Plenty of questions were raised when the Cleveland Cavaliers surprisingly hired John Beilein early last week. One of the most glaring questions surrounding the former Michigan head coach had to do with the fact that he will be making his NBA coaching debut at the age of 66. While many teams with recent head-coaching vacancies have gone with a younger, more innovative type, the Cavs decided to hire a college basketball head coach with plenty of experience…just none of which has been in the NBA.
I tried my best to answer a number of those questions last week, but with that said, his age and lack of NBA experience seem to be bothersome to many Cavs fans. Beilein might not have any experience in the highest level of basketball in the world, but he has been a head coach at every level — from junior varsity in high school all the way through to Division I college basketball — since 1975, winning at every stop along the way, including being the winningest coach in Michigan men’s basketball history.
While NBA Head Coaching hires have gotten older along with the average age of coaches around the league, at least up until the 2015-16 season, Beilein is still quite an outlier. That doesn’t even count the fact that he’s making his NBA head coaching debut at 66 either.
Regardless of his age, current Los Angeles Clippers consultant and former NBA great Jerry West believes that the Cavaliers made a fantastic decision by taking a chance on Beilein.
“I think at this point in his life, he’s been one of America’s best coaches, and great teachers, has a system that will play, should play very well in the NBA,” West told The Athletic’s Joe Vardon. “Moving the ball, passing, emphasizing a lot of cutting — a thinking kind of an offense, where I think you would hope to eliminate a lot of the one-on-one play, make it more of a team kind of concept. Where people touch the ball more.
“I think he’ll be a great coach, he’s a great person. Couldn’t find a finer person. He’s been a helluva coach for a long time,” he said. “He accomplished everything he had to do at the collegiate level. His teams are great teams, well-coached teams, they play the game the right way, and I think he’ll really resonate with the players he’ll have in Cleveland.”
If he fulfills his contract, Beilein will be the second-oldest coach in NBA history, as he will be 71 years old during his fifth (and final) year of his first contract that he signed with the wine and gold. behind only current San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, who will turn 71 during his 24th season leading the Spurs in 2019-20. Not only will that be quite a feat, but him lasting five years with the Cavs will be quite big as well. A head coach hasn’t lasted five years with the wine and gold since Mike Fratello did so from 1994-99.1
Keep in mind, as it currently stands, there are just nine head coaches around the league that will enter the 2019-20 season with at least five years leading their current team. That means that over two-thirds of the head coaches in the NBA have been leading their respective teams for five years or less. I’m not saying that Beilein won’t be in Cleveland for at least five years, fulfilling his contract, but history also isn’t on his side either, regardless of his age.
Born on February 5, 1953, Beilein will make his debut as the third-oldest head coach in the league, behind only Spurs’ Gregg Popovich (born on January 28, 1949) and Rockets’ Mike D’Antoni (born May 8, 1951). Pelicans’ Alvin Gentry is quite close to that group and was born on November 5, 1954. The most glaring problem is that those three have a combined 35 years of head-coaching experience in the NBA.
While a first-year NBA head coach is almost unheard of, Beilein seems to be a guy that is prepared for the job and also smart enough to delegate some of his responsibilities so the job won’t wear on him as much. That’s essentially the reason the support staff he chooses is so important. Beilein not only wants to hire assistant coaches that have past NBA experience but also ones that will be fine with helping the first-year head coach as well. The Cavs officially hired J.B. Bickerstaff to be the associate head coach and will be one of the league’s top-paid assistants Sunday night. That’s not a bad start.
Along with being an outstanding developer of his players, Beilein has the experience to develop members of his coaching staff as well. If he can do that, it will likely mean that one of the assistants will likely be the next head coach of the Cavaliers when Beilein inevitably retires. Then again, that is far down the road and not something that Cleveland should worry about at the moment.
Maybe, just maybe, Beilein’s age will be a reason he excels with the Cavaliers. He has plenty of experience at every level and has learned from some of the best, all while continuing to improve and master his job as a head coach. His system has obviously worked, but now will it work at the NBA level? The Cavs trust that it will, and if his championship-level coaching ability and age tell us anything, it’s that he believes he can (and hopefully will) as well. His age is surely a concern, but at this point, it’s important to trust the process and believe that Beilein will have success in Cleveland, just like he has at every stop along the way in his coaching career over the last 43 years.