When the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Michigan men’s basketball head coach John Beilein Monday morning, it shocked everyone and took the NBA world by storm. Since the wine and gold’s season ended, the Cavs have interviewed a handful of candidates, a number of which have past connections to the Cavaliers. Prior to Monday, Beilein’s name was never linked to Cleveland, both in interviews or as a potential candidate, at least this offseason.
Dating back to 2010, when Gilbert tried to hire Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo but was rejected, the owner has seemingly always wanted to hire a Michigan man. Well, even though Beilein may not be a Spartan, he did just that. The Beilein hire was not only out of left field, but made quite a splash, something that Gilbert loves to do.
While General Manager Koby Altman was busy traveling the country the past couple weeks, interviewing potential head coach candidates, Gilbert took the time this past weekend to do his own interview, with the now-head coach Beilein. With Altman out of town, Gilbert took it upon himself to interview Beilein. Say what you want about that process, but the owner is going to do what the owner is going to do. It’s obvious that Gilbert wanted Beilein to be the guy. This weekend, the former Michigan head coach proved to Gilbert that he can and wants to be the guy to lead the Cavaliers through a rebuilding process and eventually back into the postseason, a position the Cavs want to be in sooner rather than later.
He may not have any connections to Cleveland or even Ohio, but there is one key connection Beilein does have to Gilbert: Michigan. Gilbert lives and works in Detroit. He may be a Michigan State alum, but he has admired Belein’s work with the Wolverines, much like the college basketball world has for quite some time. The owner isn’t the only one with a connection either. Cavs Assistant General Manager Mike Gansey played for Beilein when he was a head coach at West Virginia.
“(Beilein) defines the words class, integrity and character,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said in a statement. “He is a tireless worker who obsesses about finding better ways and the inches that will help his team and the organization grow. John is a brilliant basketball mind and last but not least, John Beilein is a winner.
“I can’t wait for next season to begin.”
There’s plenty to look forward to concerning the professional basketball team that resides on the shores of Lake Erie. Entering their 50th season of existence, they have a solid young core that has plenty of hope and promise all while they are set to play in an arena that has undergone not only a name change but state-of-the-art renovations that will be finished prior to the 2018-19 season tipping off as well. Add in the fact that they will find out if they have the No. 1 pick (or even No. 2 or 3) in the upcoming 2019 NBA Draft and well, Cavs fans have plenty to be excited about. Now you add in a guy like Beilein and while there may be plenty of unknowns about the wine and gold concerning both the immediate future and further down the road, there’s also plenty to look forward to as well. It’s a new era of Cavs basketball, one that has plenty of questions and unknowns, but also one that has plenty of excitement and optimism as well.
Now, the Cavaliers get to find out if Beilein’s success at Michigan will translate to the NBA.
Let’s weigh some of the pros and cons of adding Belein:
It’s quite simple: The man has won everywhere he has gone.
After attending Wheeling Jesuit University from 1971-75, Beilein began his coaching career as a junior varsity coach at Newfane High School. After spending three years at the high school level, he served as the head coach at Erie Community College from 1978-82. Then came him leading the way at Le Moyne College from 1983-1992. After that, he was the head coach at Canisius College until 1997. Then came the Unversity of Richmond, where he led the Spiders from 1997-2002. After leading the Mountaineers for five seasons, he was named the head coach of the Wolverines, where he has been leading Michigan up until Monday morning.
The common denominator for all of these stops: He has been a winner. While leading his teams to exceed expectations every step of the way, Beilein has also never been an assistant coach. In ever stop since starting his coaching career in 1975, he has been the head coach. That alone shows you the type of person and leader he truly is.
