3 finalists emerge in Cleveland Cavaliers head coaching search

A busy offseason for the Cleveland Cavaliers, beginning with their coaching staff overhaul.
Brooklyn Nets v Charlotte Hornets
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Running it back is no longer an option for the Cleveland Cavaliers after a conference semifinals loss and the dismissal of four-year head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

The Cavaliers earned a playoff appearance for the second consecutive season, beating the fifth-seed Orlando Magic in seven games before falling short in five games to the league-leading Boston Celtics. They achieved 48 wins in the regular season, gaining homecourt advantage in the first round. Despite a litany of injuries to their core, Cleveland held onto the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. Still, they could not stand out as true competitors, barely winning their series with the Magic. Against the Celtics, the Cavs fell apart, allowing their rivals to handily walk to the conference finals.

Entering the offseason, it seemed impossible to enter next season the same, and the first change came with Bickerstaff's exit from the team on Friday, May 24 after four-and-a-half seasons at the helm. Cavs President of Basketball Operations acknowledged Bickerstaff's successful tenure, but it had become clear the team needed a new perspective if they were going to take another step forward. With the Los Angeles Lakers and Washington Wizards on the hunt for a new head coach, too, the Cavaliers could have tough competition for the top candidates. However, with the Lakers' constant coaching turnover and the Wizards' trajectory as a rebuilding team, the Cavs will likely be the most attractive destination for any coach on the market.

With an exciting group of star players and potential growth through trades this summer, the next Cleveland head coach will be able to transform a competitive organization into a fearsome contender with the right changes. Following Bickerstaff's dismissal, Cleveland's top candidates and points of view for the successor emerged within a few days.

With Mitchell's contract extension open to sign as of the end of the NBA Finals, ESPN insider Brian Windhorst reported that Cleveland's coaching decisions will be made with a long-term deal with Mitchell in the forefront of their minds. Windhorst also noted Bickerstaff's removal likely came from Mitchell's reported lacking relationship with Bickerstaff last season.

"This coaching move and the person they hire will be Donovan Mitchell related. When [the Cavs] do meet with him after the Finals and offer the contract extension, the new coach and the new coach's plan will be a big part of that presentation."

Brian Windhorst

Windhorst's comments suggest the Cavaliers are still optimistic that Mitchell will sign if he is confident in the new coach, but it also signifies their mentality for the whole offseason. If nothing else, the Cavs will optimize the roster and staff around Mitchell and what makes him happy. Bryant might

The Cavaliers want a head coach with experience and success

Although elite assistant coaches have circled the rumor mill to step into a top job, the Cavaliers are reportedly eyeing candidates with prior experience as a head coach. Per Terry Pluto of cleveland.com, sources suggest the Cavs want a coach who has been in the playoffs already, citing the difficulty of leading a contender as a rookie head coach. This knocks names such as J.J. Reddick and Sam Cassell out of the running.

Bickerstaff's predecessor John Beilein took the job with no professional coaching experience, though he had served as the head coach for the Michigan Wolverines for years. If the Cavs chose another first-time coach, it would mark their third candidate in a row to enter without an NBA resume on their side. Few teams choose to take on rookie coaches when they are aiming for playoff success, instead looking for options who can show their knowledge of X's and O's and a structured, successful gameplan.

With this necessary qualification in mind, three primary candidates have risen to the top of the news cycle, and the next Cavs coach could be named any day now.

Cleveland's top coaching candidates

The top name in circulation is Steve Kerr's lead assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, Kenny Atkinson. Before his run with the Warriors, Atkinson served as the Brooklyn Nets head coach from 2016-2020, coaching Jarrett Allen in his first few seasons. In that time, Atkinson led the Nets to two playoff appearances, losing in the first round both times.

Atkinson's strengths are on the offensive side of the ball, though, contrasting Bickerstaff's defensive-minded approach without much on offense. Under Kerr, Atkinson has learned the ins and outs of Golden State's unstoppable ball movement and team shooting, though his tenure came after the Warriors' dynastic run last decade.

Alongside Atkinson, New York Knicks associate head coach Johnnie Bryant entered the fray for the top spot. Surprisingly, Bryant joins the list without any prior head coaching experience. He has served as the associate head coach for four seasons with the Knicks after six years as an assistant coach with Donovan Mitchell on the Utah Jazz. It seems Bryant is behind Atkinson in the race, but his ties with Mitchell likely give him an edge other rookie candidates would not enjoy.

Also in the mix is former Portland Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts, according to Marc Stein's Substack. Stotts has the longest list of accomplishments and years of experience, leading the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Trail Blazers over 13 years as a head coach and more than a decade as an assistant. If the Cavs want experience, Stotts has it. He also led Damian Lillard, an elite scoring guard, possibly helping his case to help Mitchell feel confident.

What Stotts does not have in his resume, though, is an answer to an undersized backcourt with little defensive upside. If the Cavaliers keep Mitchell around long-term, his co-star Darius Garland will search for a trade. One way or another, it seems that the backcourt duo will split this summer. This might relieve some tensions around Stotts in charge.

Although the Cleveland Cavaliers do not have a hard deadline to name a new coach anytime soon, the soft deadline to want one by the time Mitchell can sign a contract is closer than it seems. With three names leading the shortlist, the Cavs seem to be solely focused on finding the right coach before making any other changes for next year.

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