INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — When John Beilein resigned as Cleveland’s coach, swallowing his pride to leave the Cavaliers after just 54 games, he offered his preordained replacement some encouraging words.
“Go after it,” J.B. Bickerstaff said, repeating Beilein’s final message.
That’s Bickerstaff’s plan.
It’s now up to the 40-year-old, who has experience at picking up the pieces after previously taking over in Houston and Memphis following in-season coaching changes, to guide the Cavaliers through the remainder of another 82-game schedule gone sideways — and beyond.
On Wednesday, Beilein cited his health, his family’s well-being and the toll of a challenge he wasn’t ready for as the main reasons for stepping away before the end of his first NBA season. The Cavs won only 14 games under Beilein, who built a sterling reputation as a college coach, most recently for 12 years at Michigan.
But their plans to have the 67-year-old Beilein mold their young team backfired, so it’s on to Bickerstaff, who said Beilein did succeed in impacting his coaches.
“He showed us a lot, and taught us a lot as we moved through it,” said Bickerstaff, who is relieved not to have the interim tag hanging on him. “He was confident in the group that we have, and he had an idea of what he wanted it to look like when it was over with. And he told us to go make it happen. So now it’s our job to go out and get that done.”
Bickerstaff was hired by Cavaliers general manager Koby Altman last year as an associate head coach for this very reason. He was a safety net in case things didn’t go as planned with Beilein, and Bickertaff was going to be Cleveland’s next coach at some point.
The timeline just moved quicker than anyone imagined. The Cavs play their first game after the All-Star break on Friday in Washington.
“It’s been pretty clear what the plan was, but never this fast did I expect it to happen,” said Bickerstaff, who spent 2017-19 with the Grizzlies. “So much changes so quickly in this league, though, because the games keep coming. The days keep moving that you never quite know what to expect day to day. And you just have to be prepared for each day as it comes at you.”
Bickerstaff would know. His father, Bernie, spent parts of 15 seasons as an NBA coach and the 76-year-old is currently a senior adviser with the Cavs.
The younger Bickerstaff followed in his dad’s footsteps and worked his way up the coaching ranks as an assistant before taking over the Rockets in 2015-16 when Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the season. Bickerstaff led Houston to a playoff appearance.
He left to be associate head coach with the Grizzlies under David Fizdale. who made it through only 19 games in the 2017-18 season. Bickerstaff took over on an interim basis and finished the season. He got the full-time job in 2018-19 but was fired after going 33-49.
Those experiences have prepared him for the Cavaliers, with their young nucleus and proven front court of Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson and newly acquired center Andre Drummond.
“You kind of have an idea of what’s next and what works and what doesn’t work,” Bickerstaff said of his time in Houston and Memphis. “This is not going to be a complete turnaround of what we’re doing offensively and defensively. It’ll be small changes that we think can be helpful.”
Love, who acknowledged he could have handled some situations better playing for Beilein, said Bickerstaff is the ideal person to take over. They were together for three seasons in Minnesota.
“With any coaching change there are going to be different challenges, especially at the start, just figuring out exactly what they want,” Love said. “But J.B. has been very vocal. I’m fortunate to have known him and his family my entire life and J.B. the last 12 years from being a rookie and him being the guy who really taught me the ins and outs of the NBA.”
Bickerstaff smiled when he was asked what his dad told him before his first practice without Beilein.
“What’s your plan?” he said.
Bickerstaff plans to keep things simple and to build off what he inherited. He feels the season can be somewhat salvaged.
“There’s still a lot for us to be had in these last 28 games,” he said. “There’s individual growth. There’s team growth. There’s the ability to lay the foundation of what we think we can look like moving forward. It’s a great opportunity, to continue to build camaraderie.
“When you look at teams that are successful, there’s a continuity with those teams. So anytime you get a group of guys that can be together and play together and learn together, it’s always helpful for you moving forward.”