CLEVELAND — When asked 90 minutes before tipoff Tuesday if this was his last game as Cavaliers coach, Larry Drew quickly responded, “Let’s hope not. Let’s hope not.”
When it comes to the backing of his players, the feeling is mutual despite a 19-63 record and a season-ending 10-game losing streak after a 124-97 loss to the Charlotte Hornets in the season finale at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. The Cavs tied for the fourth-worst finish in franchise history, matching the record when LeBron James left the first time after the 2010-11 season.
Drew, 61, with the Cavs since 2014, was elevated from associate head coach after the Oct. 28 firing of Tyronn Lue. Drew said he has not yet scheduled a meeting with General Manager Koby Altman to discuss his future, but was looking forward to it.
Drew did not want to answer whether he wanted to come back as coach.
“Um, I really don’t want to get into that part of it right now,” he said. “What I really want to do is just finish this game tonight, and Koby and I will sit down and talk about it. We’re going to give it a few days and we’ll sit down and discuss it.”
When he thinks about the seemingly endless injuries that resulted in Cavs players missing a total of 271 games and prompted an NBA-high 32 different lineups, Drew was proud of what he accomplished. Young players Collin Sexton, Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic and Larry Nance Jr. made great strides, especially rookie Sexton. The Cavs competed hard every night and stayed together. In March, they defeated the playoff-bound Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic.
“The one thing I was going to do once the season was over, I was going to make sure that I go back and kind of take a mental evaluation of the season and then just check the boxes,” Drew said. “I can clearly say that I checked the boxes of what I had to accomplish. I’m very proud of what I’ve done and my staff along with what we’ve had to endure. I’m comfortable with what took place.”
Drew said he had gone through rebuilds in Atlanta and Milwaukee, but what the Cavs were faced with was totally different.
“If you look at … just the big picture as far as who this team is and what we’ve had to deal with. It wasn’t easy dealing with a situation where you got that many guys out missing that many games, the multiple lineups we’ve had to use … and we’re bringing in other G-League players," Drew said. "I think my staff did a good job. I’m really proud of the way my guys handled this entire situation and I’m certainly of the way I handled it.”
The Cavs are expected to look for a young successor to lead them through their rebuild. The search surely has already started. The eventual choice could be a relative unknown.
But that didn’t diminish what the Cavs think of Drew. There was a sense among players that Drew — albeit the only internal candidate when the decision on Lue was made — was the perfect coach for an unenviable set of circumstances.
“I think he was the perfect guy because he’s been around the league for a long time, he knows a lot of us and we’ve been together for so long, so it’s not really anything new,” center Tristan Thompson said Sunday. “He did a great job with this situation he was put in. We played hard every night, and that’s all you can ask for.”
Even though Drew’s contract is up in July (although there is a team option), forward Larry Nance Jr. was just as supportive, saying, “I’m a big LD fan.”
“LD has been great through this,” Nance said Sunday. “This was a very tough situation to jump into, and I think he’s done as good of a job as anybody could have done. We’ve seen a lot of improvement from top to bottom. Our defense has gotten better, our offense has gotten better. Collin [Sexton] has been awesome since [Drew] took over, Cedi [Osman] has been great. Guys have been growing up underneath him. It’s been fun.”
Kevin Love has always been in Drew’s corner. Love said the fact that Drew played 10 years in the NBA for four teams carried a lot of weight with the Cavs.
“He’s always been somebody that I’ve admired the way he goes about his business and the way that he coaches,” Love said of Drew last month. “Even when times have been very tough this year, we’ve had the young team, with guys being hurt … At the very least has us playing extremely hard night in and night out, even when we’re accumulating losses. There’s something to be said for that.
“He’s been in this league almost 40 years now. He’s seen it all, done it all and knows how to get the best out of his guys. We appreciate that. That’s not always easy to do.”
When Lue was fired, Drew said he wanted to be called the voice of the team. He resisted the tag of interim coach as his agent negotiated a raise and a reported buyout in the event he was let go after the season. It made for some awkward moments until Nov. 5, when the legalities were finalized.
More than once, Drew lamented the days that his staff had to participate in practice because so many players were injured. But he was proud of how all handled what he believes will strengthen them.
“We weathered the storm, got through it, kept our guys playing hard and competitive and we played the hand that was dealt to us from a personnel standpoint,” Drew said in March. “That’s all as a coach you can ask.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Cavs blog at www.ohio.com/cavs. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ.