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J.B. Bickerstaff: the patron saint of midseason firings

An ode to the misery of the interim coach

photo: Adam Glanzman (flickr userAdam Glanzman) / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

This week, the Cleveland Cavaliers fired their woefully overmatched head coach John Beilein (pictured above yelling at Jim Boeheim) after only 54 games. They’ve spun the firing as a conscious uncoupling, with Beilein “resigning”, but after rumors of locker room turmoil, accusations of a racist film session, and a second to last 14-40 record, I’m not sure we need to pretend the feeling’s mutual.

They, like the Knicks, are offering their now-humiliated former employee a safe landing.

Beilein joins both the tragic group of coaches who failed to make it beyond one season and the illustrious alumni of Dan Gilbert’s fired employees. Since drafting LeBron in 2003, the Cavaliers employed eight different head coaches, along with granting two terms Grover Cleveland-style to Mike Brown.

The rate of dismissal increased in the last decade, with Bryon Scott, Mike Brown, David Blatt, Tyronn Lue, Larry Drew, and now John Beilein all getting hired and fired since 2013.

Cleveland paired an decrease in longevity for their coaches with wild increases in salary; written back in 2016, this post breaks down the ever-increasing sunk costs for the Cavaliers after firing so many coaches before their contracts expire.

How does this timeline look now?

Lighting money on fire

  • Mike Brown gets hired in April of 2013, signing a deal for five years and a reported $20MM. He replaces Bryon Scott who, according to the Crains Cleveland analysis, is still owed $4MM for the 2013-2014 season.

  • He’s fired after one season, leaving the Cavs in May 2014

  • David Blatt replaces Brown in June of 2014, earning a contract rumored to be for three years and $10MM, with a team option for a fourth year

  • He brings Tyronn Lue with him as an assistant coach. Lue signed what was then the largest salary ever for an assistant coach according to Yahoo, receiving a four year, $6.5MM contract.

  • Blatt gets fired midseason in January of 2016, not even a full season removed from making the NBA Finals. Lue steps in and wins the 2016 NBA Finals.

  • Dan Gilbert extends Lue after the title, giving him a reported five year, $35MM deal according to ESPN. The first four years are fully guaranteed, which helps Lue immensely after he gets fired barely two years later in October 2018.

  • Larry Drew takes over as interim coach and negotiates himself into a new contract with partial guarantees for the 2019-2020 season. While his salary never gets reported publicly, for our non-scientific purposes we can use an average of previous coaches and estimate at around $4MM for 2018 and $2MM for half of 2019-2020.

  • Drew does not make it to a second season, leaving Cleveland in April of 2019. He’s replaced by John Beilein, who signs a five year deal rumored to be over $4MM annually.

  • Now, Beilein’s out, and Adrian Wojnarowski reports that he’ll likely receive his salary for this season but nothing beyond that. Let’s estimate that payout at around $4MM.

  • Beilein’s being replaced by J.B. Bickerstaff, perennial interim coach and, also according to Wojnarowski, proud owner of one of the biggest assistant coach contracts in the league. Given what we know about Lue’s assistant coach salary, we can estimate again at around $2MM.

Here’s how that looks over time. Caveat being these are estimated/reported salaries, and limited to head coaches or assistants that became head coaches.

That’s four different head coaches collecting a salary from Cleveland this season!

Enter…the Bickerstaff

You’ll notice the dark blue salary spike slipping in at the end of that graph. That represents new coach J.B. Bickerstaff, taking over from the self-immolated John Belein. (ed note: he’s actually being named as the new full-time coach, so replacement coach is probably more accurate than interim. Point still stands, though!)

Bickerstaff should never be allowed to assist a head coach you might like. Cleveland’s promotion of Bickerstaff marks the third time in his career that Bickerstaff took over midseason for a fired coach, taking over for Houston in 2015 and Memphis in 2017. Marc Stein explains further:

In both instances, he inherited a team rife with controversy and full of oddities surrounding the predecessor’s dismissal.

Houston fired Kevin McHale after a slow start in 2015, a move that followed a playoff-bound 56 win season and shocked the league. That ESPN article shares a quote from Spurs legend Gregg Popovich:

"You always hate to see a colleague get fired, especially somebody who took a team to the Western Conference finals last year, and won more games than I think they've won in a long time or ever last year, I'm not sure," Popovich said. "So obviously at this short beginning of a season, you hate to see something like that happen. As we all sort of say: It's a volatile business, and sometimes it doesn't make sense ... like Kevin McHale getting fired."

In 2016, Memphis took Bickerstaff on as an assistant for David Fizdale, who too got fired early into a season following a successful playoff berth. Stephen A. Smith argued for The Undefeated that the explanation for Fizdale’s firing, while somewhat understandable, still didn’t fully add up. He wrote:

Because of it, Fizdale is gone. The same coach who guided them to the playoffs. Who gained fandom with everyone from declaring “they’re not going to ROOK us” during the playoffs against San Antonio last season, to his social activism supporting the removal of racist monuments in the city where “Dr. Martin Luther King was killed here 50 years ago.”