Belein has a 571-325 record in Division I basketball since first taking the Canisius job in 1992. In 12 years at Michigan, he accumulated 278-150 record,1 nine NCAA Tournament appearances, two Final Four appearances, two Big Ten Regular Season Championships, and two Big Ten Tournament titles. He took Michigan to the National Championship in both 2013 and 2018. The head coach also guided the Wolverines to three straight trips to the Sweet 16 each of the past three years. To top it off, he had 18 All-Big Ten selections and nine NBA Draft picks. Beilein was also named the CBS Sports National Coach of the Year in 2018 and Big Ten Coach of the Year in 2014.
While his success and winning translating to the NBA is still an unknown, the fact that he has won at every stop during his long, tenured coaching career says a lot.
Beilein will be making his NBA coaching debut this fall at 66 years old. While age is really just a number, something can be said about that, too. Many teams in need of a head coach seem to want a young, innovative person. While Beilein may be a bit innovative, he’s also not young. In fact, 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.
Thanks to Basketball-Reference, we know that the average age of both NBA head coaches and NBA Head Coaching hires have gotten older, at least up until the 2015-16 season, but Beilein is still quite an outlier no matter how we put it.
Hope he proves the ones doubting his age wrong, but a first-year NBA head coach at the age of 66 isn’t something that happens too often.
There are always a number of different questions that people — fans and reporters alike — have when a college coach is hired to lead an NBA team. One of the handful of questions that are asked is if said coach’s style, both offensively and defensively, will transition to the NBA.
The good news is that Beilein’s offense at Michigan should be quite an easy transition to the Cavs, at least in the halfcourt. One of the most obvious and biggest parts of any offense in the NBA are ball screens. Whether it be to get a mismatch or just to create space, ball screens are in every offense. Beilein’s Wolverines did plenty of that.
Michigan ran ball screens to finish 38.7% of its possessions last season — which ranked 4th in Division 1.
For context, Utah led the NBA by running ball screens to finish 40.1% of its possessions this season.
Don’t think Beilein will have any issues in that department
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 13, 2019
As noted, Beilein ran a very modern offense at Michigan. Below is a chart showing how often Michigan finished a possession each type of play over the last three seasons (note the high usage of ball screens/spot ups)
Percentage-wise it most resembles ATL/UTA/CHA on the NBA side pic.twitter.com/07pOL9bZ0b
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 13, 2019
One thing that isn’t captured here is that Michigan also runs a lot of cuts/flare screens off their ball screen action to get guys good looks. Will try to have more as the day goes on
— Mike Zavagno (@MZavagno11) May 13, 2019
The only thing that Beilein will absolutely have to change is his pace of play offensively. Michigan was consistently one of the slowest teams in Division I over the years. Given the new-look, run-and-gun NBA game nowadays, that will have to drastically change. Add in the fact that Sexton loves playing in a fast offense and well, I’m sure Beilein will adjust (and improve) that part of his coaching.
It will take him a little while to learn the tendencies of the NBA, its players and teams, and even the growing steps that are learning the difference between the college game and NBA, but Beilein seems to be willing to put the work in, all while already having a solid foundation as well. That’s the only thing that truly matters.
As previously mentioned, Beilein is 66 years old and has no experience coaching in the NBA. He has over four decades of coaching experience, but none of that is at the highest level of basketball in the world.
With that said, he can help himself by hiring assistants that have plenty of NBA experience. If he can add those types of coaches to his staff, that will help his transition immensely and make it much smoother.
The good news is that Beilein seems to already be doing that. According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the wine and gold are looking to add JB Bickerstaff as an associate head coach. Like Beilein’s multiple connections inside the Cavs organization, JB also has one. JB’s dad, Bernie, is a Cavs advisor.
One of the most sought-after top assistants on the market, Bickerstaff has three years of experience as a head coach in the NBA (2015-16 with the Rockets and 2017-19 with the Grizzlies) and 11 years as an assistant in the NBA. Also, he was well liked by his players during his time in Memphis, which means a lot as well.
While the other assistants Belein and the Cavs decide to hire are important, potentially getting Bickerstaff on the staff is a solid start.
Some may argue that they should get a more innovative, younger mind as the lead assistant, a person that can eventually take over for Beilein, but an argument can also be made that having a lead assistant with as much experience as Bickerstaff is important as well.
