First-year Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein has been a head coach at some sort of level — from junior varsity for a high school team all the way through to Division I college basketball — for the past 43 years. With so much experience, you’d think that Beilein wouldn’t have too many unknowns or “firsts” left in the coaching ranks. After deciding to leave Michigan following a very successful 12-year run with the Wolverines, the 66-year-old’s first year in the NBA will be filled with plenty of firsts.
To help ease all of those unfamiliarities, it would be a smart decision for Beilein to bring Luke Yaklich onto his coaching staff as an assistant coach. Yaklich, who spent the last two seasons as one of Beilein’s assistants at Michigan, would not only bring a level of familiarity but his ability to be a defensive specialist and put his team’s in the best position to succeed on that end of the floor is something that is badly needed in Cleveland.
We all know about the Cavs’ struggles defensively over the years, especially since “defensive specialist” Mike Longabardi came into the fold in January 2016.1 It’s gone downhill quite fast since their championship in 2016. Without players such as LeBron James and even Kyrie Irving to bail them out offensively, those struggles defensively have been magnified now that they are rebuilding. If you don’t know or need a reminder, well, let’s take a look:
Prior to Yaklich arriving in Ann Arbor, Michigan struggled defensively as well, at least in college basketball standards.
It’s pretty easy to tell when Yaklich joined Beilein’s staff in Ann Arbor. While Michigan’s somewhat slow pace obviously helps the points allowed per game, the defensive efficiency and points allowed per game shouldn’t go unnoticed. Yaklich played an instrumental role in transforming the Wolverines’ defense the last two seasons. Their mindset and dominance defensively under Yaklich was something that was noticed around all college basketball circles.
You could argue that the college game is much different than the NBA game, whether it be the level of talent, different court dimensions, or anything of that nature, but like Beilein, Yaklich should be able to transition his style to the highest level.
Like Beilein, Yaklich also doesn’t have any NBA experience. Then again, that’s part of the reason the Cavs have already hired J.B. Bickerstaff to be the top assistant and associate head coach on Beilein’s staff in Cleveland.
He not only has the experience but like Beilein, Bickerstaff is considered a players’ coach. With a rebuilding team that features a somewhat young core, having coaches like that is key. Even when (and most likely if) Beilein has trouble connecting with NBA players at times throughout his time with the Cavs, Bickerstaff will be his right-hand man to help with that and help ease the transition from coaching college kids to professionals.
I’m not saying that Bickerstaff is out to take Beilein’s job, but him being the next head coach — whether it be when Beilein eventually retires down the road or can’t transition his coaching expertise to the NBA and is inevitably fired before finishing out the five-year contract — seems inevitable, at least early on. It’s like Bickerstaff is the head-coach-in-waiting, essentially. Unless he takes a head coaching job elsewhere, he’ll be the next man up in Cleveland. It’s not like Dan Gilbert hasn’t done this before. In fact, he did it just five years ago. When the Cavs hired first-year NBA head coach David Blatt, they brought Tyronn Lue onto his staff as an associate head coach. Less than two years later, Blatt was fired and Lue was named the head coach. While that turned into the Cavaliers winning the NBA title in 2016, something also needs to be said about the fact that GIlbert’s decisions regarding the top assistant on a first-year NBA head coach’s coaching staff as well.
With Yaklich, Beilein will always have an assistant that is in his corner, one that isn’t out to get his job. Beilein obviously had a say in the hiring of Bickerstaff, but it doesn’t mean that the latter is out to look for a head-coaching gig again sooner rather than later either. During the tough days during every NBA season, Beilein will always be able to count on Yaklich, for both through both good and the bad.
Yaklich has two decades of coaching experience. While most of that came at the high school level, he was an assistant at Illinois State from 2013-17 before joining Beilein’s staff in Ann Arbor the last two seasons.
If Beilein wants to bring Yaklich onto his staff, it won’t be as easy as just picking up the phone, knowing that the assistant would accept the job immediately. With Juwan Howard taking Beilein’s job at Michigan, the former NBA player and first-year head coach might try and find a way to keep Yaklich simply because of his dominance defensively and due to him being familiar with the Wolverines. Also, Shaka Smart is trying to add Yaklich to his staff at Texas as well. Besides the Longhorns being a potential roadblock for Yaklich joining the wine and gold, his son is entering his senior year of high school this fall, which might mean that Yaklich will want to stay in Ann Arbor for at least one more year. Then again, due to his familiarity with Beilein, Yaklich could decide that following him to Cleveland could be what’s best. With that said, Beilein’s wife will stay in Ann Arbor for at least another year while the Cavs’ new head coach rents a place near Cleveland, according to The Athletic’s Joe Vardon. Maybe, just maybe, Yaklich can do the same while his family remains in Michigan.
As a first-year head coach in the highest level of basketball in the world, Beilein needs to make his transition to the NBA as easy and painless as possible. Bringing along Yaklich from Michigan to his staff in Cleveland would not only be a familiar face but someone the head coach can count on during the difficult days throughout the long, tough grind that is the NBA season. Yaklich would not only be someone that Beilein can trust to have his back, but his ability to turn a team’s defense into an elite group is something the Cavaliers badly need. Only time will tell, but to get off on the right foot in Cleveland, hiring Yaklich as his second assistant coach seems like a win-win for Beilein.