One year removed from the second departure of LeBron James, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ shift in course has never felt more comforting.
With players wearing smiles, showing their humorous sides and taking pictures at various stations, it wasn’t hard to tell how clear the air in the building was at Media Day. After all, we’re officially into October, meaning that NBA training camps and preseason have gotten underway.
This time of year signifies a fresh start for all teams and optimism is at its highest. Regardless of what happened in the previous season or during the summer, there are clean slates across the board in the wins and losses column. For a Cavaliers group coming off a discombobulated, injury-riddled 19-win campaign in 2018-19, it’s especially relieving.
“I felt we had almost like three seasons to be honest with you,” Jordan Clarkson said Monday at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
Clarkson remembers Tyronn Lue’s firing six games into the year. He remembers Larry Drew taking over as the voice of the team before agreeing upon interim head coaching duties through the finish line. He can’t help but shake his head, snickering at the thought of how many bumps and bruises the team gathered along the way, leaving no choice but to lean on a collection of two-way players and 10-day contracts.
New Cavaliers head coach John Beilein, however, did not go through that tumultuous time with the wine and gold. Instead, he was leading the Michigan Wolverines to a fourth consecutive NCAA Tournament run in their second straight season with at least 30 wins. Beilein surprised many when he decided to take a stab at making the jump to the pros after 41 years of coaching in the college ranks, but he’s never been more excited to dive right in with his first NBA squad.
“There’s a lot of opportunities here instead of challenges,” Beilein said when asked about what would be the most difficult aspect of his transition.
No longer will Beilein have to live in a suitcase while taking plane rides to various states on recruiting trips, nor will he have to worry about factors outside of teaching his players hands-on. At 66 years old, he’ll be embarking on a new journey with more energy than he’s ever had before in order to turn the tide in Cleveland.
Beilein will have plenty of assistance in all of this. He constantly reminds everyone of how J.B. Bickerstaff, Antonio Lang, Dan Geriot and Lindsay Gottlieb are playing just as important of a role as he is. Still, don’t exclude the guys on the court doing their part either.
“When we have a player-led team, that’s when we’re a really good team,” Beilein said. “Whether it’s Kevin [Love], whether it’s Tristan [Thompson], whether it’s Collin Sexton, whether it’s Darius Garland, anybody can move into that leadership position. So it’s really important that we’re connected with them, so they can take over and we can just adapt to changes we need to make.”
Beilein understands how demanding of an endeavor it will be. He knows that the Cavaliers ranked dead last defensively a season ago, the worst rating in NBA history. Making such improvements on both ends will not happen overnight. He’ll have about one-third of the practice time he’s used to and nearly three times the amount of games to accomplish what he wants.
Whatever lies ahead, he’s prepared for it by having in-depth conversations with Billy Donovan and Brad Stevens — two coaches that also leaped to the pros from Division-I — and his staff as a whole.
“We’re coaching a lot of veterans, we’re coaching a lot of young men. There’s very similar strategy to those,” Beilein said. “You learn from defeat. You get better from defeat. Defeat doesn’t kill you. It’s going to make you better. You don’t want to lose too much, but it’s that same thing. Handling adversity is easier than handling prosperity. You’ve got to be mentally tough to handle a winning streak, too. And so, all those things come into play as you’re reading the pulse of the team.”
Beilein’s top priority in his debut year is to get Cleveland on a steady rise, ensuring development and true growth out of his players, both young and old, with a focus on fundamentals. He maintains if that vision comes to fruition, the wins will take care of themselves.
Needless to say, tied with the Phoenix Suns for the second-worst record in the league, the wins did not take care of themselves last year. There were flashes of progression here and there, and the team was noticeably better when it had healthy players soaking up the majority of the minutes — but there was no hiding the fact that the Cavaliers were a level below everybody else.
Going through a rebuilding process takes patience and a strong mind. Keeping an eye on the bigger picture is key, often taking the harsh downswings in stride alongside the rarer highs. Such a mentality will be necessary once again this season, as Cleveland has hit the reset button with its personnel and its roster.
“It definitely just kinda changed your mindset in terms of everything and prepared us for this year,” Clarkson said. “I feel like us coming in here, everybody should have an open mind ready to compete and play because everything is new.”
“As a team, I feel like we can’t go backwards,” Sexton said. “We can only move forward and continue to get better.”
Sexton and Clarkson were the only Cavaliers to play over 80 games in 2018-19, with the former featured in every single contest.
Cedi Osman, another crucial piece in this young core, played the third-most amount during his first full year in the NBA. What’s unique about him is that he was a part of that conference championship-winning team as a rookie, so he’s experienced both sides of the spectrum, something the Turkish forward feels has readied him for what lies ahead.
“First two years, it was like white and black,” Osman said. “I saw going to the Finals and not making the playoffs, so that’s why I believe that those two years really made me better. This year, I believe we have a much better team and I think we’re gonna have the chance to surprise a lot of teams . . . I really believe we have a bright future in front of us.”
Love and Thompson played integral roles during championship-caliber seasons at the Cavaliers’ height. They’ve also been on rebuilding ball clubs before in the early days of their respective careers. Larry Nance Jr. is somewhere in the middle has he enters year five. No member of that trio is a stranger to what an 82-game marathon consists of.
“There’s gonna be lumps and bumps. There’s gonna be growing pains and bruises and all of that stuff,” Nance said. “It’s gonna take time to mesh, take time to jell together – and all that takes mental toughness. Especially with me hopefully shouldering more of the leadership load in the locker room this year. Mental toughness is what it’s all about.
