Cavaliers fire JB Bickerstaff after 4 full seasons, first playoff series win since 2018

The Cleveland Cavaliers fired JB Bickerstaff as their coach after four and a half seasons, three postseason appearances and 170 regular-season wins with him at the helm.

Bickerstaff, 45, led the Cavs to their first playoff series victory since 2018 and their first without LeBron James on the roster since 1993. He has two years and roughly $10 million left on his contract.

Golden State Warriors assistant Kenny Atkinson and New Orleans assistant James Borrego, both with head coaching experience, are considered the leading candidates to replace Bickerstaff, according to league sources.

The firing came eight days after the Boston Celtics eliminated the Cavs from the second round of the playoffs. It was after the series-clinching Game 5 loss when The Athletic reported that Bickerstaff’s position in Cleveland was in “grave danger.”

Although Cleveland improved under Bickerstaff, their teams struggled after the All-Star break in each of the last three seasons. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, Cavs star Donovan Mitchell, among other players, did not have great faith in Bickerstaff as a coach going forward, numerous league sources have said for most of the season.

Fairly or not, those players questioned Bickerstaff’s strategies, game management, practice habits and accountability measures, privately and publicly, throughout the season. Bickerstaff had to manage a roster that was constantly plagued by injured players missing games, as well as pressure throughout the organization to convince Mitchell to accept a four-year, $208 million extension.

Cleveland was on pace for the NBA’s worst record in a three-year span when Bickerstaff replaced John Beilein just 11 games before the league shut down in March 2020 due to COVID-19. The Cavs returned to the postseason as a Play-In tournament team in 2022, but lost both games and failed to make the playoffs.

Last season, Cleveland was the No. 4 team, but the New York Knicks eliminated them in five games in the first round. This season, the Cavs beat the Orlando Magic in seven games as the fourth seed before losing to the Celtics in five games in the conference semifinals.

Bickerstaff, 45, coached his final game without Mitchell, Jarrett Allen or Caris LeVert in uniform, three key players suffering from nagging injuries. He finished with a 170-159 record as Cleveland’s coach.

League sources said Bickerstaff was nearly fired around Thanksgiving after the team’s poor start. He also was admonished by team president Koby Altman, in front of his entire coaching staff, for giving Mitchell too many minutes in a December win over the Houston Rockets in overtime while Darius Garland and Evan Mobley were out.

Cleveland was 13-12 when it was announced that both Garland and Mobley would be out for up to two months due to injuries. His absence could have permanently sunk Bickerstaff. Instead, he did some of his best work as the Cavs won an NBA-best 22 games from mid-December through the All-Star break, kicking off the team’s campaign to win Bickerstaff the NBA’s Coach of the Year. NBA (finished with a third-place vote).

But just as happened in Bickerstaff’s first two full seasons, Cleveland regressed down the stretch. They finished 12-17 after the break, which included some gruesome losses. His players expected him to be fired at the end of the season unless the team somehow got past Boston in the second round.

Mitchell’s two best seasons as a pro, at least statistically, have come with the Cavs. The 27-year-old made his fifth consecutive All-Star Game this season, averaging 26.6 points and career-highs of 6.1 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game. He played for most of the second half of the season with a lingering bone bruise in his left knee.

The injury required multiple absences and a platelet-rich plasma injection in early March. At times, Mitchell looked lame on the court. He finished the playoffs in street clothes due to a left calf strain, and missed the final two games against the Celtics, the last of Bickerstaff’s tenure in Cleveland.

Required reading

(Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images)

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