The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked the college basketball world on Monday morning, as they officially hired Michigan head coach John Beilein, a 66-year old that began his coaching career with Newfane High School in 1975, to a five-year deal to become their newest head coach.
It’s the ultimate rags-to-riches story, as Beilein went through every level of the sport — from high school, to junior college, to Division III then Division II and then from Canisius to Richmond and West Virginia before arriving in Ann Arbor in 2007 — before landing an NBA gig.
And in theory, he is a perfect fit at the NBA level.
In practice, however, I am not convinced that this is going to be a great fit.
Let’s start with the good: If there are any coaches at the college level that are better suited to coach offense in the NBA than John Beilein, you can probably count them on one hand.
He wants to space the floor. He wants to shoot plenty of threes. In the last seven or eight seasons, he’s turned his program into one that relies as heavily on ball-screens as anyone. And he’s done this to great success. Beilein’s Michigan teams have reached the national title game in 2013 and 2018. He advanced to the Elite Eight in 2014. He won the 2017 and 2018 Big Ten tournament titles. He won the league’s regular season title in 2012 and 2014, finished a game out of first place this past season and, four times in the last seven years, he had a team that ranked in the top 12 nationally, according to KenPom.
He’s also adaptable. Back when he was at Richmond and West Virginia, and even in the early days of his tenure at Michigan, the offense he ran was essentially the cross-breeding of the Princeton and Motion. Backcuts, plenty of screens, bigs that could shoot and guards that could post. But as the game changed and the talent in his program started to look more modern, Beilein changed. He put Trey Burke in roughly 10 million ball-screens during his Player of the Year season in 2013. He did the same with Nik Stauskas, and Caris LeVert, and Zavier Simpson. He found a way to make the pieces work, and it led to plenty of wins — and plenty of NBA players — despite the fact that Michigan wasn’t recruiting surefire pros.
Since Beilein arrived at Michigan in 2007, 13 of his players have reached the NBA. Ten of those 13 have come in the last six years, and just four of the 13 were top-40 prospects, according to Rivals. Glenn Robinson III is the only player Beilein has sent to the league that was a surefire pro regardless of where he spent his college days.
Tim Hardaway Jr. was a three-star recruit that Beilein helped turn into a guy that averaged 18.1 points in the NBA this past season. Burke was a borderline top 100 player from Columbus, Ohio, that Ohio State passed over. LeVert was committed to Ohio before going to Michigan. Hell, he turned Division III transfer Duncan Robinson into an NBA player.
“He’s always tinkering with his stuff on the day-to-day,” Robinson told me last year. “Within a season, as the year goes along, he gets a much better understanding of who he has on his team. That’s why they always play their best basketball at the end of the season. He figures out what exactly he has at his disposal.”
Even as he hit his mid-60s, Beilein was not averse to change. He recognized the issues that he had on the defensive end of the floor, so he went out and hired Luke Yaklich to be his defensive coordinator, and that led to a national title run in 2018 and last year’s finish as a top ten team in the country.
Strictly from a basketball perspective, Beilein should be a great NBA coach.
But it’s not quite that simple.
For starters, he’s something of a micro-manager when it comes to what he wants to run. Where someone like Jay Wright or Roy Williams doesn’t really run set plays, Beilein is meticulous in calling out sets offensively. He wants his players to do exactly what he thinks up on every possession, and that’s not the way it works in the NBA. It’s a player’s league, and it’s fair to wonder how a 66-year old that has spent the last four decades working at a level where the head coach has all the power will adjust to the NBA, where the players have control. How will he handle guys talking back in practice? How will he handle players not practicing everyday? There’s going to be a big adjustment there for him.
“Can he embrace being a rookie?” one former NBA player said of his biggest concern with Beilein in the NBA. “Steve Kerr, with all his NBA experience, embraced his players calling him a rook. Brad Stevens embraced that he didn’t know [all he needed to know]. David Blatt fought it. Will John Beilein fight it?”
And that’s before we get into the whole terminology deal.
In the NBA, the language is more or less universal. Every coach essentially speaks the same language in regards to every action, every set and every call defensively. Whether you’re with the Knicks or the Warriors or whoever, it’s the same, because everyone in the NBA is learning from someone already in the NBA.
Beilein’s terminology is completely off the wall, and that’s because he invented his own basketball system. Perhaps the most impressive thing about his career is that in 44 years in the profession, he’s never been an assistant coach. He didn’t learn directly from anyone. He built it from the ground up himself, adding layers each year he’s been on the job.
“He comes up with a phrase that makes sense to him,” Jeff Neubauer, Fordham’s head coach who spent eight seasons on Beilein’s staff, told me in October. “If there was something he was trying to name and anyone would recommend a name for it, it probably wouldn’t fly. It had to be something that made sense to him.
“The classic one that he’s had in his vernacular forever is a play that’s called ‘Harry’. The reason it’s called ‘Harry’ is because the person that catches the ball at the top of the key holds the ball, and the word ‘hold’ starts with H and ‘Harry’ starts with H. So 30 years ago, ‘hold’ became ‘Harry’. Everything has a name that, in his brain, makes sense.
“It’s coded. His is exactly the opposite of what anyone in basketball would call it, and that’s the way he likes it.”
Beilein has made adjustments before, and they’ve worked out incredibly well.
He has been successful everywhere he has been in his career, and I hesitate to bet against someone that has found a way to make it work at every stop over the course of four decades.
I just think that Beilein’s move to the NBA is going to be more difficult that some will lead you to believe.
Because, at the end of the day, coaching an NBA team is about more than simply being able to scheme up new ways to get Kevin Love open.