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John Beilein and the Cavaliers Were Doomed From the Start

The college-to-pros transition is notoriously difficult to pull off for head coaches, but it’s downright impossible if you treat your players like they’re still in school

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It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Cleveland Cavaliers and head coach John Beilein are considering parting ways. The team is 14-40, second worst in the league. ESPN reported on Sunday that both parties have “discussed [the] possibility of him stepping down as coach during the NBA All-Star Break.” A collaborative discussion about how each other feels is unexpectedly thoughtful, from both parties. Beilein’s built a reputation as a bad communicator during his nine-month tenure with the Cavaliers—and the Cavaliers toss away coaches like day-old avocados. Beilein would be the fifth coach Cleveland has cycled through in the last six seasons. Beilein, who signed a five-year contract last May, could be gone before he hits the one-year mark.

The ESPN report cited Beilein as “miserable.” He left Michigan after a 12-year, 428-278 run with the program, including two Final Four runs, to put himself in this position. (Adjusting to life after college is notoriously painful. A couple million would make the transition easier, though.) Cleveland isn’t the easiest franchise to make the jump with, either. The disarray starts at the top with owner Dan Gilbert and gushes down until the newbie—whether it’s a GM, coach, or star—bleeds out.

Beilein’s unsuccessful stint in Cleveland isn’t entirely the organization’s fault. The roster is woefully short on promise, but his approach never fit in the first place. Beilein is used to the sovereignty that college coaches have. (There’s a reason why Bobby Knight, Coach K, Rick Pitino, and Bob Huggins are portrayed as just really caring, rather than being callous.) That type of authority and slack doesn’t exist in this NBA. The players aren’t unpaid kids—they’re grown professionals paid millions of dollars more than their coach will ever receive. You can’t command them. You can’t reign over them. You can only convince them that you’re here to help.

There’s a split track record for college coaches who have transitioned to the league. On one side, you have guys like Fred Hoiberg, who was fired in 2018 after struggling to harness strong personalities like Jimmy Butler. Somewhere in the middle, you have Billy Donovan, who has survived since 2015. Then all the way on the other end is Brad Stevens, the platonic ideal. He excels as a “players’ coach,” one who, at 43, can sympathize, connect, and relate. That isn’t the case for 67-year-old Beilein. He’s used to being a boss, not a guide. That type of player-coach relationship has fallen out of favor in recent years, especially for a rebuilding team chock full of young men dealing with the difficult transition to the league.

Four of the last five coaches to win a title share approachable personalities. Nick Nurse, Steve Kerr, Tyronn Lue, and Erik Spoelstra—all laid back, all listeners. (Relative to other coaches, at least. Gregg Popovich is the fifth. Despite his stony facade, we all know he’s a softie inside.) It’s not to say there aren’t players in the league who are inspired by beration. Take Spo’s own, Jimmy Butler. But they’re becoming the exception, not the rule.

Beilein is old school. It’s the reason he’s struggled to connect with his players, but it’s also a soft way of excusing behavior. His most egregious misstep was in January, during a film session. Beilein said that the Cavs were “no longer playing as a bunch of thugs,” a wildly inappropriate word that he used in front of his majority-black roster. Beilein later apologized, and attempted to clarify, claiming he meant to say slugs. The ESPN report noted that “several skirmishes in public and private with players [have] played a part in the rapid deterioration.” The most public display of player frustration came in January, when Kevin Love screamed that Beilein read a possession wrong, and whipped a pass to Cedi Osman out of disgust.

A split seems inevitable at this point. There’s already talk of which college programs Beilein could swoop in and save. It’d be another chance for Cleveland to dip into the delusion that a new coach will change things. The front office could chase after dream candidates like Spurs assistant Becky Hammon or Villanova’s Jay Wright, who has been a popular name in NBA circles for years. Beilein’s been such a dramatic failure that Cleveland should approach any prospective college coach with caution. (Though Wright in particular is known for building strong relationships with his players.) The inverse is also true: Beilein had 12 happy years at Michigan, went to Cleveland, and became miserable just nine months later. That’s hardly a graduation. Both sides now face the reality of failure and time wasted. After trial and error across the league, it’s becoming clear that the traits which made a prosperous coach a decade ago have changed. Assembling the team of the future is pointless if you bring in a coach that can’t connect with them.