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Keeping Contact

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff Talks About Keeping His Squad Close and Navigating a New Future
by Joe Gabriele Beat Writer

Keeping Contact

Coach J.B. Bickerstaff Talks About Keeping His Squad Close and Navigating a New Future

It’s been said that two types of people can spot a fake – little kids and NBA players. And in that respect, it’s easy to see why the latter group responds so well to Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

Without being overly optimistic, Bickerstaff spoke with the collective local media on Wednesday – painting a picture of a different world when play resumes, but also providing a hopeful path to said scenario.

And, yes, he’s doing the same things most Americans are – binging on Netflix and “The Last Dance,” doing Zoom meetings with work and family and doubling as principal and PE instructor for his kids.

With Ohio beginning to ease restrictions on businesses, the Cavaliers practice facility will open for players to conduct individual workouts. But as Bickerstaff explained, it’s limited to one coach and one player under one basket, with a recommended 12-foot gap between them.

Just 11 games into his tenure as Cavs coach, he knows he and his staff will have a big coaching challenge when the guys return.

”The distancing thing is going to be a challenge and for us, in particular, as coaches and leaders,” said the 41-year-old Bickerstaff. “A lot of the contact that we make with our guys is meaningful, whether it's a pat on the butt or arm around the shoulder. You know those interactions carry a ton of weight for guys and being a part of a team.”

Cavs Coach J.B. Bickerstaff had the Cavaliers playing their best ball of the season before the COVID-19 health crisis brought the season to a halt.
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Through the ZOOM app, Bickerstaff’s been able to keep in constant contact with his players, all of who are eager to get back on the hardwood.

”They're all hopeful,” Bickerstaff said. “This is what these guys do – they show up they go to work. There was a conscious decision for our guys to choose to play a team sport. With their athleticism and skill, they could have picked a range of sports to participate in, and they chose a team sport. And when you're used to being a part of a pack, you get comfortable there and that's where you know you want to be.

Bickerstaff has gotten the “pack” together on calls, and while it’s not the same as breaking chops on the team bus, the response so far has been excellent.

”It's not something that we make mandatory all the time, but the guys still show up – and you can see it on their faces that they're enjoying it. Just watching them laugh and watching them trash talk are just fun. It's fun to be a part of and just watch how everybody interacts with one another.”

Just before the final game Cleveland played before the league shut down, a loss to the Bulls in Chicago, Bickerstaff signed an extension to become the 23rd head coach in franchise history.

Despite that loss, and a spate of injuries, the Cavs had gone 5-6 during Bickerstaff’s brief tenure – knocking off consecutive Western Conference heavy-hitters, mounting an historic 22-point comeback win over Miami and notching a tough home victory over Philly.

The son of longtime NBA coach and current Cavaliers advisor Bernie Bickerstaff, J.B. was the head coach of the Grizzlies last season after serving as the interim head coach for the final 63 games of the previous year after David Fizdale was let go.

"Our guys are hopeful that they can get the opportunity to get back and get together again, no matter what it looks like. And it’s probably not going to look like what we're used to for a long time."

Before his stint with Memphis, Bickerstaff served in a similar role with Houston – taking over as interim coach for Kevin McHale with the Rockets, leading them to a 37-34 finish and into the postseason. He spent his early coaching years under his father with the Charlotte Bobcats, where he became the youngest assistant coach in the NBA, before moving on to Minnesota from 2007-11.

Now, he has the daunting task of developing his young squad under what promises to be strict guidelines upon the NBA’s return.

”(With) individual development, it's a little more difficult – because it sometimes takes three or four people working with a guy to get him to understand the reads on a pick-and-roll, those types of things,” explained Bickerstaff. “So I think we have to be more creative. There's been, just in talking to some people around the basketball world, they've been talking about the use of virtual reality.

”Use that to help development where you basically can put a guy on the floor and he's got to move through space like he would be on a real court against an opponent. So, I think we got to be creative and this has given us a unique opportunity to think as far outside the box as we possibly can.”

With the NBA scheduled to hold an all-players call on Friday, it’s possible that things could be moving forward. Bickerstaff said he firmly believed the league would do all it could to try to complete the campaign – (“everybody wants to see a Champion; nobody wants to see an ‘empty season,’ so to speak”) – but that safety of everyone involved is paramount.

Whatever form it takes when basketball returns, fans, coaches and players alike will relish every minute of it. These tough times have taught us the timeworn lesson that you don’t quite know how good something is until it’s gone.

”Our guys are hopeful that they can get the opportunity to get back and get together again, no matter what it looks like,” said Bickerstaff. “And it’s probably not going to look like what we're used to for a long time.”

”One of the things that they miss most is just a pure competition. A lot of them have been on the video games and stuff like that but like they're having to find different ways to get that competition out. So that's what kind of drives. You don't make it to be one of the best 450 people on the planet at anything without being competitive – and you need to stoke that competitive flame. And so that's what our guys are looking for looking forward to, however they can get it.”

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