Well, we can’t say it hasn’t gotten off to a good start. After the not so shocking, yet still abrupt dismissal of Cavaliers Head Coach John Beilein over the course of the All-Star break, the Cavaliers were back in action last night for the first time in a week. They prevailed with a 113-108 victory over the Washington Wizards.
One immediate positive to take away from this contest was that the victory came in a tightly contested game, something the Cavaliers hadn’t done since a January 9th overtime triumph in Detroit. The Cavs did well last night to not squander what was just a 3-point lead with around 2 minutes left.
Maybe, just maybe, there is reason to have hope for the JB Bickerstaff era.
Sure, there is the slight stench of nepotism when you consider that his father is currently Senior Basketball Executive for the Cavs, but sources state that Bickerstaff was hired at the discretion of General Manager Koby Altman for just such an occasion where things didn’t work out with Beilein.
Sure, his career record as a head coach coming into last night was 85-131, good for a .394 winning percentage, but he did go 37-34 as the interim head coach of the Houston Rockets in 2015-2016. That team made the playoffs and had the 7th best Offensive Rating in basketball, despite the 2nd best offensive player on that team being post-Orlando Dwight Howard.
Yes, going from interim head coach to full-time chief of the Memphis Grizzlies over the past two seasons wasn’t nearly as fruitful, and its looks even more troubling when the Griz now hover around .500 with the potential possibility of a Western Conference playoff birth. A lot of that sudden improvement can be attributed to star rookie point guard Ja Morant, but the development of players around him should not be taken lightly either, and part of that certainly happened under the Cavaliers new coach.
Still, what must be acknowledged is what Bickerstaff’s true objective will be here in Cleveland, and that is to nurture and development a core of young talent. For better or for worse, this is essentially uncharted territory for him.
Bickerstaff has been an NBA head coach for portions of three different seasons; they are with the aforementioned 2015-2016 Rockets, as well as the 2017-2018 and ’18-’19 Grizzlies. In that time he has coached merely 2 players that have been both the age of 25 or younger, as well as picked in the top half of the first round of the NBA Draft.
One of those players is guard Ben McLemore, who was in his 5th professional season while on the ’17-’18 Grizzlies after having been the 7th overall pick by the Sacramento Kings in 2013. Memphis signed him as a reclamation project after 4 uninspiring campaigns with the Kings, but unfortunately, it didn’t work out with the Griz either. He averaged just 7.5 Points Per Game and less than 1 Assist in his only season in Memphis. It wasn’t until this season that McLemore has finally shown signs of life while coming off the bench for Houston..
The other qualifying player is power forward Jaren Jackson, who Memphis took 4th overall in the 2018 Draft. He scored 13.8 Points Per Game on a surprisingly efficient 59.1% True Shooting Percentage as a 19 year old in his rookie season under Bickerstaff. He has also continued to see the development to his scoring game this season, shooting with the exact same efficiency, but while taking more shots, leading him to 17.1 PPG. I don’t think its unfair to suggest that Bickerstaff’s tutelage last year may have at least put him in the right position to continue to succeed.
The remainder of the draft picks and other young players that Bickerstaff has coached have been a cavalcade of marginal G-Leaguer/reserve list types that haven’t seen much of the floor with few exceptions. Names like Andrew Harrison, Ivan Rabb and Jarrell Martin come to mind. Grizzlies wing Dillon Brooks is likely the best of this bunch, averaging 15.4 PPG as a starter for Memphis this season after missing most of 2018-2019. Its hard to say how much impact Bickerstaff had on his development.
He did also coach 2nd year center Clint Capela and rookie big man Montrezl Harrell in Houston. Capela got his first chance to be part of a legitimate rotation under Bickerstaff, and admittedly didn’t fair especially well, putting up the worse per 36 Minute numbers of his career in any season that he played full-time. As a reminder though, this was his also his first season with legitimate NBA minutes. Conversely, Harrell didn’t see much of the floor at all.
Beyond these names, Bickerstaff hasn’t been able to guide many young players of a high pedigree. Houston took Sam Dekker 18th overall in 2015 and took Harrell in the 2nd round of that same summer. Dekker would go on to miss most of his rookie season with injuries and still hasn’t amounted to much around the league. Before Bickerstaff’s ascension in 2017, Memphis took guard Wade Baldwin 17th overall in 2016. Baldwin lasted 1 season in Memphis before being traded, and has barely been heard from since. Meanwhile, Memphis didn’t even have a 1st round pick in 2017, as it had been traded to Cleveland 4 years earlier (for forward Jon Leuer, yikes!).
My point is this: previous to his time in Cleveland, Bickerstaff had been given just one, young talent that was anything close to a sure-fire prospect. Yes, Capela became Capela after Bickerstaff left Houston, but Capela praised him in their time together. Yes, he never really gave Harrell an opportunity. It should be remembered that the 2015-2016 Rockets were expected to compete, not develop young players.
The fact is that the one legitimate prospect that Bickerstaff got his hands on in his previous coaching tenures: Jackson, is performing pretty well thus far.
On the other hand, this Cavaliers team alone has two players under the age of 22 that were taken in the top half of the first round of the draft (guards Collin Sexton and Darius Garland, of course). It has three under 25 if you include guard Dante Exum, who was taken 5th overall by Utah in 2014. Swing-man Kevin Porter Jr. may have been taken at the end of the first round, but he was voted biggest steal of this past year’s draft by his peers as well. This is easily the most young talent Bickerstaff has ever worked with and this is his chance to prove himself to be a capable talent developer. Consider the fact that another lottery pick is likely coming this summer and he is clearly better positioned today than he ever was in Memphis and has the chops of past stints both as an assistant and head coach to not fall into some of the same traps that his predecessors have. He even has a history of coaching veterans like Trevor Ariza and Howard from when he was in Houston, meaning the experienced members of this oddly constructed Cavalier roster won’t necessarily feel shut out either.
I’m not here to say that the Cavaliers front office has definitely found their man and we can start setting aside money for playoff tickets in 2021, but I think at the very least there is a more reasonable pathway to growth for this young Cavaliers’ squad today than there was just 2 weeks ago.
For JB Bickerstaff, this is his chance. It might be his last one, but it also might be his best one.