Heading into Tuesday night’s draft lottery, the Cleveland Cavaliers took a serious step in establishing organizational direction, signing Michigan head coach John Beilein to a five-year contract to lead the team, as first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. The move comes as something of a surprise, but certainly doesn’t lack for serious calculation. The Cavs had primarily been linked to younger, highly regarded assistant coaches around the league. General manager Koby Altman and ownership opted for what is more or less the opposite of that.
Beilein, 66, leaves behind an 829–468 record at the college level, with his most prominent stops at West Virginia, where he coached Cavaliers assistant GM and former Mountaineer Mike Gansey, and at Michigan, where he took the Wolverines to two Final Fours. His dalliance with the Detroit Pistons’ head coaching job was publicized last year, with the Pistons ultimately opting to hire Dwane Casey. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert, a prominent Michigan State alum, has tried to hire Tom Izzo in the past, including a public courtship in 2010. The marriage here is certainly not without basis.
Beilein is regarded as one of the sharpest tactical minds in college basketball, and he’s known as someone comfortable delegating work to assistants and for cultivating a collaborative environment. When it comes to player development, Michigan often draws praise from NBA executives for helping guys improve before sending them to the pros. The Wolverines produced nine draft picks in Beilein’s tenure there, Caris Levert and Tim Hardaway Jr. among them. The question now is what it means for the direction of Cleveland’s roster, which still includes many chief components from a team that went to four consecutive NBA Finals built around LeBron James.
While at this stage of Beilein’s career, you have to wonder if he wants to weather a full rebuild. His on-court acumen is substantial, but the Cavs won just 19 games last season and are a ways from returning to the playoff picture. Michigan, similarly, is looking at a soft reboot, with Charles Matthews turning pro and Jordan Poole and Ignas Brazdeikis appearing likely to stay in this year’s draft. And a tear-down may be where the Cavs are headed, currently in a three-way tie for best odds in Tuesday night’s draft lottery, where the top prize would mean the chance to select Duke’s Zion Williamson. The pairing of Beilein and Williamson, or a prospect like Ja Morant or R.J. Barrett, would help jump-start things. Collin Sexton, last year’s first-rounder, will have an opportunity to benefit here as well.
Ultimately, the Beilein hire sets an unusual and welcome tone of stability for the Cavs, who fired Tyronn Lue after an 0–6 start last season and have been operating in something of a post-LeBron malaise since James’ departure for Los Angeles. It’s not often college coaches make smashing transitions to the NBA game, but there is room for optimism here, for as long as Beilein plans to keep coaching. Cultivating respect will not be the challenge here, and he’s a no-frills type who has consistently found ways to get more out of his talent. What Cleveland chooses to do with its veterans, particularly Kevin Love, will say more about where exactly the arrow is pointing next.
Still, this may not move the needle right away when it comes to wins and losses, and the pressure now falls on the front office to draft well and give Beilein the right pieces to build what he wants. But patience, something that has eluded ownership in the past, is what the Cavs need now. Certainly, Beilein has earned that much. And with Cleveland’s past luck in the draft lottery, the next 36 hours or so could have much more to offer them.