If the Cleveland Cavaliers’ pattern holds, they’ll draw more positives this season from what hits first and hardest as a negative.
That’s how it has gone the past two years for coach J.B. Bickerstaff and his young team. Make a leap from 22 victories in 2020-21 to 44, then lose in the AT&T Play-In Tournament. Overhaul the team by adding All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, win 51 games last season in a rigorous Eastern Conference, earn the No. 4 seed, then lose to the New York Knicks in five games in the first round.
This time, the Cavaliers have turned the hard knocks of knocking at the playoffs door into additional, more subtle changes. Most notable: Max Strus from Miami and Georges Niang from Philadelphia to energize their halfcourt offense. Cleveland ranked 24th in 3-point attempts in 2022-23, 25th in scoring average and last in pace.
That’s the most obvious area to address this season, and Bickerstaff talked about it with NBA.com in early September during a break at the coaches meetings in Chicago.
Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: What are you most excited about heading toward the opening of training camp?
Bickerstaff: Just getting all the guys back together. That’s the fun part. Continuing to build ‘team.’ Showing the guys what it means to be a team, how you can contend, all the small things you have to do throughout the season that will help you at the end.
You obviously studied and watched film of new guys, but you never know exactly what you have until you get to coach them. So I’m excited to have Max and Ty [Jerome] and Damian [Jones] and Georges with us to see what they bring to the table and how they can help.
What can you accomplish in the first 82 that will translate to the game in the spring?
It’s those lessons you learn. You have to go through the playoff experiences and losses, then go through the summer after when guys see, like, “OK, that’s what coaches are talking about. These are the small things that are going to matter.”
I think we had that experience. So now, how can we be more difficult to defend? How can we make teams feel like they have to chase us more? During the regular season, we were an elite pick-and-roll team. So how do we add to that and make it more dynamic?
I think by adding a guy like Max, adding Georges, they can move and create movement and make shots off movement. Now people are chasing them, and you still have your opportunity to play your pick-and-roll with Darius [Garland] and Donovan and Evan [Mobley] and Jarrett [Allen].
So you don’t plan on planting Niang and Strus on the perimeter or in the corners?
Nah, they’re going to be a part of it. Their skill sets help the guys we have. Give Kobe [Altman, Cavs president of basketball operations] and [Cavs general manager] Mike Gansey and those guys a ton of credit to find guys who help your best players.
There is a lot of talk about what the Cavaliers need to show Donovan Mitchell to get him to sign a long-term contract with you. What does Mitchell have to show you and the folks in Cleveland about his game and his ability to win?
You’ll see a change in our offensive system. Two years ago, we were predicated on a ton of ball movement and body movement. We’re going to try to get back to that, where everybody is moving more, the ball is moving more. Then he gets an opportunity after the defense has shifted to go do what he does best.
It’s going to be asking everybody to be a little more dynamic, to be a little harder to find. When you’re chasing an elite player like Donovan, he’s got the advantage automatically. Now he’s just got to make the play.
Coaches generally are loathe to give up anything while they try to improve around the margins. Are you willing to accept a dip defensively — you led the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions (109.9) — to improve on offense?
We may not be the No. 1 defense in the league again. But I think we finished last season eighth in efficiency offensively. Our goal is to be Top 5 in both. If we can do that, that can carry us a long way.
What did Evan Mobley, two years into his career, learn from the playoffs?
Just what life is like in the trenches. The physicality that was there, the rules “changing” a little bit for you, as far as what guys are able to do and play through. The shift from regular season is real. It’s possession by possession, trying to win four times against the same team, understanding how they pick apart your skill set, how you can take advantage of things you learn about them, and how you can make them play more toward their weaknesses.
Those are things we’ve talked to Evan about over the summer. He is one of those guys who wants to be great, so he listens. As soon as the season was over, he was hungry for information, and he went to work.
Caris LeVert re-signed with you guys [for a reported two-year, $32 million deal]. How does his role with your team differ from the player he was in Brooklyn or Indiana, where he raised our expectations as a scorer?
He did what we asked him to do, and it was different week by week, sometimes night by night depending on who he was playing with. If Donovan or Darius was out, he was one of our go-to scorers. When he played with those guys, he often defended the other team’s best offensive player and was off the ball more. He handled the ball early in transition sometimes, other times he would come off screens and play from there. He was extremely adaptable. He never had an issue. That’s why I give him a ton of credit. He sacrificed what may have been all of our assumed strength of his, his scoring, to try to help the team win.
Thoughts on having a second coach’s challenge available this season?
I like being able, if you get something right, to still have it in your toolbox at the end of the game. You don’t have to feel as hesitant with a critical third foul [on a key player] in the second quarter that you may want to challenge, but you’re in a close game and you think you may need it in the fourth quarter. I think that flexibility will help us as coaches.
How about the In-Season Tournament?
It’s game by game, like you prepare for every game. What will be interesting is if you advance. How do you handle a semifinal and a final in Vegas? Those are the things that will be new. I think you take the same approach with those games — you try to win every one. But it’s still something we’ve never done before, so we’ll learn on the fly.
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