Cavs fire coach despite back-to-back playoff appearances

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FILE – Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff answers a question during a news conference at an NBA media day, Monday, Oct. 2, 2023, in Cleveland. Bickerstaff was fired as Cleveland’s coach on Thursday, May 23, 2024, despite leading the Cavaliers through an injury-ravaged season and into the second round of the NBA playoffs.(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

CLEVELAND (AP) — J.B. Bickerstaff won and still lost his job.

He dragged the Cleveland Cavaliers through some turbulent seasons, getting them back to the playoffs and deeper into the postseason than they’ve been without LeBron James on the roster in more than 30 years.

It wasn’t enough.

Bickerstaff was fired as Cleveland’s coach Thursday despite the Cavs improving in each of his four seasons and overcoming numerous injuries this year to make it to the second round of the playoffs.

His dismissal came a week after the Cavs were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals while playing the final two games without All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell or center Jarrett Allen.

Bickerstaff was successful, but other issues apparently led Cavs owner Dan Gilbert and president of basketball operations Koby Altman to make a move that at face value might seem extreme or even unfair.

The coaching change could trigger a summer shift for the Cavs, who are hoping to sign Mitchell to a long-term contract extension and could make major moves while being tied to whatever James ultimately decides to do.

James, who can opt out of his contract with the Lakers, attended Cleveland’s final home playoff game, raising speculation about him making another homecoming and playing a third stint with the Cavs — maybe a final career act.

That’s down the road.

In the short term, the Cavs have begun their search for a replacement for Bickerstaff.

“J.B. is a well-respected NBA coach and an incredible human being,” Altman said in a statement. “Over the past four years, he helped establish a culture that progressively drove players to become the best versions of themselves. Decisions like these are never easy, particularly when you look back at where this franchise rebuild started under his leadership.

“The NBA is a unique business that sometimes requires aggressive risk-taking to move a franchise forward and ultimately compete for championships.”

Altman will hold a media availability on Friday.

The Cavs are expected to interview candidates with NBA head coaching experience and perhaps some high-caliber assistants. They have to hope it goes better than their last search, when they hired Michigan’s John Beilein, who resigned at the All-Star break in 2019 and Bickerstaff took over.

While Bickerstaff was credited with building a strong culture, he had his flaws.

He struggled with in-game adjustments. His offense was often stagnant and there’s a strong belief there should have been more development in guard Darius Garland and Evan Mobley, who along with Mitchell and Allen give the Cavs one of the league’s best young core of players.

But Bickerstaff helped the team navigate around numerous injuries. Garland (broken jaw) and Mobley (knee surgery) missed six weeks and Cleveland went 18-2 without them. And despite not having Mitchell and Allen, who suffered a rib injury in the opening round, the Cavs pushed the Celtics before losing the series in five games.

Bickerstaff’s firing was met with some shock around the league, considering what he accomplished.

“I thought J.B. Bickerstaff did an amazing job,” Indiana coach Rick Carlisle said before Game 2 of the Eastern Conference finals in Boston. “That was a complete culture makeover there. He was inventive. They started playing big 4 1/2 years ago. A lot of people were going, ‘Huh? How is this ever going to work?’

“They had (Lauri) Markkanen playing three. And the other two big guys. But, then they became a top 3 or 4 defensive team in the league. This past season, their injuries were constant. And they were constantly adjusting. … So I have great respect for him.”

In his first full season, Bickerstaff, who was under contract through 2026, went just 22-50 with one of the league’s youngest rosters. They jumped to 44 wins in his second year before losing in the play-in tournament game while showing major strides.

After acquiring Mitchell via trade in 2022, the Cavs went 51-31 last season and had home-court advantage in the first round before getting knocked out in five games by the New York Knicks. The early exit put added pressure on Bickerstaff to do more this season.

The 45-year-old Bickerstaff went 170-159 in the regular season and 6-11 in the playoffs with Cleveland, which defeated Orlando in seven games before losing to Boston. Their series win over the Magic was the franchise’s first without James on its roster since 1993.

The Cavs went 48-34 this season — and stayed among the top teams in the Eastern Conference — amid a rash of major injuries that forced Bickerstaff to juggle his lineup on an almost daily basis and throughout the postseason.

Gilbert may be looking for a stronger voice and perhaps a coach to satisfy Mitchell, a six-time All-Star who is under contract through the 2026 season and eligible to sign a deal worth roughly $200 million this summer.

Mitchell has given no indication he wants out of Cleveland.

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