The obvious reason Fizdale is no longer with the Grizzlies is because of his relationship with Gasol. The lack of support he received in the end, and the belief that he stopped caring about his job because of his disgust with the situation, is simply too much to take.

Yet, the easiest reason of all is likely this: He worked for the Grizzlies.

This is simply what they do.

I offer up another theory: J.B. Bickerstaff is an all-powerful coaching demigod that draws power from chaos and thrives on drama.

Quick sidenote on Fizdale, though. In researching this post, I stumbled upon two video thumbnails from each of his midseason firings. I believe they call this a “soft landing.” Thanks, ESPN!

Celebrating the assistant to the regional managers

Here’s where an older article would have used some Game of Thrones metaphor to succinctly describe J.B. Bickerstaff’s political machinations; sadly, that show’s relevance died in a bonfire with the iron throne and David Benioff and David Weiss’s Star Wars movies.

Thanks to Basketball Reference, I pulled together everyone who coached at least one game since 2000 to build a modern data set, and found 17 coaches with what appear to be multiple interim/replacement stints. Guys like Kurt Rambis turned assistant coach gigs into one-season auditions for the Lakers and Knicks, while institutional pillars like Herb Williams stepped in multiple times to placate a restless owner with a quick trigger finger.

Alvin Gentry and Lionel Hollins boast two of the most fascinating career paths among this collection of coaches, and join Bickerstaff in the three-term club. After starting as an assistant coach, Gentry took over the Miami Heat in 1994, the Detroit Pistons in 1997, and the Phoenix Suns in 2008. He is every parent’s “just get your foot in the door” maxim personified.

Lionel Hollins took the opposite approach. Fully entrenched in the Vancouver/Memphis Grizzlies organization, Hollins worked for the Grizzlies from 1995 to 2000 and then 2002 to 2013. He took over head coaching duties in 1999, 2004, and 2008. The Grizzlies can’t quit him, and I’m not entirely sure how they explained his presence to any newly hired guy—don’t mind Lionel over there, he’s harmless!

There’s one example that wins, though, and he’s got a special connection to our man J.B.

It runs in the family

Bernie Bickerstaff—J.B.’s father, NBA pioneer, and current Cleveland Cavaliers executive—might have the most ridiculous collection of replacement positions. In 1994, Bickerstaff, then president and general manager of the Denver Nuggets, left the front office to become the replacement to the replacement coach after their first coach resigned and their second got fired.

If that wasn’t strange enough, he did it again in 1997! (ed note: had this as 1996, realized it was midseason in 1997). According to the Chicago Tribune, Bickerstaff left his role as head coach AND president/general manager with the Nuggets to become the head coach of the Washington Bullets.

Can you imagine a story like this happening today? Picture Gregg Popovich leaving San Antonio to take a demotion and become the head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, or Danny Ainge giving up on his Celtics build to lead…the Kings.

Bickerstaff went on to spend three seasons in Washington, winning 52% of his games but getting fired midway through the 1998-99 season. He then took the reins of the new expansion Charlotte Bobcats for another three seasons before returning to the assistant ranks in 2008. The elder Bickerstaff added a five game stint for the Lakers in 2012 after Mike Brown got fired, completing the trifecta of interim positions.

His son begins his own third term of replacement coaching, working for an owner who loves firing almost as much as he loves overpaying.

Appreciating the brave stopgaps

Being an interim coach sounds like an exercise in misery. You’re taking over a situation so toxic it removed the highly paid guy in the charge, a coach formerly your boss who now you must publicly better to ever hope to retain this dream job. More than likely, you’re facing a team with mismatched players, often ineffective young prospects, and no offseason to install your own vision.

Even if you get the locker room buy-in, and convince a bloodthirsty media ready for more carnage that you’re providing stability, you must then decide between supporting the long-term vision of your franchise by prioritizing youthful development, or maximizing the output of your brief shot at the big chair by playing capable veterans and aiming for mediocrity. Turning someone from an overwhelmed rookie into a useful player might help three years down the round, but the bleak mathematics of a losing record often lack crucial context in future interviews.

This is what faces J.B. Bickerstaff in Cleveland now. He’s done this twice before, and he inherits a locker room who reportedly just recently put away their pitchforks and rescheduled their mutiny. They have two young guards who represent their future, and veteran talent like Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and Andre Drummond who offer immediate stability but little long-term gain.

What path do you take?

That choice might mean the difference between a fourth different Bickerstaff administration in 2025, or whatever constitutes gainful employment at Cleveland.

Either way, he’ll probably get paid by Dan Gilbert long after he’s fired.

Updated the post a bit with the information that Bickerstaff is named as the full-time coach, so he’s technically not interim by the strictest definition. Still, he’s a three-time midseason replacement.