John Beilein is suddenly out as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers just 54 games into a five-year contract. Beilein is one of the older rookie NBA head coaches we’ve seen in the modern era, having spent 40 years coaching college hoops. Why Beilein decided to take the plunge into the NBA — and not just into the NBA, but into the Cleveland Cavaliers — remains somewhat of a mystery. A new challenge? Proving his style of leadership and basketball crosses boundaries? Money?
Well this was certainly a new challenge, but Beilein proved nothing about his style and he won’t make all that much money, in relative terms. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports Beilein will be paid his full 2019-20 salary to go away, but is giving up the guaranteed money for future years. This is a change for the Cavaliers, who are used to paying multiple head coaches at any given time.
What happened to Beilein doesn’t say all that much about the eternal debate over whether college coaches can succeed in the NBA (they can, sometimes, but not always). It reaffirms that treating NBA players like college kids is a path to failure. (This never works. Why do coaches think this can work? Is it just a hard habit to break?) It’s pretty amusing that this happened to the Cavaliers, whose franchisee Dan Gilbert (a Michigander) has long lusted after Tom Izzo but eventually settled for Beilein. Had Izzo taken the job years ago and failed, that would have been much more high profile and a much bigger embarrassment for the Cavaliers. (Not that this isn’t an embarrassment.)
Everyone makes mistakes. How they react to those mistakes are what makes the difference between progress and continued impotency. The Cavs and Beilein appear to have recognized the error in this situation, and the rational action of mutually agreeing to part ways could be what unwinds the mistake to the benefit of everyone.
It was a mistake for Beilein to take this job. Any career college coach who jumps to the NBA is taking a huge risk to their reputation. To make that plunge for this backwards franchise with such a shallow talent base at the front end of a messy rebuild that involves unloading multiple veterans — it’s like skydiving into hurricane with a backpack full of knives instead of a parachute. There’s just too many risk multipliers.
Yet by unwinding that mistake quickly, Beilein will survive.
Beilein is 67. He’s already being mentioned in rumors or wishful thinking for jobs at high-end college programs. He’ll get at least one more lucrative contract, unless he wants to retire. Maybe that next contract won’t replace the $12 million Beilein could have made by sticking with the Cavaliers and forcing them to fire him, probably at the end of the regular season. But by going out on something like his own terms, he preserves some dignity and pride and maybe a little sanity.
Hiring Beilein will go down (rightfully) as an enormous mistake for Koby Altman and the Cavaliers. This has been a nightmare season despite extremely low expectations. To give a first-time NBA head coach two generations older than his youngest players a four-year deal (with a team option for a fifth year, a hilariously optimistic addendum) knowing veterans like Kevin Love want nothing to do with a taskmaster coach or 20-year-old shoot-first teammates is just an enormous breach of competence.
Yet the Cavaliers were able to limit the damage by working out a deal with Beilein now. Altman saved his boss millions of dollars, and this move should give J.B. Bickerstaff (the new head coach after serving as Beilein’s deputy this season) a boost with the players. It would appear Bickerstaff will remain through next season — these things can always change, and you can’t count on Gilbert staying the course in any case — and some minor semblance of stability should help the Cavaliers figure out everything they need to figure out.
The Cleveland Cavaliers remain a nightmare. But at least this time they had a modicum of self-awareness about that fact and made the best of a terrible, self-inflicted situation.
Is this what progress looks like?