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by Chris Ball

JB Bickerstaff inherited a Cavaliers team that was reeling after the firing of Jon Beilein midway through the 2019-20 season. After his hiring, Bickerstaff helped turn the Cavaliers around and get them on a path to winning. Overall, he had a 170-159 regular season record. He and the Cavaliers recorded at least 44 wins in each of the his last three years with the team. As the coach he improved the Cleveland’s record each year he was at the helm. The team was 19-46 in 2019-20; but improved to 22-50 in 2020-21; 44-38 in 2021-22 and 51-31 in 2022-23).

In the postseason though, his record fell to just 6-11 despite leading the Cavaliers to the playoffs in back to back years in 2023 and 2024. 2024 marked the team’s best result during Bickerstaff’s tenure where they advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for the first time since 2018.

And to be clear, Bickerstaff should not be viewed as a scapegoat for the shortcomings of the Cavaliers this year. Injuries plagued this team for so much of the season. The signings of Max Strus and especially Georges Niang did not work out as planned. There was only so much a coach could do to keep this team afloat.

But in the end, for all of Bickerstaff’s successes (and there were many), there were still significant questions about his ability to take the Cavaliers to the next level even when this team was healthy. There were issues as to whether he could control the locker room and make his star players, including Donovan Mitchell, happy. While Cavaliers executive Koby Altman properly emphasized JBB’s success in developing the Cavaliers’ young players, he also acknowledged that a fresh approach was necessary. This isn’t an unreasonable position to take, given how the Eastern Conference is improving with the likes of the Magic and Knicks and how the teams at the top like the Celtics don’t look to be falling off anytime soon. The Cavaliers have established, veteran players but need to find the best way to harness their varying skills and strengths and break through and become serious NBA Finals contenders. And that won’t be easy given the Cavaliers’ current roster construction.

Both Mitchell and Darius Garland are undersized guards. Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley are big men that take up a large amount of space in the post and, as of yet, Mobley hasn’t developed an outside game that will allow him to score reliably away from the basket. So with both men in the game the paint is a very crowded place to operate. The Cavaliers also lack a dynamic wing that can create, which is a staple of the most successful NBA offenses in this era.

Speaking of roster construction, the offseason is shaping up to be an interesting one for the Cavs’ backcourt. There have been ultimatums bandied about that if the Cavaliers do sign Donovan Mitchell long term that Darius Garland would then demand a trade. In the past, Garland has shown that he has the ability to score at a high volume, but this year injuries certainly impacted his game after having his jaw wired shut and losing significant weight. Yet, even after returning and having time to collect himself, DG’s game simply was not there. In the playoffs, with Mitchell either hurt, hobbling or exhausted (from being the team’s only real scorer) Garland could only manage 15.7 PPG on 14 shots per game. As a comparison, with Joel Embiid not playing his best for the 76ers, Tyrese Maxey averaged 29.8 PPG to carry his share of the scoring for his team.

As sad as it may be to admit, the Cavaliers’ futures rides on the decision of Donovan Mitchell alone. The dismissal of J.B. Bickerstaff is proof enough of that. While Garland is a good player, if the choice is between him or Mitchell, that isn’t even really a choice. If the Cavaliers are going to have any real success in the future, Donovan Mitchell is realistically the only one who can be relied on to take this team on his back and get the job done.

Turning to the early potential candidates to replace Bickerstaff going forward, the names floated so far include David Adelman, Nuggets assistant, Frank Vogel, former Pacers and Lakers head coach, and even podcaster JJ Reddick. Whichever coach is hired, the Cavaliers will look a lot different in the 2024-2025 season and if Mitchell is still on the team the ultimate challenge will be putting the right pieces in place to give him what he needs to make a deep playoff run. Continuing to develop Evan Mobley on offense should be a top priority. He is certainly capable of scoring at a high volume as game 5 in the playoffs showed us all this year. If Isaac Okoro can somehow be coaxed to bring a consistent shot to bear, he could be a crucial piece in the lineup given his ability to lock down the oppositions’ best players on defense.

There is plenty of uncertainty for this team in the months to come, and so much depends on the long term signing of Donovan Mitchell. If he stays with the Cavaliers and they hire the right coach, they have the players to take major steps forward. But until then there are many pieces that have to fall into place, and at the moment it’s a game of “wait and see.”

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Christopher Ball is a longtime Loveland resident and an attorney. He graduated from Loveland High School in 2003 and was a member of the football team before going on to become a coach’s assistant at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. He has been following and rooting for the Reds and Bengals since the early 1990s and has been through the many ups and downs that fandom has wrought over the years.


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