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The Cleveland Cavaliers Part Ways With J.B. Bickerstaff

(Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

In what is assumed to be the first of many moves in a franchise-altering offseason, the Cleveland Cavaliers let go of head coach J.B. Bickerstaff after five seasons. Bickerstaff took over as interim head coach after Jon Beilien’s tumultuous tenure. He went a respectable 170-159, considering the roster he took over. He also led the Cavaliers to the playoffs for two straight years, including an appearance in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Given that, Bickerstaff’s firing may come as a surprise. Some pundits have lashed out at the move. Don’t get it twisted, though; this was a necessary and correct move for the Cavaliers.


Rebuilding vs. Competing

FILE - Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff shouts at his team during the first half of Game 6 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, Friday, May 3, 2024, in Orlando, Fla. Bickerstaff was fired as Cleveland's coach on Thursday, May 23, 2024, despite leading the Cavaliers through an injury-ravaged season and into the second round of the NBA playoffs. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

John Raoux/AP Photo

To give Bickerstaff his flowers, he was an excellent developmental coach. He transformed a terrible Cavs team into a pretty good one quite quickly. Darius Garland notably blossomed under him, and Evan Mobley has been solid as well. He established a good culture from a fairly negative one (let’s not forget the slug incident under Beilein), and that’s very important for a young team that is losing a lot. The locker room was tight under Bickerstaff, and his players rarely, if ever, got into any sort of trouble, unlike, say, the Charlotte Hornets. Overseeing the rebuild was Bickerstaff’s job, and he did it well.

A title contender requires different skills, though. Bickerstaff didn’t show much offensive game planning, especially in the playoffs. Under Bickerstaff, the Cavaliers finished above 100 points in the playoffs just five times in 17 games. There were confusing rotations, a lack of timely timeouts, and few plays drawn to get players in spots to succeed.

For example, Sam Merrill was a revelation during the regular season with his three-point shooting. Merrill playing at all is its own discussion, but when he was in, he never felt like he was ever set up to do the one thing he is on the court to do, which is shoot threes. In six of his 12 games, he didn’t make a three, and in three of those, he didn’t even shoot one. Getting Merrill clean looks from deep should’ve been a major focus whenever he was in, and it never was. Bickerstaff also never improved on his awful out-of-timeout plays, always ranking near the bottom in efficiency during his tenure. 

Mark Jackson’s Golden State Warriors tenure is a somewhat contemporary comparison. The Warriors were a pretty terrible franchise for the late 90s and early 2000s, but Jackson managed to turn that into a playoff team in the always-tough West. At the same time, it never looked like the Warriors would become actual contenders with him, with many of the same complaints levied against Bickerstaff now attributed to Jackson back then. In the first season after Jackson, the Warriors would go on to win the championship (they were knocked out in the first round the year before) and start a dynasty. 


(Not) Making it Work

Another failure attributed to Bickerstaff was the inability to get the Cavs admittedly odd roster construction to work. Integrating two similar guards and two similar bigs was a challenge, and over the course of the two years with the core four, it became clear Bickerstaff was not the guy to get it to happen. To be fair to him, perhaps nobody can. There is good reason that that core four will almost assuredly break up this offseason as well. Whatever happens, though, one guard and one big combo almost always looked better than when all four were together.

This season, the Cavs went on their big winning streak while Garland and Mobley were out. Jarrett Allen turned in the best season of his career due to that. During the playoffs, Mobley faced heavy criticism against the Orlando Magic. Then Allen went out, and Mobley showed superstar potential against the Boston Celtics. Perhaps no coach could make a roster like this into a contender. Still, not making it work is hardly a checkmark for a resume.

The various hit pieces that came out following their elimination by the Celtics were the final nail in the coffin. With the Cavs’ priority to re-sign Donovan Mitchell at all costs, it did not help Bickerstaff when articles came out that Mitchell was questioning team practices. It was also revealed that Garland wants out if Mitchell re-signs. Not only that, but players were questioning Allen’s inability to play injured, showing cracks in the locker room that weren’t there before. Perhaps the most telling of all, reporter Brian Windhorst said the Cavs FO did not see retaining Bickerstaff as an asset in re-signing Mitchell. That implies Mitchell has no love lost for the former head coach. 


What’s Next

Schwalm/Associated Press

Of course, all eyes turn towards his replacement. Kenny Atkinson has head coaching experience (with Jarrett Allen) and has been looking for head coaching jobs. Atkinson didn’t light the world on fire in Brooklyn, with one standout season in 2018-2019. He has since been an assistant on some really good teams, including the 21-22 championship Warriors. James Borrego, who last head-coached the Charlotte Hornets, is also a popular name. While he was not terribly successful with the Hornets, they usually had a good offense, something the Cavs have lacked.

Some other hot names are Minnesota Timberwolves assistant Micah Nori and Celtics assistant Sam Cassell. They could inject new blood into the coaching scene rather than retread someone like Frank Vogel, another option. Rounding out the list are longshots like JJ Redick and Quin Snyder if he decides to leave Atlanta.

Patrick Yen is a contributor on Back Sports Page.  He has written for NBC, SB Nation and a few more websites in his four-year sports journalism career. He has been the Back Sports Page beat writer for the Philadelphia 76ers and now the Cleveland Cavaliers. Patrick, a graduate from the Ohio State University, was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but moved to Columbus, Ohio early in his life and has lived there ever since. You can find more of Patrick on Twitter @pyen117.

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