We all know about the Cavs’ struggles defensively over the years. If you don’t know or need a reminder, well, let’s take a look:
There’s a reason I started with the 2015-16 season. Midway through that season, on January 24, 2016, to be exact, Cleveland added veteran assistant Mike Longabardi to then-head coach Tyronn Lue’s staff after he was let go by the Phoenix Suns. Longabardi was supposed to be a defensive specialist. He was far from that.
Notice the trend? As the past four seasons have gone on, the Cavs’ defense has become substantially worse, culminating in being the second-worst defense in the league in 2017-18 and by far the worst in the league (by 2.5 points per the defensive rating) this past season.
While the college game is much different than the NBA, Beilein’s defenses during his time at Michigan have been solid, to say the least. While their pace of play helped with that, we shouldn’t overlook their effectiveness defensively either:
Whoever Beilein decides to hire as his defensive specialist will all but certainly be an upgrade over Longabardi, we just have to wait and see how much of an upgrade it will be.
When discussing coaching candidates this offseason, there has been one phrase that has been talked about a lot for the Cavs: They wanted someone that is a “culture driver”. Beilein seems to fit that mold perfectly.
“John is one of the most accomplished and innovative basketball minds and leaders in the entire game,” said Altman. “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 Beilein wins everywhere he goes.”
Winning makes things much easier, but a head coach who can keep a positive culture around his team is very, very important. Whether it be team chemistry or just the overall camaraderie throughout the entire organization, the better it is, the more success the team will have. It’s easy to play for one another and appreciate your teammates and coaches when everyone likes and appreciates one another.
There’s a reason Beilein has won at every place he has coached. He knows how to communicate with his players. He knows how to give constructive criticism. He now must prove that he can come at the present-day athlete as in a professional that’s making millions of dollars rather than a college student-athlete.
Former Cavs and Michigan guard Nik Stauskas had some high praise for Beilein last season. He played for Beilein’s Wolverines from 2012-2014 before leaving early for the NBA.
“Just his attention to detail. He just watches so much film. I remember being there and re-watching all of our practices – like after we finished practice, we’d go in the film room and break down the whole practice,” Stauskas said.
“So, it was time consuming at the time and sometimes it was a little bit boring, but through doing that, you get such a deeper understanding of his offense and what he’s trying to do when to make the right reads. And I think, over time, you just buy into that constant studying and that constant learning and just being willing to grow.”
Beilein is known as a coach that is a great developer of talent and that’s exactly what he will try and do with the Cavaliers. While veterans such Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson, among others, are already established, maximizing younger players such as Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman, among others, is vitally important for the future of the Cavs. During his time up north, Beilein did a great job at both developing his players and getting the best out of them, all while seemingly exceeding expectations year in and year out.
Him accepting the Cavs’ job makes it obvious, but Beilein is ready for the challenge that lies ahead with the wine and gold.
“I felt very strongly about this new and exciting opportunity with the Cavaliers. I am very thankful to Dan Gilbert and Koby Altman and honored to be the head coach of the Cavaliers. I love the position the team is in to build and grow and this was something I felt was the perfect fit for me,” Beilein said. “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. Cleveland is a great city with amazing fans and I am really looking forward to calling Cleveland home for years to come.”
Beilein turned down jobs such as the Pistons and Magic last summer. The fact that he rejected the Detroit head coaching gig, which meant that he wouldn’t have had to move, while accepting the Cavs’ job just a year later says a lot, too. Then again, with a solid core, financial flexibility in the near future, and potentially having the No. 1 pick in the upcoming 2019 NBA Draft helps a lot, too.
With Beilein now in the fold, he is expected to join the Cavs’ front office and Gilbert in Chicago for the NBA Draft Lottery Tuesday night and draft combine this week. Now, it’s time to shift the focus to the draft and surrounding the new head coach with a solid group of assistants.