Young J.B. Bickerstaff Is Building A Winning Culture In Cleveland | The Post-LeBron Era Has Finally Begun

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

When the Cleveland Cavaliers signed head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to a deal after just ten games as interim head coach in 2020, they had no idea he’d have the young and struggling franchise playing this well in 2021. 

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Post-LeBron James life has been a nightmare for Cavs fans, but following the departure of then head coach John Beilein in 2020 Bickerstaff was given the interim tag and showed some serious promise and leadership.

Bickerstaff is pretty much a basketball and NBA lifer. He’s the son of longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff, who currently is also working for the Cavaliers in their front office, serving as senior basketball advisor.

The younger Bickerstaff is just what the exuberant Cavaliers need in a leader. Someone who can relate and navigate the youth movement while still coaching them up and giving them the type of leadership that former coach Beilein couldn’t.

Beilein’s actions of referring to the team as “thugs” following a loss, plus his overall handling of the franchise had veterans pushing for his exit. They were all on board with Bickerstaff, the well-respected assistant who treated them like men, taking control. 

 

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During the 2020-21 season the Cavaliers suffered numerous injuries and finished 22-51. The team’s most-used lineup of Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro, Larry Nance Jr, and Jarrett Allen played a grand total of 10 games and 141 minutes as a unit. This season’s opening night starting unit — Garland, Sexton, Okoro, Love and Allen — played just seven games together in 2020-21.

Cleveland has been the most surprising team in the league.The forgotten franchise is making a comeback and playing meaningful basketball. Quicken Loans Arena is rocking for the first time since LeBron bounced for the second time after delivering the championship he promised his home city of Akron, Ohio.  

The team has used an infusion of youth with the aforementioned Garland, who’s averaging a career-high 19 points and seven assists this season; Allen, who’s averaging a double-double at 17 and 11; Okoro, a true three and defense guy; and rookie Evan Mobley, a two-way big drafted No. 3 overall. Plus some crafty vets in Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, who’ve brought leadership, experience and savvy to the young Cavs. But it’s Bickerstaff who makes it all go with his even-keeled but hard-nosed approach.

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Rubio is the catalyst, and even opposing coaches are speaking about it. Last week Timberwolves head coach Chris Finch had a strong take on the new-look Cavs. 

“Unique team. Really like this team,” Finch said. “JB has done an amazing job with these guys and his staff. You can see the effect that Ricky’s had on them there. They really move the ball. They play with a high IQ.”

That youthful energy blended with experienced vets has led to an 8-2 road record over the past ten games, and a 20.3-point win margin over the past six games.

Bickerstaff Has Paid His Dues

JB began his NBA coaching career in 2004. The 42-year-old had multiple assistant coaching roles and two head coaching stints prior to joining the Cavs in 2019-20. In 2015-16 he was the interim coach for the Rockets, where they went 37-34 and made the playoffs.

JB removed his name from the team’s head coach search and took a job with the Memphis Grizzlies following the season. Bickerstaff was eventually hired as an associate head coach, then promoted to interim head coach after the team fired David Fizdale.

Bickerstaff coached two seasons as the head coach going 15-48 and 33-49, much of that with the team in transition and without star point guard Mike Conley Jr.

He was fired following the 2018-19 season and hired by the Cavs.

Cavs Hiring Of Bickerstaff Showed Belief In Him As Leader

Upon his hiring, the team was 14-40 under Beilein and being blown out with regularity. In the ten games prior to Bickerstaff’s contract extension the team went 5-5 and showed some real signs of life that had been missing under Beilein. Their scoring jumped eight points per game from 103 to 111 per outing, and their defensive effort even improved. Wins over title contenders in the Miami Heat, Philadelphia Sixers and Denver Nuggets helped his cause as well.

Locker room chemistry has reportedly improved immensely under Bickerstaff, as an unnamed player says it’s like “night and day” compared to when Beilein was at the helm. He also said Beilein “didn’t know how to talk to people.”

Bickerstaff’s experience and the Cavs’ play this season have become a prime example of allowing a young coach to develop some real talent and build a culture. So far Bickerstaff is doing a masterful job of it, and his team is responding. This is the first real sign of possible sustained success without LeBron James. No, they’re not contenders just yet, but the road doesn’t look nearly as bleak as it once did prior to JB Bickerstaff as the coach.


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