“It’s not just gonna be from me. It’s gonna be from Kev, from Tristan, Darius and Collin. It’s gonna be from all of us. This is a unique team. I think that we can be really good, but it’s gonna take a lot of stick-to-it-ness.”
Thompson embraces being an important voice in the locker room. He enjoys taking his teammates under his wing, particularly rookies going from a 30-game season to a much longer one in the pros.
“For us, we’ve gotta tell ‘em, you’re gonna have some nights where you feel like this NBA stuff is easy and you’re gonna have nights where you feel like, ‘Man, do I belong?’ But you’ve just gotta stay the course,” Thompson said. “It’s on us veterans to kinda help their process [and make it] easier. However we can help ‘em be the best they can be, that’s on us. And as a leader of this team, it’s important for me to help these guys transition very smoothly.”
The reality is this: All but five players on Cleveland’s roster have fewer than six years of experience under their belt. Three rookies — and potentially a couple more on two-way contracts — will be carving out their respective niches on the team as things move along. With learning comes lessons. With lessons come losses. And with losses, invariably, comes second-guessing.
Handling everything with a one game at a time approach is a quality some players have trouble with. For those exposed to the league for the first time, it can be even more difficult to grasp. Noise can enter their heads and drive them down. Garland has spoken with his agent, Rich Paul, about this very subject.
“[Rich has] dealt with a lot of guys, so I’ve heard a lot of different stories,” Garland said. “It’s a long season. 82 games is a long season. Coming from college — I only played five — it’s gonna be crazy for me to play all 82. I mean, I’m ready though. I’m ready to just attack the season really hard, play my game, get my teammates involved and do what we have to do to win.”
Beilein has wasted no time in implementing his methods.
Working one week early with rookies such as Garland, Dylan Windler and Kevin Porter Jr. — along with Dean Wade and Marques Bolden — he introduced the Beilein Ball, a customized, official NBA basketball with a black stripe lasered around it. The concept is to see the rotation of the ball and correct hand positioning on shots and spin on passes.
“He’s really into his craft,” Garland said. “That’s what I like about him. He’s really a gym rat. He’s always in here working or doing something with the guys, so it’s really fun being around him.”
Nance senses Beilein’s eagerness, going as far as to say that his coach has more energy than him. Clarkson is already a fan of his emphasis on ball movement. Sexton, too, has noticed a change in culture with him and his staff in charge.
Getting through to Love and Thompson is arguably the most imperative for Beilein as he tries to gain respect and set the tone; but so far, so good. Thompson has had conversations with former teammate Nik Stauskas and friend Darius Morris, hearing rave reviews about the offensive guru from two former Wolverines.
“He kinda wants to see what can you bring to the table instead of just boxing you up before knowing who you are as a player,” Thompson said of Beilein. “That’s what you want from your coach, especially a new coach.”
Beilein treats practice as seriously as he does a game — with tempo and intensity. He has a daily mantra in which everybody on the floor participates before the two-and-a-half hour session begins.
How are we gonna practice? “Hard!” How are we gonna practice? “Smart!”
Day one featured a lot of station work, with the team sorted into rotating groups of three by jersey color: red, white and green. Each of those were assigned to assistants. Lang worked with the big men, Bickerstaff and Geriot took defensive responsibilities with the guards and Gottlieb assumed a role centered around development. The morning finished off with 5-on-5.
Following the first practice of training camp, Love referred to Beilein’s ways as “old school” with an attention to detail and getting back to the basics.
“I think it’s his enthusiasm, just in how he talks and how he approaches every day,” Love said after the first day. “But [old school] was what I was around when I grew up. My dad [Stan Love] put the ball in my hands and he talked about every era, even before he came into the league. So maybe a breath of fresh air is the wrong terminology, because I’ve played for some great coaches, but just a different look.”
Day two was a bit more rough around the edges. There were moments of slippage in defensive stances and sporadic bad passes. There were no sour attitudes or any signs of apathy, but rather just not doing the simple things.
“They don’t have a lack of discipline,” Beilein said Wednesday. “They probably have a lack of knowledge of how to play efficiently. That’s what discipline is. You have discipline, you’re efficient.”
That’s why Beilein intends to really emphasize the instructional side of practice, showing the players specific mistakes that were made and assuring they grow and learn from those.
“Many of the young players have probably been able to get by with talent and still win the game without a lot of discipline. They’re so good – sometimes their team wins by 30, 20, all these things – and they don’t really know what wins and loses games,” Beilein said.
“And now as they get into college and now from here, they start to really realize, ‘That was really boring when coach taught it to me, but it’s really important now.’ It takes time. Everybody will have a different learning curve. But it takes time for some more than others to put some significance, put some more importance [into] some simple things that are really easy to do, but in the middle of action, they’re hard to do when you’re thinking about something else.”
There are three weeks of training camp until the regular season gets underway later this month. As of today, 30 teams in the NBA are even at 0-0.
While everybody technically has a fresh start, the Cavaliers have undergone a true facelift. The building is filled with hope. The demeanor around the organization is loose. There is really no pressure on them outside of the maturation of the franchise as a whole.
Beilein drew a comparison to the newly-renovated Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse to paint a picture of how he looks at the upcoming campaign.
“There’s a lot of new things going on down there, just like with our basketball program,” Beilein said. “They didn’t have to knock it down and build another one. They had to repurpose, refinish, rebuild different areas to keep up with the times, and we’re going to be doing the same thing.
“I think you’ll embrace the product. Be patient with it. And as we go along, hopefully you’ll see steady improvement, both in the wins and in the losses.”
Cleveland’s ascension is set to begin with Beilein at the helm.
It’s up to the rest to buy-in.