“The way it happened is the way it had to happen”. On November 15, 2015 Bickerstaff launched this phrase after debuting, with victory, as head coach in the NBA. A sentence that can be applied to how his career has passed on the bench. Because the now lauded Cavaliers coach and recently renewed until 2027 with the Cleveland entity has managed to follow the right pace in his professional career.
Born in Denver in 1979, JB had become the youngest ever assistant coach in the NBA in 2004-05. A few decades earlier, in 1973, his father Bernie Bickerstaff, who had precisely given him the position of his assistant in Charlotte in 2004-05, had already been the youngest assistant in NBA history at 29 years of age. Legacy passed from father to son. The two were together on the Bobcats bench until 2007, when Bernie ended his stay in Charlotte and JB found a job, again as an assistant, in Minnesota, a place well known to him.
Become the youngest player in the NCAA I when he made his debut at the age of 17 with Oregon State in 1996-97, this forward of just 200 centimeters tall divided his university stay between Oregon State itself and the University of Minnesota, where he celebrated his last two courses in the NCAA. He finished with a respectable 98 games between both destinations and numbers of 82 starts, 8.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.0 assists.
Bickerstaff continued his professional development at the University of Minnesota where, at the beginning of the 21st century, he worked in their offices as director of operations for the men’s basketball program. Also in the Minneapolis area he was during the 2003-04 radio commentator of the games of those very interesting Wolves.
More than a decade of seasoned work alongside Kevin McHale
Without a doubt, his father’s presence on the Bobcats bench helped JB land his first NBA assistant job. But this great league does not give away anything and if JB was paved the way, he then took it upon himself to become strong in a competition that devours you every day. In fact, never, not a single course, has he missed work since 2004. Minnesota and specifically Kevin McHale signed him to their coaching staff and from the hand of this illustrious Head Coach Bickerstaff learned, and fell apart, in the tough business of the NBA. McHale took him from the Timberwolves to the Rockets for 2011-12 and there JB Bickerstaff was going to have his first big opportunity in 2015. Which he took advantage of in his own way, but which he also voluntarily let pass.
The interim who could not stand the atmosphere of Houston
“The way it happened is the way it had to happen”. We said it was November 15 and Bickerstaff had not only just debuted as head coach in the NBA, but he did so with a sweaty win over the Blazers. On the morning of that day the Rockets had fired McHale after a starting record of 4-7. The bad atmosphere in the Houston locker room, with the James Harden-Dwight Howard war in all its essence, had put the settlement on the table to McHale, unable to guide already lost train of Texans. It was his assistant Bickerstaff who took on the responsibility of straightening all that. Things did not start badly, with the aforementioned victory over the Blazers. On that day, a final arreón by Harden and a triple by Corey Brewer signed the extension, where then The beard he added the 9 points of his. JB had fallen to his feet in the NBA after decades as an assistant. But from the management they warned: it was an interim position. Even so, he carried out his work in the Regular Season (37-34 balance) and managed to put the Rockets as the second round of the West. Then, in the first round of the playoffs, 1-4 against the Warriors, those 73-9 Warriors who were only knocked out by LeBron James.
Mission accomplished by the interim, who at least was able not to explode in his hands the whole complicated universe of egos that Houston had become. Right after the elimination and before his name was put on the shortlist of possible candidates, Bickerstaff met with the Rockets management and said that they would not count on him to return as head coach, that a few months at the helm of that costumes were enough to know that it was not what he wanted for his future. And although his name was really only in the pools out of education and franchise deference to someone who had struggled hard, he took it upon himself to erase his name. Just in case.
More interim in Memphis on another ship aimlessly
Sometimes knowing how to select your moment and give up the possibility of great scenarios can be seen at that moment as a mistake, but only the passage of time gives reason to those who decide that this is not the right path. Bickerstaff must have considered that he was not yet ripe to lead a franchise again and that patience, because he was a man who had not even reached quarantine in 2016, played on his side.
So he joined the Grizzlies, who started their coach in 2016-17, in the figure of David Fizdale. Memphis was coming off 0-4 in the recent playoffs, devastating the Dave Joerger-led squad at the hands of the Spurs. Tennessee’s didn’t fare much better with Fizdale, who in one season and a handful of games the other missed the first round of playoffs for the ring. Again in 2017, San Antonio knocked Memphis (4-2). Fizdale did start 2017-18, but was liquidated after a, let’s say, low-key start: 7-12.
