It’s been nearly three months since former Cleveland Cavaliers assistant Lindsay Gottlieb was named the next head coach of the Southern California Lady Trojans. In that span, Kenny Atkinson has joined Golden State’s coaching staff. Lloyd Pierce has joined head coach Rick Carlisle in Indiana. Former Minnesota associate coach David Vanterpool has joined Steve Nash’s staff in Brooklyn. Former Phoenix head coach Earl Watson headed far north to join the Toronto Raptors.
All of those aforementioned coaches would have been great replacements for Gottlieb in Cleveland. Atkinson, who is already familiar with Cavs big man Jarrett Allen, could have served as an offensive coordinator for Cleveland. Pierce, meanwhile, is close with head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and was vital to the development of Joel Embiid during his time with the Philadelphia 76ers.
If the Cavs end up taking Evan Mobley with the no. 3 pick, Pierce could’ve been extremely helpful. Vanterpool was key in developing the dynamic tandem of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum while in Portland and connects well with younger players. Finally, with Watson, Phoenix superstar Devin Booker credits his former coach for being the reason for his accelerated development.
For a team like Cleveland who needs to address their backup point guard problem, add wing depth and nail the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, replacing Gottlieb still should be considered a top priority. Seeing all these assistant coaches who can help the Cavs in so many different ways join other teams is frustrating. If they want to continue the route of player development like they did under Gottlieb, any of those coaches would’ve been phenomenal pickups. More than anything, Cleveland needs some semblance of an offensive identity next season so that Bickerstaff, who coordinates the defense, can focus on his specialty and allow the Cavs to play to their maximum potential.
Missing out on all of those aforementioned coaches is a tough loss for the Cavs. But, it doesn’t mean everything’s over for them either. There are still options out there that may seem underwhelming to Atkinson, Pierce, Vanterpool or Watson. But, when you look at their resumes these candidates are impressive and make perfect sense to join Cleveland’s coaching staff.
Take Steve Clifford for example. Clifford was recently relieved of his duties as head coach of the Orlando Magic and, according to league sources, is looking for another opportunity in the league. While Clifford does have some health concerns (he missed 21 games during the 2017-18 season when he coached in Charlotte after problems caused by sleep deprivation, and he left a game at Minnesota in March 2020 after experiencing dizziness caused by dehydration), Clifford would be a great addition to Cleveland’s coaching staff if he would be interested in joining.
During his time with the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets and the Orlando Magic, Clifford established a reputation for maximizing the guards on his roster. Whether it was Kemba Walker or Markelle Fultz, strong guard play has been a staple of Clifford’s offense. Granted, that same offense was vanilla at times in Orlando but if either Garland or Sexton is the straw that stirs Cleveland’s drink then the Cavaliers need to find a coach that will maximize them. Besides, if things do not improve further under J.B. Bickerstaff this season then Clifford could be a swift option to replace him as well.
If a coaching retread doesn’t pique Cleveland’s fancy, then why not go with someone they already know? Serving principally in player development, Denver Nuggets assistant Jordi Fernandez cut his teeth working with young prospects such as Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova. In 2014-15. he was named head coach of the Cavaliers G League affiliate, the Canton Charge. He’d lead the group to two 31-win campaigns and back-to-back playoff appearances. In 2016, he joined Mike Malone’s staff in Denver and has become a well thought of offensive coach during his time with the Nuggets all while continuing his penchant for player development.
Players like Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Malik Beasley, Nikola Jokic and Monte Morris, among others have all grown under Fernandez’s guidance. He also has a degree in sports science and one published report away from a Ph.D. in sports psychology, Fernandez offers an alternative method of connecting with his athletes. In 2009, Fernandez co-authored an academic article titled Identifying and analyzing the construction and effectiveness of offensive plays in basketball by using systematic observation. He has then utilized his mental acumen to not only connect with players but to maximize Denver’s offense as well.
The problem is Denver might throw a wrench in hiring Fernandez. Former associate head coach Wes Unseld Jr. was recently hired as head coach of the Washington Wizards. There’s a good chance that either Fernandez or David Adelman will replace Unseld and if it’s Fernandez that likely nixes his chances of coming to the Cavaliers. But, if it’s instead Adelman and Fernandez were to come to Cleveland, he would be excellent to continue growing as a coach under Bickerstaff. At 38, Fernandez would already join an already young coaching staff but could become the architect of the Cavs’ offense going forward. More than anything, Cleveland needs to address this sooner instead of later before more talented coaches are off the market.
To be fair to the coaches currently on Cleveland’s staff, they have done a lot of great things up to this point. They’ve developed an impressive young core of Garland, Sexton and Isaac Okoro. They’ve also turned Sexton, Cedi Osman and Larry Nance Jr., three non-shooters, into reliable three-point options in little time. There’s still plenty of room for these young Clevelanders to grow into and the current coaching staff will help them reach those new heights. But, the Cavs need to hire an assistant that will take the fruit of the current staff’s labor and help them execute offensively. If they don’t, we’ll just see a repeat of last season which nobody in the end truly wants.