couple years ago to take another shot at the NFL. But Saban is apparently content building his legacy as a college legend. Maybe Calipari would be too.
But I’d have to see it to believe it. And the fact Calipari flirted with the Cavs job last summer, prior to LeBron’s return, adds to the intrigue. As does the fact that Calipari and LeBron are said to not only know each other, but have a good relationship.
I think it would be a great match. And I’ll predict right now, that when a new NBA season opens in late October of 2015, you’ll see John Calipari on the sidelines for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
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