Cleveland Cavaliers: J.B. Bickerstaff cannot be the scapegoat for a bad roster

Cleveland has to reevaluate J.B. Bickerstaff's leadership with the Cavaliers this summer, but will turn into a scapegoat to excuse a bad offseason?
Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers
Portland Trail Blazers v Cleveland Cavaliers / Ron Schwane/GettyImages
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Cleveland Cavaliers head coach J.B. Bickerstaff is fighting against the odds to keep his job this offseason.

NBA teams shamelessly cast blame for a poor season's end on the head coach in recent offseasons. Last year, Nick Nurse, Doc Rivers and Mike Budenholzer were all fired. Both Nurse and Budenholzer had won a title with their now-former team within the last five years. With another disappointing playoff exit this year, the Cleveland Cavaliers may be the next team to quit on their coach with J.B. Bickerstaff's job on the line. Cavaliers President of Basketball Operations Koby Altman will hold an end-of-season conference on Friday, May 24 with a likely departure from Bickerstaff announced.

Cavs insider Chris Fedor wrote to his Subtext subscribers, detailing information on Bickerstaff's latest meetings with the front office. According to Fedor, team front office officials and Cavs owner Dan Gilbert downplayed what Bickerstaff said with one individual reportedly accosting Cleveland's coach for not getting it done after they gave him "four all-stars". This comment referring to the Cavaliers' core four of Donovan Mitchell, Evan Mobley, Darius Garland and Jarrett Allen. Mitchell earned his fifth All-Star appearance this while while the other three missed the cut. Allen and Garland made an appearance in 2022, but Moblely has yet to earn the honors.

This comment highlights a problem beyond Bickerstaff. Though all four core players are talented with talents that can add to a team's chances at a Finals run, the front office's mindset toward roster construction is more problematic than Bickerstaff's play calls if they believe the current core is ready to compete at the highest level.

When the team fits, Bickerstaff wins

Bickerstaff is by no means a perfect coach. His playoff record, especially on the road, speaks for itself and calls into question his leadership. The Cavaliers have stumbled to the postseason after the All-Star break in both of Mitchell's season with the team. When opponents bring their best plans and fight, Bickerstaff rarely does the same. This winter's historic run might be more telling for the Cavs than their year-end or postseason performances, though.

While injuries plagued the Cavs at the end of the regular season and the playoffs, injuries also unlocked the best version of this squad in the middle of the year. With Darius Garland and Evan Mobley sidelined with injuries for more than a month and a half, Mitchell and Allen led the Cavaliers to a league-best 18-2 stretch behind massive performances from their key role players.

From the time both Garland and Mobley missed more than a month ahead of the All-Star Game, the Cavaliers had a 23-5 record and the second-best net rating at 11.5, only 0.1 below the leading Boston Celtics. The starting lineup of Mitchell, Max Strus, Isaac Okoro, Dean Wade and Allen had a 22.1 net rating in this span, too. When everything seemed to fall apart for the Cavs, they found the right formula and tore the league apart.

This run also included the explosive shooting of Sam Merrill, a veteran wing shooter who sat dormant on the Cavs bench and G-League team last season. The Cavs' bench suddenly looked like the best in the league, and the starting lineup could threaten any contender. Once the other core players came back, the run ended. A sick and injured Donovan Mitchell sat out, missing the second-most games of his career with only 55 games played in the regular season. After the All-Star break, the Cavs had a dismal 12-17 record to end their season.

The Cavaliers looked drastically different from the healthiest version of the team. The ball moved, the big man thrived, the role players contributed every night and the team won. A lot. Bickerstaff completely reinvented the offense and showed the best strategic mind of his career. Coaching is only part of the problem for Cleveland's playoff loss. While Bickerstaff might not be the right coach for the future of the team, especially if recent reports that he has lost the faith of his players is true, the front office should be admonished just as much for lackluster decisions following the 2022 blockbuster Mitchell deal.