INDEPENDENCE — It’s not a rebuild, it’s a renaissance.
That was the message from John Beilein on Tuesday at his introductory news conference as Cavaliers head coach.
“Rebuild is not going to be a word we use here,” the 66-year-old said. “It is going to be more of a renaissance. Let’s see what we can do through trial and error.”
Moments later, the 41-year college head coach — he has never been fired from a job — gazed across the room at the Eastern Conference championship banners and one for winning the 2016 NBA Finals that hang on a wall at Cleveland Clinic Courts.
“Look at all of the banners up there,” Beilein said. “Why can’t there be more? It’s been done before. Why can’t it be done again?”
It’s possible the Cavs will one day hang another, but it’s going to take a lot of work, especially given that all five NBA Finals appearances in the franchise’s 49-year history came with LeBron James in a Cleveland uniform.
In their first season after four-time league MVP James departed for the second time, the Cavs struggled to a 19-63 record, tying Phoenix for the second-worst mark in the league.
Cleveland also never sniffed the playoffs in the four seasons after James left town for the first time in 2010, but Beilein, who spent the 12 previous seasons at the University of Michigan and led the Wolverines to nine NCAA Tournament appearances and two championship games, remains undeterred.
“I love the young roster,” he said. “I love the draft picks and the potential that we have, the (salary cap) flexibility now and in the future.”
Beilein already has talked to every player on the roster. Point guard Collin Sexton arrived at 6 a.m. from the Philippines to be at his new coach’s news conference — he was working out just prior to its start — and Larry Nance Jr. was already in the team’s practice facility when Beilein arrived at 9 a.m.
With the Nos. 5 and 26 picks in the June 20 NBA Draft, an All-Star in power forward Kevin Love and a number of players still potentially on the upside of their careers — Sexton, Nance, Jordan Clarkson, Ante Zizic, Cedi Osman — Beilein in some ways will inherit what is basically a highly paid college team.
“I looked at this job and said, ‘This feels just like the Michigan opportunity,’” he said. “People say, ‘You’re crazy. Why are you changing these jobs and doing something different?’ It just felt like this was a healthy change ... and an opportunity to do something else.”
With no previous NBA experience, Beilein will rely heavily on associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who will be his top assistant. The rest of the staff still must be filled out.
Beilein, who doesn’t have an agent, has consulted with former or current NBA coaches Jeff Van Gundy, who he recruited to Nazareth College in 1983, Billy Donovan and Lon Kruger, as well as longtime executive Jerry West and former Cavs general manager David Griffin, now with the New Orleans Pelicans.
With Donovan and Kruger, he talked about the adjustments necessary to make the jump from college to the pro game.
Van Gundy, now an analyst with ABC and ESPN, gave these pointers: “Be who you are” and “My advice to you is, ‘Don’t seek too much advice.’”
Griffin noted that when dealing with NBA players, Beilein should “learn to speak their language.”
In previous stints at Michigan, West Virginia, Richmond, Canisius, Division II Le Moyne, D-III Nazareth College and Erie Community College, Beilein never had a problem relating to his players.
“People are instantaneously attracted to him,” Cavs owner Dan Gilbert said. “His credibility goes without saying.”
Added general manager Koby Altman: “This is an incredible human being. You feel that the second you’re in his presence.”
When he began his search for a successor to Larry Drew, who parted ways with the team following the 2018-19 season, Altman was seeking a leader, communicator, culture-builder and someone who believed in analytics.
“John checked all the boxes,” Altman said. “On top of that, he had an incredible track record in player development.”
Beilein so impressed the Cavs during his initial interview that some members of Altman’s search team — that included assistant GM and Olmsted Falls High graduate Mike Gansey, who played for Beilein at West Virginia — wanted to hire him on the spot.
Altman searched a bit longer, but quickly came back to Beilein, who compiled a college coaching record of 829-468 (.639) and led four D-I schools — Michigan, West Virginia, Richmond and Canisius — to a combined 13 NCAA Tournament appearances.
“He didn’t get the marquee players (at Michigan), the kids who are top 20,” Altman said. “He gets the kids that are top 100 and turns them into NBA draft picks. ... He’s been the best at it. That was really intriguing to us.”
Extremely happy at Michigan, Beilein never viewed the Cleveland job as a now-or-never opportunity to coach in the NBA.
“I don’t think there was a time when I said, ‘I gotta get to the league,’” he said.
Nor did he grow tired of the college game, though he acknowledged the NCAA has a number of issues to address.
“College basketball is going through transition right now and needs to really evaluate itself and determine what is best for the sport,” he said. “It’s had betting scandals in the ’50s and the ’60s. It’s had the Spencer Haywood lawsuit (against the NBA, which until losing in 1971 required that players couldn’t enter the league until four years after high school) that everyone thought was going to kill college basketball. It’s had the one-and-done (players), the guys that were ready for the pros. It always makes it.”
“That’s not why I’m the new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers,” he added. “It’s about this opportunity right here, to grow with these young men in the great state of Ohio.”
Beilein, who earlier drew a few jeers after calling Michigan “the greatest university in the world,” then laughed at his last comment and added, “I guess I can say that now.”
Beilein also chuckled when asked about never being fired and given a rundown of previous Cavs coaches during Gilbert’s tenure.
If he fulfills all five years of his contract, Beilein will be the first Cleveland coach to serve that long since Mike Brown (2005-10), who recorded regular-season victory totals of 66 and 61 in his final two seasons but was fired because the team didn’t reach The Finals.
Beilein is the Cavs’ sixth coach since, including Brown a second time — and Cleveland made four NBA Finals appearances in that stretch.
“I never gave it one single thought, not in any way,’” Beilein said of the possibility of being canned. “Coaches, we don’t complain on paydays. Right? That’s part of this job.”
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