To the surprise of plenty, the Cleveland Cavaliers have underperformed against the New York Knicks this postseason. Considering the heavy expectations, Cleveland has been unable to shoulder the weight. Throughout the series, the Knicks have been stronger, faster, wiser, hungrier and, more than anything, more driven to win on a nightly basis. Sure, much of it is between the Cavaliers and the Knicks on the court. But, in the tactical battle between Cleveland’s J.B. Bickerstaff and New York’s Tom Thibodeau, things have also favored the Knicks.
Other than Game 2, where the Cavaliers boat raced New York, Thibodeau has been one step of Bickerstaff every step of the way in this ongoing series. Thibodeau has found the proper pressure points to rattle Cleveland on either end of the floor and give his team the runway to success. Whether it’s walling off the interior, having every player crash the glass, staggering lineups and rotations, exploiting defensive weaknesses – you name it. New York’s game plan has been influential throughout this playoff showdown.
All credit should go to Thibodeau and his staff for having the foresight to make minor alterations while maintaining a similar approach every game. From the Cavaliers’ side of things, it can be frustrating to watch Cleveland remain static when they should be dynamic considering they’re in a 3-1 hole. Some of the issues include rolling out Caris LeVert in the starting lineup, trotting out Ricky Rubio, relegating Isaac Okoro to the end of the rotation, defending Jalen Brunson with Darius Garland or Cedi Osman or even something as simple as allowing so many offensive rebounds.
Bickerstaff has been trying to pull the correct levels, and, unfortunately, it’s burned his team during the process. Naturally, this has frustrated fans during the series and, more often than not, has them calling for Bickerstaff’s job. These armchair general managers also think that for the Cavaliers to succeed, former Raptors head coach Nick Nurse or former Celtics head coach Ime Udoka are the logical candidates to replace Bickerstaff. In their eyes, Nurse has championship experience with smaller guards running the show. Udoka could be a hard-nosed, defensive-first coach that could push Cleveland when things are tight in the postseason – even though Udoka used his position of power to coerce inappropriate relationships in Boston.
Even though Udoka just took the head coaching job with the Houston Rockets and while Nurse is currently unemployed, Bickerstaff’s job should be safe with Cleveland going forward, barring anything unforeseen. For a while now, the current regime running the Cavaliers has never been one to dramatically overreact to what’s happening. They’ve always been patient and pragmatic and believed in what they were building – including Bickerstaff as the team’s head coach now and in the future.
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So, Bickerstaff won’t be coaching for his life on Wednesday night when Cleveland hosts New York at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. Besides, the mentality heading into this season was never championship or bust. It was a chance for youngsters like Darius Garland, Evan Mobley, Jarrett Allen, Isaac Okoro and others to whet their whistle for the first time or build upon a handful of previous postseason appearances. That experience can allow Cleveland to figure out what does and doesn’t work with this existing group and address all of it this offseason. This season is the next step in the long-term vision of building a title contender. These are part of the on-court growing pains happening in real time.
Also, no matter how long it goes, this postseason run has allowed Bickerstaff to grow and gain experience. Besides this season, Bickerstaff has only once appeared as an NBA head coach in the playoffs during his brief stint running the Houston Rockets. Unlike his position in Cleveland, Bickerstaff had no guarantee of keeping the job with the Rockets after being named the interim head coach after Kevin McHale was fired 11 games into the year. Looking back, Bickerstaff joked that he’s much heavier and has much less hair now than in Houston. But, he also stressed that he has fun daily with the Cavaliers, especially knowing there isn’t the added stress of having to coach for his life.
With Cleveland, Bickerstaff has had the luxury of learning and growing alongside the young team he was shaping in his idealized basketball vision. With how things have unfolded this postseason, Bickerstaff is going through familiar growing pains like his team. Sure, that can be a disappointing pill to swallow no matter who you are – especially with how incredible the Cavaliers have looked under Bickerstaff nearly all season long. But, like the front office, fans need to remain patient and pragmatic when things don’t go exactly how you want them to. If the Cavaliers acted impulsively as some wished they would, they’d be no better than the Cleveland Browns – a moniker no team wants to be associated with.
Whenever this magical season does end for Bickerstaff and the Cavaliers, and it feels likely it’ll be sooner rather than later, change will be coming. But, again, it won’t be at the head coach position. Instead, Cleveland needs to find young, legitimate depth on the perimeter to support the more top-heavy rotation already in place. Adding genuine depth behind Allen and Mobley and a more serviceable backup point guard should also be on the radar. Thankfully, this postseason has made the need even more apparent, and hopefully, the Cavaliers will address it this summer.
Bickerstaff and his team need that to round things out so that you don’t see more befuddling decisions this time next year. Again, it’s understandably frustrating to have to witness things possibly come to an end like this. But, it also isn’t fair to Bickerstaff to incinerate his entire body of work in Cleveland based on the team’s most significant flaws exploited by New York. If the Cavaliers give him everything he needs to succeed next season, and Cleveland still falls apart at the seams, then it’s fair to start having that uncomfortable conversation. But it’s also unnecessary to have it right now, considering Bickerstaff is the most successful coach the Cavaliers have had in several seasons. Sometimes, you don’t need to try and fix something that doesn’t need fixing.
Evan Dammarell is a sports journalist covering all things Cleveland right off the shores of Lake Erie. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected] He can also be found three to five times weekly on Locked On Cavs, a part of the Locked On Podcast Network.
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