At this point they already assume who was at the helm of the team. Yes, it was Bickerstaff, on his second chance as head coach. And the second in which he picked up a squad in trouble at the start of the season. Again the label of acting was imposed on him. In a lost ship, which gave its last gasps to the Mike Conley and Marc Gasol project, Bickerstaff led the Grizzlies 63 games in 2017-18, with a balance of 15-48.
First Head Coach position on the eve of real success
At the end of the course, in a minor market such as Memphis, still with Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, but at the same time with aspects such as the ruinous contract to Chandler Parsons very present, Bickerstaff was awarded by Chris Wallace, then GM of the Grizzlies, with the head coach position. From that moment, May 2018, the destinies of one and the other were going to be intimately linked with the Memphis exit door with the last climax. It was on April 11, 2019, just one day after the Regular Season ended, that Bickerstaff closed out of the playoffs for the ring and with a record of 33-49. The endeavor to put the Grizzlies back on the track to the playoffs, where they had become a fixture in recent seasons, failed. “My goal is to win”, Said Bickerstaff in 2018 when he divested himself of his interim status and for the first time took a car from a school since the beginning of the year. His good work with the youngsters in 2017-18 after the departure of Fizdale had liked in Tennessee, to the point of giving him a three-season contract, which remained in one.
On April 11 Bickerstaff was fired from the Grizzlies. And with him his supporter Chris Wallace. The sentence had already been written for months, especially when on February 7, 2019 Marc Gasol had been sent to the Raptors. In Memphis they had thrown the spoon.
Cleveland was destiny: the plan that was blown up for the benefit of all
There will be something good about someone who, despite everything, still does not lack work year after year. Head coaching skills might be a little green in Bickerstaff’s blood, but there was no argument about whether he was one of the NBA’s best assistants. It was. And in the Cavaliers they designed a plan that ended up being fatal. But from that sporting fatality came glory and the Cavaliers arrived, who now amaze the NBA.
It turns out that by the summer of 2019, in a Cavaliers still in depression due to the departure of LeBron James in 2018, it occurred to the Ohioans that it was a good idea to draw up a plan that they believed seamless: sign an NCAA myth as John Beilein – who debuted in the NBA – and place Bickerstaff as his associate coach, in the idea of starting a process by which JB would finally end up assuming the stripes in the medium term. And that medium term became almost a here and now. John Beilein did not know how to train in the NBA and with a balance of 14-40 he resigned in February 2020. Third team that Bickerstaff assumed at the beginning of the season. His good skills, with a 5-6 record since joining the team, earned him renewal until 2024 as head coach. That news arrived on March 10, 2020. JB earned another opportunity and a margin of time to build the future. The future, however, was present and with a name: coronavirus. The NBA stopped on March 11. The rest of world history is already known.
Outside of the Orlando bubble, Cleveland had already closed the campaign. The 2020-21, the 72-game Regular Season and still marked by the pandemic, did not leave great things, at least in the face of the gallery. Cleveland built, that hackneyed word for losing teams, and let time go by. Most notably, having acquired Jarret Allen in the January 2021 four-way deal that put Harden on the Nets. Along with that, Evan Mobley was selected at No. 3 in the Draft. Points more important than the balance of 22-50.
The surprise of many
That was Cleveland. That’s what the Cavaliers are in this 2021-22. When they acquired Ricky Rubio in the summer, few thought they were serious, that the franchise wanted to compete. But this transfer, the presence of Darius Garland, the acquisition of Lauri Markkanen with a powerful offer or the renewal of Jarret Allen perhaps indicated that with those wickers it would not be possible to speak of another season without more. The start of the course (Kevin Love resurrected for cause) confirmed that JB Bickerstaff’s were serious. You have to see them play and know that there is commitment, that the team is with the coach, that they all travel in the same boat rowed by dozens of arms ready for anything. And have fun. And they have fun.
In Ohio they have learned that Bickerstaff is in its moment. That perhaps the right context, template and place have come to you. Hence, they renewed until 2027, keeping as firm the bet that had already occurred in March 2020 when they told him that he would be with the Cavaliers until 2024. The long term has come to Bickerstaff and Cleveland. Nothing speaks of interns, of teams that fall every night and washed-out templates. Not even Ricky’s injury, a blow to the project’s waterline, seems to have dampened spirits. The quick reaction to acquire Rajon Rondo, delighted to lead a project that smells playoffs, is the best sign that Cleveland is serious. They have shortened many stages. The transition, for others. And in large part that is the responsibility of John Blair Bickerstaff.
“The way it happened is the way it had to happen”.
(Photograph by Jason Miller / Getty Images)