The decision was a surprise. The timing was not.
With one day to go until the NBA Draft Lottery and Combine begin in Chicago, the Cleveland Cavaliers made a shocking hire as the organization’s next head coach—John Beilein.
“I feel very strongly about this new and exciting opportunity with the Cavaliers,” Beilein said in the team press release. “I love the position the team is in to build and grow and this was something I felt was the perfect fit for me.
“With hard work and dedication by all of us, we will grow this team day by day and reinforce a culture of success that sustains itself with strong core values.”
The former headman at the University of Michigan has a reputation that precedes itself at the collegiate level. In 41 years of being a head coach, Beilein has put together a career record of 829-468 (.639) between seven different schools in four different states. This ranges all the way from junior college to all three divisions of the NCAA.
Beilein’s compiled quite the list of accolades in his journey: Three conference coach of the year awards, national coach of the year recognition, two NCAA Final Four appearances as the runner-up champion, an NIT Championship win and multiple conference championships, regular season and tournament.
At 66 years old, there’s no denying Beilein has a wealth of experience in his field—just not at in the professional ranks. The hardest hitting question about the longtime veteran will be whether or not his coaching philosophy and success will translate to the NBA.
When Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman and his committee first set out to begin the head coaching search after Larry Drew mutually agreed to part ways with the franchise, he was open to hiring any person who “checked the boxes” of what the franchise was looking for.
Altman made it a priority to find a person that understands and values the importance of player development above all else, citing that the commitment will be focused on growth rather than strictly outcome.
“I think we have to be obsessed with the process of getting better, not so much results-driven,” Altman said after the end of the season.
Altman mentioned sustainability and “the right fit” multiple times when he spoke of the franchise’s desired qualifications. The term “culture driver” was the go-to word in the team’s front office during the search.
“John is one of the most accomplished and innovative basketball minds and leaders in the entire game,” Altman said in the team press release. “He has a unique ability to create an outstanding culture that will promote the development of young players and provide a solid structure to the entire program—not to mention the fact that John Beilein wins everywhere he goes.
“We are excited Coach Beilein is joining our organization as we continue to build the foundation that any enterprise needs to be successful and competitive year in and year out.”
While the primary knock on Beilein is that he’s old, there’s little room to criticize the job he’s done connecting to his players. If you need proof, just look at the recent string of draft picks that have come out of Ann Arbor.
As Ross Homan of The Stepien pointed out, Beilein has taken a number of overlooked high school prospects and brought the best out of them. Tim Hardaway Jr., Caris LeVert, Trey Burke, Glenn Robinson III, Nik Stauskas, D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner are all prime examples of first-round draft picks to make it to the NBA level. Darius Morris and Mitch McGary are also a part of that list.
Say what you want about any of their respective careers in the association—Beilein played an integral part in getting them there in the first place. Now it’s his turn to make the jump and try his hand.
Beilein won’t do it without a familiar face in the building, either. During his stay at West Virginia University, he had a sharpshooting upperclassman guard that lit up Morgantown every time his feet hit the floor.
The player’s name was Mike Gansey, who has since climbed the front office executive ladder into becoming Cleveland’s assistant general manager as Altman’s right-hand man. He’s been in a leadership role with the entire organization since his days overseeing the Canton Charge.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert may have had the final say in this deal—Beilein met with him face-to-face last Friday—but Gansey’s relationship with his former head coach in all likelihood became a deciding factor amongst the rest of the field.
Obviously, first-time NBA coaches coming from college are a wildcard. Though, your most recent examples are Billy Donovan with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Brad Stevens with the Boston Celtics, and considering the lack of success their predecessors had, those two have done a fine job adjusting.
Winning in the NBA and winning in the NCAA are two totally different things. Getting adults to buy into what you’re selling can be a tall task, especially when a good amount of these professionals are set in their ways. You’re not molding minds of “kids” anymore who are solely focused on basketball. Many players have already been taught different approaches from multiple coaches and are branching out into business ventures outside of the sport.
Beilein will be the third person to take the college-to-pro leap in the last six years. Unlike Stevens was, he’s not an up-and-coming candidate. Similar to Donovan’s path, he has well over 20 years of collegiate head coaching experience.
Not relating to either of them, Beilein is a senior citizen who will be the third-oldest head coach in the NBA behind Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni. So yes, he’s a college coach – but based on his knowledge of the game spanning over four decades and his age, it’s not your prototypical college coach taking the next step.
For most teams in the association, this would be a curious move. However, Cleveland is in a very unique spot at the moment.
There are no veterans in the locker room with a big head, including All-Star team leader Kevin Love and championship-minded players such as Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova.
Between Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman and Ante Zizic, there are a number of promising young players whose learning curves are just beginning. Larry Nance Jr. is just entering his prime years. With a couple of first-round picks in the upcoming NBA Draft, there could be two more high-quality rookie talents to join the fray.
A good ol’ fashion ego clashing does the trick for the brunt of coaching dismissals and trade demands. We see it all the time around the league.
But this Cavaliers group doesn’t seem to have any of that in-house disconnectedness. For a team coming off a 19-win season after four NBA Finals appearances and the loss of LeBron James, that’s quite stunning.
The second half of the season was a glimpse of what Cleveland could become with the proper guidance. They stayed loose and remain fixated on the task at hand—a hunger to win as one, which is ideal for Beilein’s motion offense equipped with passing and constant movement with off-ball cutting.
Altman said before the search that working with the front office analytics department would be a key component in finding a leader. Beilein’s teams have embraced spreading the floor to create lanes for drivers and to open up space for shooters on the perimeter—a system that, on paper, should work well in a league where appropriate shot selection is paramount to success.
Being surrounded with an experienced NBA staff with an associate head coach would help lift some of the weight off Beilein’s shoulders. Inheriting a team of players with established relationships will undoubtedly make things easier, as will the lack of selfishness, on his transition as well.
But will he be able to transfer that into a natural on-court chemistry consistently?
We won’t know until September.
The Cavaliers are eager to find out.