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After NCAA success, John Beilein’s rocky season with Cavaliers has gone from bad to worse

John Beilein has been embroiled in controversy and damaging rumors during his tumultuous first season as coach of the Cavaliers. (Carlos Osorio/AP)

John Beilein said this week that the most difficult part of the transition from coaching in the college ranks to taking over the Cleveland Cavaliers has been a lack of practice time between games to develop his young players. If only that were true.

The 66-year-old arrived in Cleveland in May as a revered figure on the NCAA level, where he coached for more than four decades and spent the past 12 seasons turning Michigan into a perennial winner. Just months into his rookie season as an NBA coach, though, Beilein has become embroiled in complaints, rumors and leaks that have placed his long-term job security into question.

In early December, the Athletic reported the Cavaliers, who are 11-27 entering Saturday, had “drowned out” Beilein’s voice. Their complaints included his exacting communication style, his unusual terminology for play calls and his lack of familiarity with NBA personnel. Within weeks, Kevin Love, Cleveland’s highest-profile player, was the subject of relentless trade speculation as his frustration with his younger teammates’ abilities bubbled over repeatedly during on-court incidents.

But that was child’s play compared with an report Wednesday that noted Beilein had said the Cavaliers were no longer playing like “a bunch of thugs” during a film session one day earlier. In subsequent interviews, Beilein was adamant he had meant to say that his players were no longer “a bunch of slugs” in reference to their improved energy level and competitiveness.

Cavaliers Coach John Beilein reportedly apologizes to players for ‘thugs’ comment

“I called all the players afterwards and explained the situation,” Beilein said. “We met about it, and I apologized. I apologized about it today as well. It was never intended. The players understand that now. It’s something I have to learn from: enunciate better and be clearer with my intent.”

Cavaliers rookie guard Darius Garland said the players were “behind [Beilein] 100 percent” and they “already know he didn’t mean it.” Not everyone was so sure, though, with former all-star Chauncey Billups questioning Beilein’s hire on ESPN, declaring the coach was “out of touch” and “the locker room was lost.”

Beilein, who is in the first year of a five-year contract, will keep his job for the time being, and the Cavaliers responded with a hard-fought 115-112 win at the Detroit Pistons on Thursday. Still, the incident recalled Phil Jackson’s infamous comment about LeBron James’s “posse” in 2016.

Beilein’s language, even if unintentional as he insisted, makes him an easy target for those who might paint him as too old and too much of an NBA novice to successfully develop a positive locker room culture. After all, Brad Stevens was just 36 when the Boston Celtics hired him away from Butler in 2013. And Billy Donovan, who left Florida for the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015, landed with a stable contender led by A-list superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

There’s little question that Beilein will be dogged by the “slugs” scandal, but he also must confront and expunge the persistent leaks. Regardless of whether his locker room is truly lost, Beilein’s authority and integrity as a coach have been badly compromised over the past five weeks. If his players were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt or truly respected his approach, they never would have publicly grumbled in such detail about his coaching manner. If all levels of the Cavaliers had bought into Beilein as their leader going forward, the “slugs” situation gets sorted out behind closed doors and never sees the light of day.

The timing of the leak surely isn’t coincidental. The Cavaliers have already traded one veteran, Jordan Clarkson; Love is firmly on the block; and there are other experienced players who would make more sense on playoff teams than they do in Cleveland’s rebuilding effort. The Feb. 6 trade deadline is fast approaching, and General Manager Koby Altman will have his hands full sorting through which players must be shipped out for the betterment of the organization’s future.

Cleveland’s general instability only makes this situation more complicated for Beilein. The Cavaliers have employed six coaches since 2013. They fired Mike Brown in 2010, only to rehire him in 2013 and then fire him again in 2014. They fired David Blatt and replaced him with Tyronn Lue in the middle of what turned out to be a run to the 2016 title, then fired Lue just six games into last season. Patience and order haven’t exactly been organizational virtues.

Beilein was targeted as an antidote to that track record. He was viewed as wise and trustworthy, and he boasted a track record of molding young players, a priority for an organization whose future, at least for now, belongs to Garland and second-year guard Collin Sexton. Instead, he has found himself swallowed up by the same tumult, with J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland’s associate head coach and the Memphis Grizzlies’ former head coach, in position as a logical and convenient option to take over should Beilein’s future become untenable.

We’re not in Ann Arbor anymore, Toto.

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