The NBA Finals: Coaching up the rookie coaches

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David Blatt the coach of the Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv reacts during the top 16 Euroleague basketball match against BC Zalgiris in Kaunas, Lithuania, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

Steve Kerr and David Blatt, both in their first year as head coaches, steered the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers to the most improbable NBA Finals match-up in league history. Now what?

By Andrew Pridgen

The most notable portion of ESPN’s confetti-soaked post-game after the Warriors got their (literal) heads on straight and dispatched of the irksome Houston Rockets Wednesday was a pan over to Draymond Green in a warm embrace with former coach and current color guy Mark Jackson. Jackson was welling up with tears as Green whispered in his free ear the code only pro athletes know.

Co-commentator Mike Breen in a sticky moment tried to elicit a comment from Jackson. When asked how that embrace, and several others like it from members of his former team, made him feel, Jackson wiped a tear like a dad at graduation and said, “Proud.”

He meant it.

From the onset, the Warriors front office, Bay Area scribes and the Dubs faithful tabbed Jackson with the label “player’s coach,” which translates to “not so hot with the dry erase board.” After the Warriors underachieved in last year’s playoff, bowing out to the Clippers in the first round, Kerr swapped spaces with Jackson, trading his headset for a pair of comfortable Men’s WareWearhouse loafers and a mouth full of pen cap.

Kerr not only led the one-year-wiser Warriors to their first NBA Finals since the Plymouth Gran Fury was rolling off the line but also gave the team—so rife with talent that its most-tenured All Star David Lee is easily spotted walking up and down the box seat rows handing out warm towels before the start of the fourth quarter—an identity.

It turns out the identity he found…was the one it already had.

Steph Curry is the league’s reigning MVP. His daughter, Riley, is the league’s reigning press conference darling. Nice-guy Curry, once a candidate for early retirement with glass ankles, has spent six seasons toiling mostly in anonymity for the ersatz NBA franchise West whose mission was as ambiguous as the location its name suggests.

Sub-40-win seasons were the expectation for generations as the Golden State faithful considered the act of simply attending an NBA game revelatory. The players were similarly rewarded for showing up. I recall one particularly dire evening at Oracle in early 2004 when Adonal Foyle grabbed a rebound and the house lights went down. This was close enough to 9/11 that players and fans, figuring an inbound Southwest flight from Ontario was on its descent into the arena, stopped cold.

Suddenly, the pre-game intro spotlight searched to locate the Warriors’ Ivy Patriot League-educated Canouan-born center like an escaped inmate in a Charles Bronson movie. Over the PA, the voice of Tina Turner singing “Simply the Best” echoed and the announcer came on and boomed: “Congratulations, Adonal. You are the Golden State Warriors’ all-time franchise leader for rebounds.”

Yes, they stopped the game.

Foyle blushed, still frozen. A handful of his teammates smiled nervously as the opposition started to walk toward the visitors’ locker room hoping to get on standby. Pansexual team mascot Thunder violated his restraining order by rolling out on the court in his blue unitard, handing Foyle the game ball.

It was the middle of the first quarter.

And that, friends, is what being a Warriors fan has been like since Tatum O’Neal took the hill for Chico’s Bail Bonds’ Bears.

The other half of this improbable finals equation is an even more unlikely story.

If Kerr has the championship pedigree and the schoolboy charm, the Cavs’ head cat-wrangler David Blatt is the Strongsville Subway franchise owner who couldn’t find his promo seats so took the empty one next to the scorer’s table. The Blatt hire seemed something of an interim move for a Cavaliers franchise whose hand was suddenly, without warning, forced by the return home of its prodigal son. There was no welcome mat ready much less a house to put behind it.

A franchise that lost Akron’s remaining revenue-generating export just a presidential term earlier to the siren song of jorts and thongs in South Beach was in the midst of its own reclamation project. A trio of promising lottery picks and a still-eager fan base were the building blocks of a contender.

LeBron’s re-emergence on the shores of the fiery Cuyahoga sped everything up. Suddenly, pretty boy power forward Kevin Love was suiting up next to the only man this side of David Blaine qualified to have “Chosen One” ink occupy the vastness between shoulder blades. Faster than a dying phone’s fade to black, the future former number one picks Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett—once so eager on the Twitters to learn at the pleasure of the King—found themselves mired in Minnesota.

Things didn’t go well at first. Though the joyful reunion was merely five months in the past, James and his handlers put word to the street that the King in his prime would pull the plug on The Forest City if things didn’t gel the right way right away.

After a respectable but underwhelming 18-12 start, on Dec. 30 reports from Cavs beat writer Chris B. Haynes noted a lack of chemistry on the court (especially with Love). That, along with James feeling a little mortality on his 30th birthday, would result in 23 exercising his free agency opt-out after this season if things in the home state continued to slide into mediocrity, Haynes reported.

Cue jersey + lighter fluid.

Immediately, the camera lights turned on Blatt—fomenting the notion that the Hebrew Hoosier was simply there to act as scapegoat should things not go well for LBJ II: On the Move. That Blatt, a Princeton grad who played professional hoops (in Israel) for nine years, is better suited for the Boys’ U12 head coach gig at the JCC of Greater Five Towns handing out orange slices garnished with capers and Dixie cups of Manischewitz at halftime.

From the onset, Blatt seemed outmatched: unable to corral LeBron and unable to get the rest of the team to used to playing with LeBron. A task better suited for a new agey hoops guru like Phil Jackson; or maybe cause to dust off Pat Riley’s Brylcreem cannister for one more go-around.

LeBron, in other words, still needed a mentor-coach. Someone who understood the trappings that went with coaching up your Magics and Michaels.

The difference is, and in every good way imaginable, LeBron is neither of those two. He’s the Radiohead to Jordan and Johnson’s Beatles. They got to write all the songs because the songs simply hadn’t been written yet. LeBron has had to carve out his own identity in the age of athleticism; forge a lasting legacy in the age of instant gratification; make Samsung viable in the age of Apple.

More than any of LeBron’s coaches to date, Blatt has stayed out of the way and let it happen. Stepping in only when necessary, like telling LeBron to put his headband back on. The timing started to click and the results have been dramatic. Cleveland gets a second chance to win its first-ever championship.

Just as chef Curry has started to sprinkle in his own up-tempo offensive sets just east of Hegenberger, LeBron has coaxed deliciousness from his own sourced ingredients: Kyrie Irving, JR Smith, James Jones, Mike Miller and…Matthew Dellavedova (Love is injured and out for the finals). He’s turned also-rans into a winner built in his image: A passing-first mentality, stingy on defense and physical and smart—basically every sideline superlative in the basketball dictionary dumped out on the court.

What you’re about to see in this NBA Finals—a pair of rookie coaches squaring off for a pair of franchises that aren’t used to being in contention after Halloween—has never happened before. This impossible matchup of two terminal losers has the potential to go down as the finest brand of professional basketball in this era.

And maybe a David Blatt or a Steve Kerr will use this opportunity to springboard into the Jackson/Riley guru-o-sphere.

It could happen. After all, they’re being coached up by the best. And the best just happen to be on the floor.

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