Cavaliers rewarding J.B. Bickerstaff for early signs of progress

Ten games into J.B. Bickerstaff’s coaching tenure, the Cleveland Cavaliers have seen enough progress to reward him with a multi-year extension.

If there were a Mount Rushmore for interim head coaches who turned their team’s end-of-season growth into earning the full-time gig, J.B. Bickerstaff would be the first face carved on there. But in spite his short tenures with the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies after being bumped up to head coach, don’t let the reputation fool you: He’s been terrific so far for the young Cleveland Cavaliers.

It’s no secret the Cavs were one of the league’s most miserable situations for players and head coach John Beilein alike. His college-style approach never adapted to the NBA, and from on-court outbursts to off-court film sessions that went very awry, it was time for new leadership.

Beilein left millions on the table just to be free of the toxic situation that he helped create, and with Cleveland turning to its seventh head coach in the last 10 years, making a list of long-term head coaching candidates felt prudent — even with Bickerstaff being billed as Beilein’s eventual successor from the start.

A funny thing happened, though: The Cleveland Cavaliers resembled a competent NBA team in their first 10 games under Bickerstaff. They went 5-5 with a minus-2.9 point differential during that stretch, compared to a dismal 14-40 record with a minus-8.9 point differential — both league-worsts — under Beilein.

It’s not altogether shocking, then, that the Cavs are pulling the trigger on a lucrative, multi-year contract extension for Bickerstaff.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, it will be a four-year extension lasting through the 2023-24 season. While the financial terms of the deal have not been disclosed, the early signs of progress for this rebuilding team were enough to convince management that Bickerstaff was their guy moving forward. His .394 career win percentage over three seasons at the helm in Houston and Memphis isn’t exactly inspiring, but the immediate growth from some of Cleveland’s youngsters — and the general increase in effort across the board — cannot be ignored.

Over the course of Bickerstaff’s first 10 games in charge, the Cavaliers have beaten three current playoff teams — the Miami Heat, Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets — while besting two other teams that are still technically in the hunt, the Washington Wizards and San Antonio Spurs. Their five losses have all come against quality, playoff-caliber opponents.

A quick look at Cleveland’s improvement on both ends of the floor shows something’s working:

  • Under Bickerstaff (10 games): 110.4 O-rating (18th), 113.5 D-rating (17th), -3.1 Net Rating (22nd)
  • Under Beilein (54 games): 106.4 O-rating (24th), 115.1 D-rating (29th), -8.8 Net Rating (30th)

To be fair, 10 games is a small sample size, and there’s usually a drastic improvement in effort after a coach gets fired, but the individual growth from some of the team’s cornerstones is telling (and hopefully sustainable, for Cleveland’s sake).

Over this 10-game stretch, Collin Sexton has averaged a team-high 25.4 points and 4.1 assists per game on scorching .508/.431/.797 shooting splits — a sizable uptick from the 19.8 points and 2.7 assists per game on .460/.365/.859 splits he posted under Beilein.

Aside from the enjoyment of a game like Sexton’s 41-point performance in a loss to the Boston Celtics, Andre Drummond is finally (kinda, sorta) fitting in, Darius Garland‘s been much more efficient and Matthew Dellavedova is a relevant NBA player again. All the early signs point to Bickerstaff actually knowing what he’s doing when it comes to walking the fine line between player development for the young guns and assuaging the veterans’ desire to continue to play and compete.

There’s still plenty of work to do. Improving to .500 basketball is an encouraging step forward, and it almost makes one wonder what this Cavaliers team might have accomplished had Bickerstaff just been in charge from the start, but over such a small sample size, everyone’s progress should remain under the microscope.

At some point, Drummond still being a team-worst minus-9.4 when he’s on the floor will matter, especially if he winds up in Cleveland beyond this season — and that’s saying nothing of trying to figure out the Sexland backcourt, keeping Love happy and managing to find touches for Kevin Porter Jr. and Cedi Osman.

For the time being, however, Bickerstaff’s team has shown enough progress for the Cavs to feel like another external search for a new head coach was unnecessary. Here’s hoping this is the one that sticks.