Although historical evidence doesn’t favor college coaches making a successful leap to the NBA, the Cavaliers have the roster to make Monday’s bold hire of Michigan’s John Beilein work.
Doubts that surround such a promotion center on the fact that established veterans aren’t going to listen to a rookie NBA coach who must learn the differences and nuances of two different games. Such a gamble blew up in the faces of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and then-General Manager David Griffin when David Blatt was hired before the 2014-15 season.
Associate head coach Tyronn Lue had a better rapport with four-time league MVP LeBron James. There was no trust or chemistry with Blatt in charge. The following season, Blatt was fired with a 30-11 record and Lue was promoted as the Cavs went on to capture their first championship.
A league source didn’t rule out the possibility of the Cavs hiring one of the NBA assistants from the pool of at least nine they interviewed to be Beilein’s associate head coach, which seems to repeat the scenario of Blatt and Lue. But Blatt was 55 when the Cavs completed a 39-day search by bringing him in from the European ranks. Beilein is 66, so having him groom a young successor who wasn’t ready at this juncture seems logical.
Rather than choose a 30- or 40-something who has as far to go as his players, selecting Beilein makes sense because of the makeup of the Cavs’ young core.
The Cavs aren’t a team of stubborn veterans. Channing Frye’s retirement and the impending trade of J.R. Smith will leave them with Kevin Love, 30, and Tristan Thompson, Matthew Dellavedova and John Henson, all 28, as their oldest players. They have only one All-Star in Love. The roster that ended a 19-63 season had eight with five years or less experience in the league and six (seven, if David Nwaba is counted) are expected to return.
What is unique about the Cavs is their unity, their fight and their spirit. They are good guys who care about each other and about winning more than they do about growing their brand. (At this point, save for Love, any brand-growing hinges on the Cavs becoming a regular playoff contender, anyway.)
Young players like Collin Sexton, Larry Nance Jr., Cedi Osman, Ante Zizic, Jordan Clarkson and Nwaba know what they don’t know, realize how much they must grow and improve. That’s where Beilein comes in.
Although Beilein had nine players selected in the NBA Draft in his 12 seasons at Michigan, the highest picks were soon-to-be Cavs free agent Nik Stauskas (an All-America taken eighth overall by the Sacramento Kings in 2014) and national player of the year Trey Burke (selected ninth by the Minnesota Timberwolves then traded to the Utah Jazz in 2013).
The Wolverines’ roster was not decimated by the draft every year, as has often been the case at schools like Duke and Kentucky. Yet Michigan reached the NCAA Tournament in nine of Beilein’s 12 seasons and played for the championship in 2013 and 2018.
Beilein’s ability to tailor his offense to his players is one of his trademarks. So, too, is his emphasis on sharing the ball and limiting turnovers and fouls, all mantras that should carry over to the rebuilding Cavs. Beilein also understands what it takes to rebuild, resurrecting programs at Canisius and Division II Le Moyne.
For years, the jump from college to the NBA usually proved too much. In 2013, CBSSports.com examined the eight coaches who had done it since 1993-94 and only one — P.J. Carlesimo, who went from Seton Hall to the Portland Trail Blazers — had a winning record. That list included John Calipari (UMass to the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets) and Rick Pitino (Kentucky to the Boston Celtics).
Brad Stevens with the Celtics, Billy Donovan with the Oklahoma City Thunder and Quin Snyder with the Jazz are making inroads on what once seemed an impossible transition. Considering the scandals plaguing college basketball and a coming change to the NBA’s age limit, more elite coaches may soon depart for the pros.
Perhaps Gilbert and Cavs General Manager Koby Altman will one day be seen as the men who sparked the exodus. If that doesn’t happen, it could be because few teams had the right set of circumstances — a young roster eager to learn and an accomplished teacher who believed in them.
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.