The Cleveland Cavaliers are a mess

NBA Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)
NBA Cleveland Cavaliers coach John Beilein (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images) /

Rumor has it John Beilein’s days as the Cleveland Cavaliers head coach are numbered. While a bit troubling, this isn’t the least bit surprising

What else is there to say at this point? This spectacularly inept – yet wildly successful – franchise, winners of four consecutive Eastern Conference championships and one unforgettable NBA title in the past six years, can’t get out of their own way.

Let’s get something straight first: From 2014-2018, there were few things to complain about as a basketball fan in Northeast Ohio. The collective success of those teams masked a lot of the persistent issues that had been festering beneath the surface for many years.

As it almost always does in any organization, in any professional sport, it starts at the top. The only thing worse than excusing a rookie head coach signed to a five-year contract before he has the chance to even finish the season is the fact that the move was generally met with a mix of indifference and acceptance. If you were the least bit surprised by this development, you haven’t been reading the tea leaves.

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I was originally planning to write something about GM Koby Altman’s perplexing, out-of-nowhere move that brought in the mercurial Andre Drummond at the trade deadline a few weeks ago. When I first got the notification alerting me of this trade, I thought that there must be something in the works with Tristan Thompson, some sort of deal that would clear the starting spot for Drummond and allow him to operate as the team’s sole rim-rolling big. But nothing materialized.

It’s tempting to criticize Altman’s roster construction, and his choice to bring yet another non-shooting big man on board, to join Thompson and Larry Nance Jr. But the deal itself – Brandon Knight, John Henson and a second-round pick for Drummond – is objectively good. I wouldn’t say this move was widely praised in NBA media spheres, but there were certainly several people who applauded Altman’s ability to turn two expiring deals into a former All-Star, albeit one whose value has been steadily declining for the past year.

But trades, acquisitions, and draft picks aren’t just about extracting as much value as you can from any given transaction. It’s definitely an essential part of the job, but executives also have to balance the team’s needs with the current state of the roster, filling in holes as they see fit. In a way, the Cleveland Cavaliers are exempt from this particular sort of criticism, seeing as they’re in the middle of a messy rebuild in which they essentially started from ground zero.

They’ve been in pure asset acquisition mode ever since LeBron James decided to leave almost two years ago.

The Cavs’ record in that time – an unsightly 33-103 – shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. We’ve seen this movie before and we all know how it goes: The best player on the planet leaves and the team falls into a pit of despair for a prolonged period of time. Maybe it’d be nice to win just a few more games, but what’s the difference at that point? Especially because they have experience with this exact scenario, everyone in and around the Cavs organization should’ve known what they were getting themselves into. But someone forgot to tell Dan Gilbert.

Six games into the 2018-19 season, after an 0-6 start, he decided to fire championship-winning coach Tyronn Lue. The firing itself was justifiable. With LeBron out of town, it was certainly understandable that the team wanted to move in a different direction, with a different coach at the helm, one who would prioritize the development of the young players over a win-every-night mentality.

But why even begin the season with Lue as the coach if you knew this would be the beginning of a tough rebuilding process? Why not give him the chance to catch on elsewhere while bringing in someone with the aforementioned player development background? None of it made sense, but then again, a lot of moves during Gilbert’s tenure haven’t really made a whole lot of sense.

He famously fired beloved former GM David Griffin on the eve of 2017 free agency, while former franchise mainstay Kyrie Irving was embroiled in a dispute with management over the fact that his name had popped up in trade talks. Griffin had proved to be something of an Irving whisperer during his short time in Cleveland, able to assuage his feelings of detachment and discontent. Many have pointed to this seminal moment as the beginning of the end, the point at which everyone knew LeBron’s second stint with the franchise would end poorly.

It would’ve been one thing if Gilbert had a plan in place following Griffin’s ouster. But he, perhaps foolishly, chased Chauncey Billups, hoping that he would agree to be the next face of basketball operations in Cleveland. The fact that he was counting on someone with zero experience to fill this role, in a crucial, make-or-break season in which LeBron was set to enter free agency, should’ve been a giant red flag.

In the end, Gilbert ended up doing what he does best: promoting from within! Ever since he fired Danny Ferry, the GM who presided over LeBron’s first go-around, Gilbert has consistently chosen to elevate top assistants, rather than conduct an extensive search for the team’s top basketball executive. This peculiar practice led him to Chris Grant, then to Griffin, and finally to Altman. Sometimes it works, as it did with Griffin, but on its face, this is a ridiculous way to search for one of the most important people in the organization.

Gilbert’s hesitance to really go after the top minds from around the league can be chalked up to the fact that he’s simply not willing to pay a hefty price to anyone who occupies this position. This is even more puzzling when you factor in his willingness to go deep into the luxury tax if it guarantees even a chance at a title.

This all leads us back to John Beilein, a coach that was seemingly handpicked by Gilbert. He also infamously hired David Blatt way back in 2014, a few months before LeBron returned to town. Before that, he opted for a reunion with Mike Brown to fill his coaching vacancy. The reunion proved to be short-lived, with Brown lasting only a year.

Ultimately, Ty Lue was the outlier. He lasted two-and-a-half years, which, in Cavs coaching years, might as well be 10. Not to mention that he wasn’t even Gilbert’s pick! There has to be something to the fact that the most successful coach of this team over the last decade was the one the owner didn’t hire for that particular job.

I’ll admit that I was optimistic about Beilein when it was announced he’d be taking over this past summer. His teams at Michigan routinely overachieved, and he seemed to get the most out of lightly recruited players, perhaps a sign that he would be able to wring every last bit of potential out of this young group.

And he did start off 4-5, with many around the league pointing to his professionalism and coaching acumen as reasons for this short stretch of competence. But it quickly became apparent that he was in over his head. He suffered through a very public report that players were unhappy with how he managed the team, stumbled again when he misspoke (wink, wink) in a film session, the contents of which sent shockwaves around the league, and generally looked unhappy on the sidelines as the losses continued to pile up.

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Even now, I don’t really think this is all Beilein’s fault. Gilbert’s track record suggests that he’s just the latest in a line of hires that have proven to be spectacularly unqualified for the role they’re tasked to fill. We can all hope that this next, upcoming coaching search will be different, but expecting it to be different would be ignoring years and years of troubling evidence.