Today we will begin a series of profiles on the Cavaliers coaching staff by focusing on one of the men who was an assistant to Brown with the Los Angeles Lakers and has joined him for his second go-around with the Cavaliers, Bernie Bickerstaff.
As we head toward the quiet part of the offseason between summer league and training camp, now seems like a good time to get to know some of the people who will impact the season beyond the players on the roster. When the Cleveland Cavaliers rehired Mike Brown, the immediate assumption was that he would rehire John Kuester as his “offensive coordinator” and fill out the rest of the roster with a combination of his former assistants as well as a few holdovers from the Byron Scott era. For the most part, this has not been the case and Brown has built an intriguing staff with an excellent mix of youth and experience, coming from a variety of backgrounds and therefore having a multitude of perspectives on basketball in general and the Cavaliers in particular.
If the Cavaliers coaching staff is a mixture of youth and experience, Bickerstaff is the definition of “experienced coach.” Bickerstaff began his coaching career as an assistant to Phil Woolpert at the University of San Diego in the fall of 1968. After spending one year as an assistant coach, Bickerstaff was promoted to head coach despite being only 25 years old. After compiling a record of 54-49 in his four years as head coach, Bickerstaff was hired as an assistant coach by the Washington Bullets of the NBA in 1973. He would remain with the Bullets for 12 seasons, helping to guide the team to the 1978 NBA championship.
In 1985, Bickerstaff was hired to be the head coach of the Seattle Supersonics. During his five years with the Sonics, Bickerstaff improved the team’s record in each of his first four seasons, highlighted by a trip to the Western Conference Finals in the 1986-87 season. Bickerstaff was also named the 1987 NBA Coach of the Year at this time. During Bickerstaff’s fifth season (1989-90), however, the Sonic’s record slipped to 41-41 missing the postseason. Bickerstaff was then relieved of his duties following that season.
Bickerstaff quickly landed on his feet though. In 1990 he was named president and general manager of the Denver Nuggets. During his six seasons as president, Bickerstaff’s greatest successes were drafting four-time Defensive Player of the Year Dikembe Mutombo in 1991 and watching the Nuggets team he built make history in 1994 by becoming the first eighth-seed to win a first-round series against a No. 1 seed. Bickerstaff also coached the Nuggets from 1994 to 1996, before being fired 13 games into the 1996-97 season. Bickerstaff was hired that same season as the new head coach of the Bullets, leading that team to its first playoff appearance since 1988. Unfortunately, that would be Bickerstaff’s only time taking the Bullets to the playoffs, and he and the team parted ways in 1999.
After spending several years away from the NBA, Bickerstaff was hired in 2003 as the first general manager and head coach of the expansion Charlotte Bobcats. Beginning with the 2004-05 season, Bickerstaff served in both of these roles for three seasons before serving as the team’s executive vice president of basketball operations for the 2007-08 season.
Since then Bickerstaff, has bounced around the NBA a bit, serving as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls from 2008 to 2010 and the Portland Trailblazers from 2010-12. Most recently, he was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Lakers during the 2012-13 season, famously serving as the interim head coach between the Mike Brown and Mike D’Antoni eras and going 4-1 in his five games as interim head coach. This stint brings Bickerstaff’s coaching record to 419-518 (12-21 in the playoffs). After being let go by the Lakers, Bickerstaff was reunited with Brown after being hired by the Cavaliers last month.
As an assistant coach, Bickerstaff has typically focused on looking at the entire picture for his team instead of focusing simply on offense or defense. Bickerstaff brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to Brown’s coaching staff that none of his assistants during his previous run as head coach possessed. Bickerstaff’s 40-plus years of experience as an NBA coach and executive and the ups and downs he has seen and endured during this time could prove to be vital knowledge for a young Cavaliers squad that is looking to make the jump from the lottery to the playoffs for the first time since 2010.