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Head coach J.B. Bickerstaff to Cavaliers: ‘This season is not over’

Cleveland’s new leader is ready to move the franchise forward

New Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is hoping his third time as an NBA head coach will be the charm.

The Cavaliers promoted Bickerstaff from associate head coach to head coach on Feb. 19 after John Beilein resigned from his position and was reassigned to a different role. It is the third time Bickerstaff has landed a head coaching job in the midst of a season.

“It’s tough, but you just think about moving forward,” Bickerstaff said. “Whatever happened to the point that you are doesn’t matter anymore. There is a job that you know that you have to do that a lot of people are depending on you to do. Your staff, first and foremost, has lost its leader. So, someone has to step up and fill that spot for them and help them figure out what’s next.

“Obviously, the guys on the floor, they’re missing their leader. So, you have to fill in and be that for them. And the magnitude of the job, the fan base and all those things, all that plays in my mind. There is a direction and plan that is in place. You have to continue to work in that direction and kind of lead the charge.”

The Cavaliers, who have committed to keeping Bickerstaff beyond this season, were 14-40 under Beilein. The former Michigan coach struggled to connect with NBA players after coming from the college game and drew the ire of his players in January after saying they were playing like “thugs” during a film session despite intending to say “slugs.”

Bickerstaff, who is the son of former NBA head coach Bernie Bickerstaff, was the interim head coach of the Houston Rockets during the 2015-16 season and head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies from 2017-2019. With Bickerstaff’s promotion in Cleveland, the NBA now has seven African American head coaches among 30 teams.

The Undefeated spoke with Bickerstaff about his new job, connecting with his stars, and the state of black head coaches in the NBA.

What are your thoughts on the state of black head coaches in the NBA?

People are getting opportunities, but I always think there are more opportunities. As close as we are, there are a group of young black assistant coaches who are really, really tight. The David Vanterpools of the world. The Jamahl Mosleys of the world. JJ Outlaw and Johnnie Bryant. I think those guys deserve opportunities. They have interviewed for some jobs and are really, really good coaches.

There should be a push for those guys. And it’s not just race. It’s about skill set, and those guys have the skill set. Throw in the Lloyd Pierces and the David Fizdales, there is a group of us that are really, really tight that are putting themselves in position to get these jobs and should have some of them.

Had you been dreaming about being an NBA head coach again?

I wanted to be a head coach again, definitely. I wanted to have an opportunity to put something together and build something special. This organization, I think, is doing that. From the top, [Cavaliers owner] Dan [Gilbert] is doing what it takes to put a winner on the floor.

Koby [Altman, the general manager], he and I have a great relationship. I like the direction he is pointing the team and the type of players that he likes. I think we are on the same page and there is an opportunity to grow while understanding what it takes. There is a clear vision of what we are trying to do and how we proceed in the process that we go through to be champions again.

What can you say about your future as head coach of the Cavaliers?

To my knowledge, at some point in time we will negotiate a long-term deal. But this wasn’t an interim thing. This was a conversation that Koby and I had. And he said, ‘You’re the head coach moving forward.’ So, the plan is I will be back next season with a long-term deal.

With a mix of young and old players, and players that could be gone this offseason, how do you prepare for next season?

Right now, we are laying the foundation for what we want to be in the future. Having the summer and next season ahead, you can start planning steps and you don’t have to make big jumps in small, short periods of time.

Development takes time, takes patience and takes understanding. … We got young guards. Young guards take time to develop. You don’t want to throw too much at them or put too much pressure on them. Take it slow, and this gives them an opportunity to do that.

What did you say to the players during your first meeting as head coach?

The message was, ‘The season is not over.’ We still have a great opportunity ahead of ourselves for who we want to be moving forward. The conversation of things we can impact immediately and focusing on things. How competitive can we be? How hard can we play? How tough can we play? And how unselfish can we play?

Those things impact the game on both ends of the floor. And that is the foundation of who you want to be moving forward. And you give yourself a chance if you do that. The talent is going to come as the young players develop. We got a couple All-Stars on our team in K-Love [Kevin Love] and Dre [Andre Drummond]. The blending of that, the effort, the unselfishness and enjoying the spirit of competition and trying to have fun through all this.

The losing sucks and it is tough on everybody. But how do we find a way to enjoy what we are doing and create that kind of environment? It’s fun to come to work every day. And it’s not just the monotony of it all.

How do you build a connection with Love and Drummond?

It’s going to take time. Their skill sets should work well together. Love’s ability to space. Drummond’s ability to put pressure on the rim. Just going to take some time for them to get comfortable with one another.

What advice did your dad give you upon taking the Cavaliers job?

The first thing that he said, and it’s the first thing he’s always said, is, ‘What is your plan?’ … Being able to have that conversation with him and just bounce ideas back and forth, and just knowing that he is always there no matter what situation or circumstances come up, you can always fall back on that.

It makes the job a lot easier because you’re never in a spot where you are alone or you are going through it by yourself. You are talking to somebody who has been there for 50 years, almost, who just has a wealth of experience and knowledge and wants to see you succeed.

Any words Beilein left you with amid the transition?

He said that he believed in my leadership and my ability to do this and to go after it and go get it. That helps me knowing he has my back, supports me and believes in me from our time together. It gives me confidence that I can do the job.

What have you learned from your previous two coaching stints that will help you this time around?

Having had it happen before, you understand the patience that it takes to get to where you want to go. You can’t just throw in 15 new plays and 15 new defensive schemes. You have to take what you have as a foundation, shore that up and take baby steps in the direction you want to go.

How much do you appreciate being back in the head coach’s seat?

A lot. Growing up, you have such a respect for the position because my dad was a head coach. Him being my role model, the position means a lot. And having the opportunity to be in the position and have it taken away from you and having the opportunity to get it back, there is an awareness of how difficult it is to get that spot.

And then there is an appreciation of people believing in you, that you are capable of doing the job. So, there is a want to be successful and a want to go get it to try to make what we are trying to accomplish happen.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.