clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

J.B. Bickerstaff is the unsung hero of the Cavaliers’ rebuild

Bickerstaff has established a long-needed culture of accountability, focus and commitment.

NBA: Preseason-Philadelphia 76ers at Cleveland Cavaliers David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Cavaliers are, on paper, one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference.

A few years ago, post LeBron James, that seemed like an impossible statement to fathom. It is hard to pinpoint one particular moment being the turning point for this organization. Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen breaking out as All-Stars could be one. Drafting Evan Mobley is another. But one point that is often overlooked is the hiring, and extending, of head coach J.B Bickerstaff.

Following a disastrous few-month stretch leading the Cavs, John Beilein mercifully resigned from his post in Cleveland. From the very beginning, that relationship seemed doomed to failure — even before the “slugs” incident. Waiting in the wings was Bickerstaff, who was hired as Beilein’s assistant and veteran NBA voice. Bickerstaff spent several seasons picking up the pieces of a fired coach in the case of Houston and Memphis. Well, add Cleveland to that list.

Nearly all of the time, except for perhaps Tyronn Lue taking over for David Blatt and winning a championship, changing coaches in the middle of the season is a disaster. Winning games is not even a real concern in this instance. Forget winning games, just keeping the peace in the locker room and get guys focused to play basketball. A midseason coaching change is a band aid.

But the Cavs were not just in damage control following Beilein’s resignation. They started to show signs of life, and even win. Cleveland went 5-6 in the 11 games Bickerstaff coached before COVID-19 suspended the NBA season. No, the Cavaliers did not suddenly become juggernauts, but the team looked…different. Former Cavs coach Mike Fratello noticed it too.

“He got them to start caring about winning games and care about each other,” Fratello said. “That’s not easy when you take over in a situation like that. He stayed very positive, even after losses. They moved the ball better. He pulled things together.”

Kevin Love, who was at historic levels of pouty during the first few years post-LeBron, had a rosier disposition too. “People throw around the word ‘culture’ a lot, but because of who he is, his background his father being in the league for so long, he has a chance to improve and do something special,” Love said. He holds himself to a high standard and he holds us to a high standard. He really has a voice.”

“I can’t say enough good things about J.B. For me and him, it’s bigger than basketball. I want to be part of this solution with him because I believe in J.B.”

That voice is critical, especially for a young team searching for direction. They need leadership during a tumultuous time and want to be put in a position to succeed. Tyronn Lue was on his way out after James left. Larry Drew quite nearly quit basketball forever while coaching the team on an interim basis. We know the story with Beilein already, and it was an unmitigated disaster. Collin Sexton had four different coaches during his brief time in Cleveland. (Not exactly conducive to growth.) Bickerstaff took a really, really poor situation and started to turn the wheel in the other direction. And as a result, the organization saw improvement.

It is easy to overlook a head coach during a rebuild and focus on the players. Spoelstra did not gain league-wide respect until their Big Three broke up. Steve Kerr was the guy coaching Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Taylor Jenkins is still relatively unknown, despite the Grizzlies being one of the best young teams in the league last year. Kenny Atkinson and Brett Brown, both relieved of their duties once the young scrappy teams they molded started to have higher aspirations, are afterthoughts. But all of these coaches created a culture that protected players, allowed them to grow and improve, and assured maintained focus.

Say what you will about the Cavaliers trading Kevin Porter Jr. for essentially nothing following an animated locker-room outburst, but it was a culture move. Many teams would have swept something like that under the rug and tried to get back to winning. That takes a tremendous level of discipline, focus, and luck. Steve Jobs is quoted as saying that focus is about saying “no” to things, which is easier said than done. Cleveland said “no” to letting the outburst go without action and focused on building the culture they wanted. The Cavs were not in a position to provide that structure for Porter Jr. to succeed, so they traded him. It has worked out for both sides.

Creating a culture is exactly what Bickerstaff has done, and it has made all the difference. It resonates with players when their head coach sets the table and prioritizes accountability. “He’s able to be the dominant figure as the head coach, keep us in line and everything,” Jarrett Allen said. “But at the same time, he’s able to connect with us as players.”

“The one thing that I really appreciate from him, he’s always going to be honest with you. It’s just super easy to go talk to someone like that,” Garland said. “He can talk about music or anything, really. J.B., he’s a special guy. “There’s not a lot of people like this in the league, in my opinion.”

“All these things that happen — and I think it’s extremely important that we shine a light on it — is because of those guys in the locker room,” Bickerstaff said last season. “None of this happens if they don’t believe if they don’t buy in, if they don’t commit to what we’re trying to do.” The focus should go on those guys and how they’ve committed to one another and committed to the team.”

Buy-in. Commit. Focus. All things that the Cavaliers instilled as an organization because of J.B. Bickerstaff. And all things leading the Cavaliers from the bottom of the Eastern Conference to playoff mainstay.