The track record of college coaches making the jump to the NBA is checkered at best. Brad Stevens has enjoyed success with the Boston Celtics but, with the exception of the “boy wonder” leaving Butler for an established, elite-tier professional franchise, the college-to-pro jump has been littered with stories of mediocrity or outright failure. Some of the biggest names of the sport, headlined by John Calipari and Rick Pitino, couldn’t gain long-term traction and others like Mike Montgomery, Lon Kruger or Tim Floyd are all but forgotten at the NBA level. Most recently, Fred Hoiberg had a rocky tenure in Chicago leading him back to school at Nebraska.
With that in mind, the Cleveland Cavaliers investing a five-year contract in now-former Michigan head coach John Beilein may seem fraught with peril.
Quite honestly, there is the potential of failure with this hire and it may not be the fault of Beilein if the stars don’t align. The Cavaliers have produced a mixed bag in recent years, with the highest of highs during the LeBron James era to the mess that ensued when he left the first time for Miami. Owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t exactly have a sterling reputation across the league and, even if things may be calming a bit under the leadership of GM Koby Altman, Cleveland isn’t seen as a model franchise in the post-LeBron world. When mixing that reality with the leap Beilein is facing, skepticism is warranted and frankly reasonable.
However, Beilein isn’t a typical college coach. First, he is already 66 years old and, well, that may not be ideal for a long-term NBA candidate. Given his age, Beilein may not be able to coach for 15 years on an NBA bench but, on the flip side, the shelf life of the vast majority of head coaches in the league is comparatively short and, with the five-year investment already on the table, Beilein should be able to tackle the gig into his early 70’s.
From a basketball standpoint, Beilein is seen as virtually unassailable at the college level. He enjoyed success at lower levels before making the jump to Division 1 and the veteran head coach led Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia to lofty heights before setting foot at his first “blue blood” in Ann Arbor. Beilein wasn’t a dominant recruiter and there are even whispers that his skepticism about that entire process may have led him to the professional ranks. Still, he was able to craft talent around what he wanted to do at every level and there is something to be said for that.
Beilein enjoys a lengthy track record of offensive success and, in comparison to the lion’s share of college coaches (even at the major-conference level), he is seen as an innovator. While that legacy extends well beyond the 2018-19 campaign, Beilein was able to mold a team void of elite-level offensive talent into a solid bunch on that end of the floor, and he engineered an offense that used ball screen action more than 99 percent (4th overall in Division 1) of programs nationally. His Michigan tenure is littered with signs of progressive offensive work, with floor-spacing that is virtually unique to the college game and a willingness to build an offense that looks more like a present-day NBA system than almost all of his contemporaries.
It should be noted that one contrast in Beilein’s style in college to what he’ll almost certainly do in the NBA comes from tempo, where Michigan was utterly glacial at times during his reign. Some of that stems from the advantages (see Tony Bennett at Virginia) that can be gained by doing so against college competition and without top-tier recruits, but it will be interesting to see how Beilein tweaks his systems when deploying the best talent, at least from a league-wide standpoint, in the known universe.
Defensively, Beilein wasn’t always able to construct fantastic units but, in the latter days of his run at Michigan, the veteran seemingly embraced that perceived weakness by investing on the coaching side. The hire of assistant coach Luke Yaklich allowed the Wolverines to transform from average to elite defensively and, while that does not ensure NBA success, Beilein’s willingness to conform when needed should provide optimism in his malleability when coaching in Cleveland.
In short, Beilein’s tactical bonafides certainly hold up, even if reasonable skepticism may arise in the translation of those philosophies to a brand-new game. Still, there are other strengths in his make-up and the area of player development is perhaps the headliner.
Michigan had a reputation for “running a clean program” under Beilein in that the Wolverines were not mired in NCAA scandal or even surrounded in whispers of impropriety. Regardless of one’s viewpoint on the mess that is college basketball recruiting, Beilein’s results were only solid, not spectacular, in that area and that forced (albeit willingly) his staff into unearthing and molding less than elite talent. Simply put, the results were staggering that regard.
Six players recruited under Beilein — Tim Hardaway Jr., Trey Burke, Caris Levert, Nik Stauskas, D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner — reached the NBA after failing to rank in the top 80 (!) of their respective high school classes. Beyond that, Jordan Poole could reach the league in the 2019 NBA Draft and each of the sextet noted above emerged from Michigan as first round selections, including lottery landing spots for Stauskas and Burke. Once those players reached the NBA, success didn’t always follow but, in the same breath, Beilein has a track record of putting players in successful situations and helping to emphasize their strengths within the confines of sophisticated schemes.
In Cleveland, Beilein may be dealing with talent disadvantages, at least in the early portion of his tenure. Collin Sexton showed encouraging strides in the latter half of his rookie season and it certainly helps to have a healthy Kevin Love on the books, but the Cavaliers are in the midst of what could be a prolonged rebuild. The optimistic evaluation (one from the outside, anyway) would assume that Gilbert, Altman and the front office understand the nature of their reconstruction and tabbed Beilein to help foster a productive development culture with an eye toward the future. That may not seem ideal for a 66-year-old taking on his first NBA job but, if any college coach could make the quantum leap at this age, Beilein is probably the candidate and the Cavaliers are betting big on that premise.