Part I: Momentum Shift
Cavs Commit to JB Bickerstaff, Who Delivers Immediate Results
Lost in the spiraling news cycle since the stateside arrival of the coronavirus was that the Cavaliers just committed to their 23rd head coach in franchise history.
Just before the Bulls and Cavaliers tipped off in what turned out to be both teams’ last game for the immediate future – and on his 41st birthday – J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cavaliers agreed on a multi-year contract for him to guide the young squad into a new era.
The fact that he’s Cleveland’s head coach No. 23 means something.
Everyone who proceeded Bickerstaff on the job had his own style (to varying degrees of success).
Lenny Wilkens was a consummate pro – a cool, cunning tactician – and his teams were equally sharp. Mike Fratello’s squads had both the style and toughness traced directly to his New Jersey roots. Tyronn Lue could connect with his best player(s) because of his experience growing up in hard-scrabble Mexico, Missouri. And, of course, Bill Fitch – who once said “I was 14 years old before I found out I wasn’t in the Marine Corps” – ran the Miracle squad like his drill instructor dad would have wanted.
Of course, J.B. – a tough but understated man who oozes authenticity – has his own style, and through the first 11 games of his tenure in Cleveland, it was a tantalizing sample. The squad went 5-6 despite some key injuries – completing sweeps of consecutive Western Conference squads, overcoming a 22-point deficit against Miami and taking two overtime contests.
Collin Sexton has taken his game to a new level, as has Larry Nance Jr. Kevin Love looks inspired again, Andre Drummond looks like Andre Drummond and Matthew Dellavedova has snapped out of a season-long funk.
"To be honest with you, I think these guys were really good about (the change) right away,” said Bickerstaff. “It’s just the makeup of who they are; they bought in automatically. We're competing, we're playing together and all the things that we're trying to push.
”The guys have led the way, they've made it easy for us as coaches. We kind of laid out what we wanted to look like, who we wanted to be – and they've taken it and run with it. So, it's exciting for me to be a part of it. They're obviously the ones that are going to carry us and when they buy in, it makes a complete difference and it makes the job a lot easier.”
Bickerstaff’s Cavs have simply passed the eye test. They’ve been a tougher, more competitive squad since the All-Star Break – and they were just finding some rhythm before the NBA hiatus.
"The amount of grit and determination instilled in our players, from both an accountability and attention to detail standpoint over this short period of time, has been met with admiration, respect and overall excitement throughout our entire locker room,” praised Cavs GM Koby Altman when the announcement was made.
Like the previous 22 Cavalier coaches, Bickerstaff has his own unique basketball lineage, and he doesn’t have far to go when he needs some paternal advice – turning to Cavaliers Senior Basketball Advisor, Bernie Bickerstaff, a guy who himself has won over 400 NBA games as head coach for five different franchises.
"He and I talk, probably, twice a day – just giving me his opinions, his thoughts. Letting me bounce ideas off of him.”
But the younger Bickerstaff has already carved his own way in the Association.
Bickerstaff 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. Under Bickerstaff, Memphis posted one of the best scoring defenses in the NBA – holding foes to nearly 106 points per game and a league-best 10 opponents under 90 points, winning each of those contests.
"I think he has a chance to really improve and do something special, because he holds himself to a high standard and he's going to hold us to a high standard."
Kevin Love, on J.B. Bickerstaff taking over as Cavs coach
Before his stint with the Grizzlies, 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.
During that time, the Timberwolves came out of the 2008 Draft with an unorthodox forward from UCLA named Kevin Love.
"For me, I’m really happy for him, because I’ve known his family since I was a young kid. My father’s known Bernie for a long time. Bernie’s been in this league and around this league forever. It was just serendipity that J.B. was my first coach, not just as a rookie but my first three years, and he really took me under his wing.”
In those first three years, Love was the league’s Most Improved Player and a Western Conference All-Star as a sophomore with Minnesota (and again in his third year), averaging 20.2 points and 15.2 boards as a 23-year-old.
”I’m happy for him and his family and I'm happy for the organization – because they got a great coach, a guy that's going to hold everybody accountable. People throw around the word culture a lot, but just because of who he is and his background, his father being in the league for so long, I think he has a chance to really improve and do something special, because he holds himself to a high standard and he's going to hold us to a high standard.”
Bickerstaff has gotten his Cleveland coaching career off to a strong start. It’s been put on pause while the world figures out how to navigate a global crisis. But when basketball begins again, the Wine and Gold will come back with confidence.
While we work our way through this hiatus, Cavs.com will give fans the opportunity to get know their current head coach.
In Part II next week, we’ll speak to the man himself – getting his views on the squad, his background, his thoughts on Cleveland and what he’s doing to pitch in during difficult times.