Hiring 67-year-old John Beilein with no NBA coaching experience to rebuild the Cleveland Cavaliers was always a bizarre choice. But few head coaching experiences in league history have ever gone this poorly, this quickly.
Beilein is out after 54 total games in which he won only 14. That’s fewer than every other team not named the Golden State Warriors, who are without four of their five best players from last season. He’s the third coach in the last 30 years to not make it through one complete season as a rookie head coach.
This year has gone so poorly that Beilein is giving back money owed to him. Per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, he’s going to be paid just a portion of the five-year deal he received that was to pay him more than $4 million per year. (The fifth year was a team option.)
How did things get so bad?
Here’s what happened.
The Cavs got off to a hot start
It feels like forever ago, but there was a time when this was all working. The Cavs, with no expectations and a confusing roster, started the year off 4-5. I called the team “surprisingly fun!”
Tristan Thompson was playing well, Collin Sexton looked improved. Things appeared fine.
Then the Cavs faded
After winning four out of their first nine games, it took the Cavs five weeks to win two more. Darius Garland and Collin Sexton’s backcourt fit was called into question. The Cavs’ lack of depth was exposed. And as the Dec. 15 unofficial start to trade season approached, Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson’s long-term decisions were up in the air, too. The Cavs regressed to what we thought they’d look like in preseason, and the locker room deteriorated along with it.
Beilein, a college coach since 1978, struggled to keep up with the ways of an NBA coach. “He was a dictator — not a coach suited for today’s NBA,” The Athletic reported. Players felt they were being overworked in practices going as far back as preseason. They were fed up. Love started to sit on the second night of back-to-backs. Then Jordan Clarkson got traded.
The team went as far as to criticize Beilein for naming plays after animals. A curl was known “polar bear” in Beilein’s system. “You don’t go pro to do that kind of thing,” one league source told The Athletic.
The Cavs started to unravel quickly.
Love had an outburst
Love, a 12-year veteran, isn’t known for public spats, but he let loose in a January game. After he wasn’t fed the ball in the post, he yelled and clapped in the direction of Sexton, received a pass and rocketed a laser to Cedi Osman.
His anger wasn’t with his teammates, it was with general manager Koby Altman and Beilein. Prior to the game, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported about Love’s frustrations. He’d had it out with Altman, screaming “there was no feel here.” Then he posted a picture from The Joker.
Then it got even worse.
Beilein called his team “thugs,” and tried to cover it up
In a film session in January, Beilein said his team was “no longer playing like a bunch of thugs,” according to Woj.
“I didn’t realize that I had said the word ‘thugs,’ but my staff told me later I did and so I must have said it,” Beilein told ESPN. “I meant to say slugs, as in slow-moving. We weren’t playing hard before, and now we were playing harder. I meant it as a compliment. That’s what I was trying to say. I’ve already talked to eight of my players tonight, and they are telling me that they understand.”
Players did not understand. According to The Athletic, “some of them thought it was an insult to their intelligence.” The team then started playing songs that included the word “thug” in it around him, including, Bone Thugz-n-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and Tupac’s “Thugz Mansion.”
The Cavaliers are a mess
Cleveland hasn’t been right since LeBron James left. Kyrie Irving has requested a trade, Isaiah Thomas flopped as his replacement, the team is on its fourth head coach in three years and Love and Thompson are both unhappy. On top of that, their last two first-round picks, Sexton and Garland, don’t appear to be franchise cornerstones.
J.B. Bickerstaff will replace Beilein for the rest of the season, and maybe permanently. But he has a lot to figure out.
“At least we’re not Detroit,” some Cleveland meme enthusiasts might suggest. But, Andre Drummond, who was just traded to the Cavs at the deadline, “told teammates the situation in Cleveland was worse than Detroit,” according to The Athletic.