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Cavaliers fail on another outside the box head coaching decision as John Beilein’s departure looms

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It’s hard to build a positive culture when you’re losing.

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers-Press conference David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, my wife and I attended our first Cavs game of the year and we saw a team employee I’ve gotten to know a little over the years. We briefly chatted about this year’s version of the Cavs, and they were happy to talk about the good guys the team had in the locker room. I asked about the head coach, John Beilein, and there was an immediate reticence. My wife and I were assured the Cavs knew what they were getting into, that it was a process.

It’s not at all clear the Cavs did know what they were getting into, and it seems as though Beilein didn’t. And, if reports are to be believed, the process could be over.

It’s tempting to make this about Beilein. He coached for decades in college, an entirely different sphere than the NBA. Players bristled at his approach immediately. The team focused on fundamentals and worked themselves to exhaustion in training camp and a steady stream of leaks about player dissatisfaction has followed through the season. In what feels like an afterthought, the Cavs themselves have gotten worse as the season has gone on. Darius Garland in particular has seemed to hit a wall, and the team’s defense has gotten worse each month - it’s just about fallen off a cliff in February.

But it’s not all on John Beilein, not even close. In fact, many of these issues feel familiar - this same organization went through something very similar with David Blatt just a few years ago. It’s fair to say the force of LeBron James put the Cavs in a tough spot while trying to help Blatt succeed; that issue is in play in Cleveland right now. That context makes it a good time to point out that it’s a player’s league, and you’ll likely be as good as they are. But the Cavs had reason to know that Beilein would have a tough time acclimating. They had seen it firsthand.

Maybe they worked behind the scenes to help him. Reports like this were coming out in preseason from Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

Beilein is a perfectionist. He demands much out of his players. It doesn’t sit well when his team gets embarrassed and loses by 46 points — even in a preseason game. It’s tough to accept getting smashed by the Celtics’ B Team. It’s why Beilein walked off the podium exasperated and talked through his frustrations with one member of the front office about an hour after Tuesday’s game wrapped — a good learning experience of what likely lies ahead.

All of it is academic, though. The Cavs run through coaches faster than the Cleveland Browns, and they’ve done it through a period where they were going to the NBA Finals every year. They’ve talked about building a culture, but if Beilein leaves it’ll be two in a row who at least are publicly intimating that they just don’t want to be there. If you go even further back, Altman’s public reasoning for firing Ty Lue was because he wouldn’t want to oversee a rebuilding effort.

Starting with Mike Brown they’ve routinely made surprising hiring decisions while attempting to think outside the box. They routinely draft players they aren’t projected to take. All of it’s fine if you get decent results, but most of the team’s success has revolved around LeBron James. Again, maybe John Beilein just isn’t up for this; you’re allowed to miss on a hire, but we need to remember who made the hire. I’m not sure we have lessons learned.

On a very basic level, it’s a players league. Teams that have leaned into advanced metrics and have good players and coaches that can bring stability and earn the respect of their players do pretty well. The Cavs are forward-thinking, but are low on good players and seem to keep getting in their own way. The future of the team still relies on Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and Kevin Porter Jr. improving, and the coach doesn’t change that.

A home run pick at head coach isn’t necessary and might not even be possible. Just put together an environment people want to be a part of where the expectations of rebuilding are clear and no one is confused about the end goal. Even when the Philadelphia 76ers were deep into tanking, they had player tracking data measuring effort, and the players were trying to implement a system. Internal competitions at practice and following games based on performance gave players an incentive to work, and they were playing for their spot in the league anyway so it doesn’t even have to be paternalistic or Big Brother-esque.

In Cleveland, we’ve had players sign extensions and then say they were duped by a stated desire to win. We’ve had young players swallow up shots and possessions without repercussions, but then get benched immediately after being slow to get back on defense in the first minute of a game.

It should be appreciated that the Cavs are willing to think outside of the box. One thing the Cavs could make the decision to value is stability, and to understand that sometimes going against the grain is going against the grain for a reason.