For 16 years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have had one of two identities: the team that LeBron James led or the team that LeBron James left.
The disparate fortunes in those two states has been stark, with James representing the difference between success and hopelessness, relevance and irrelevance. In 11 seasons with James, the Cavaliers won 62 percent of their games, made the Finals five times and claimed the only title in franchise history. In five seasons without him, they have won 29 percent of their games and never come close to the playoff hunt.
Cleveland’s task this summer is straightforward but grueling: to step out from James’s shadow once and for all and to construct an organization that can win consistently without him. To that end, owner Dan Gilbert has taken the bold and unusual step of tabbing a high-profile college coach, Michigan’s John Beilein, to oversee what surely will be an extended rebuilding process.
For years, NBA teams have collectively adopted an insular approach to coaching hires. The Boston Celtics’ successful poaching of Brad Stevens from Butler University is the obvious exception, but most current NBA coaches are former players or assistants at the NBA level.
This tendency owes to fundamental differences between the two levels of play: In college, the games are shorter, the shot clock is longer, and coaches wield the power. The NBA is governed by its superstars, and coaches are largely expected to manage egos and set a culture rather than motivate or educate.
Unlike Stevens, the 66-year-old Beilein is not a rising prodigy who seemed destined to eventually arrive at the NBA. The coaching lifer began in the high school ranks in the mid-1970s before gradually working his way up to the Division I level. Beilein has spent the past 12 years at Michigan, where he twice led the school to the Final Four, compiled a 278-150 (.650) record and won numerous coach of the year awards.
When Beilein arrived at Michigan, he inherited a prestigious but underperforming program that still hadn’t found its footing after damaging recruiting scandals in the 1990s. Beilein had the Wolverines back in the NCAA tournament by his second season, and he spent the next decade churning out pro prospects and cultivating modern offenses that made full use of the three-point shot. Along the way, Beilein solidified his reputation as a thoughtful tactician with integrity.
Considering that background, it’s no wonder that Gilbert, a vocal Michigan State supporter who has pursued Spartans Coach Tom Izzo in the past, broke ranks to hire Beilein. The Cavaliers have had eight coaches in the past 15 years, most of whom were primarily judged by their relationship with James. Beilein stands free from that baggage, with a proven track record to boot.
After a dismal 19-win season in which it fired coach Tyronn Lue after six games and initially struggled to reach an interim agreement with Larry Drew, Cleveland interviewed multiple NBA assistants in recent weeks. Beilein’s hiring to a five-year contract, then, represents a bet that the coach’s personality and leadership attributes eventually will trump his lack of familiarity with the NBA game and environment.
“John is a great human being,” Gilbert said in a statement Monday. “He cares deeply about his players and others who work for him and around him. 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 a winner.”
While unconventional, hiring Beilein is entirely reasonable. Cleveland was aimless without James, opening the season with internal hopes of making the playoffs before losing all-star forward Kevin Love to injury and finishing with one of the league’s three worst records.
The emergence of rookie guard Collin Sexton down the stretch was a bright spot, but this was a sobering campaign. The Cavaliers lack talent, depth, chemistry, experience and just about anything else that’s needed to win big in the NBA, including a desirable market to entice free agents. Even if the Cavaliers were to win the right to select Duke’s Zion Williamson with the top pick in Tuesday’s draft lottery, this job is a heavy lift.
Many franchises in these circumstances, unable to lure top NBA coaching talent, resort to hiring up-and-coming NBA assistants with no previous head coaching experience. But look no further than the Phoenix Suns, who have cycled through Earl Watson and Igor Kokoskov, to see the challenges of culture-building with an untested rookie on the bench.
Cleveland’s experience in coping with James’s 2010 departure for the Miami Heat probably colored its search, too. Despite hiring Byron Scott and Mike Brown, both of whom had NBA head coaching experience, and landing Kyrie Irving with the top pick in 2011, the Cavaliers endured locker room drama while making four straight lottery trips before James’s 2014 return.
With top current NBA head coaches having no reason to consider Cleveland, experienced former coaches offering no guarantee of success and inexperienced assistants requiring a learning curve that might never pay dividends, why not take a chance on Beilein?
“John is one of the most accomplished and innovative basketball minds and leaders in the entire game,” Cavaliers General Manager Koby Altman said in a statement. “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.”
Make no mistake, Cleveland’s culture needs work. Gilbert has been impulsive and heavy-handed, dispensing with coaches and GMs at a moment’s notice. Coach David Blatt was hired and then fired in less than two years, with James famously upstaging him over a last-second play-call during the 2015 playoffs. GM David Griffin was surprisingly let go in 2017, setting the stage for Irving’s franchise-altering trade request and James’s departure to the Los Angeles Lakers one year later.
Many of those decisions and departures can be traced back to James in one way or another: Gilbert often was trying to placate his star or forced to deal with the unintended consequences of James’s presence. Going forward, though, James won’t be around to solve the Cavaliers’ problems or to absorb a portion of the blame for their shortcomings.
As they enter a new era, the Cavaliers must shed their dysfunctional tendencies and learn to stand on their own two feet. Beilein should help on both counts.