NEMACOLIN RESORT is tucked away in the hills of southern Pennsylvania, an upscale property with a castle hotel, two golf courses and a modern spa with everything from gentlemen’s facials to IV nutrient infusions.
In September, the Cleveland Cavaliers’ coaching staff checked in for a stay and enjoyed absolutely nothing of it.
For days, the group, led by coach JB Bickerstaff, was kept inside a meeting room where they watched movies, studied analysis and worked through meals.
“It’s a really nice place,” Bickerstaff says. “But we worked the most.”
Preseason coaching retreats are common in the NBA, but the mission the Cavs had for that trip was not. In a league that has been on a year-long march to get smaller and faster, the Cavs were in the process of working on how to get bigger.
In fact, bigger than anything the NBA has seen in a generation.
So what began inside a hotel conference room about 70 miles south of Pittsburgh has knocked a procession of teams out of balance through a league that has fallen in love with small balls.
Using a starting lineup with three 7-footers and reintegrating a former All-Star big man, the Cavs have set themselves up in the Eastern Conference battle. And doing so has not only changed the fortunes of a franchise that not long ago was predicted to continue its home in the eastern basement, but also served as a resurrection that could disrupt the NBA list construction.
LAST MAY, CAVS general manager Koby Altman held a brutal season-ending press conference. He was asked if he thought he could be fired after a 22-50 season that set a maximum in a three-year period in which the team had amassed the most losses in the NBA.
Altman was grilled over young guard Kevin Porter Jr., who showed glimpses of brilliance with the Houston Rockets after being flushed out with the Cavs after a series of off-court issues. He had to explain how the mid-season deal with center Jarrett Allen had disrupted chemistry and led to an acquisition of center Andre Drummond.
Altman had to dance around the future of disgruntled center Kevin Love, whose injuries and disillusionment of the team had led to an escalating series of embarrassing events, from coming in with the ball to the opposing team to just refusing to shoot.
When Altman sat on that Zoom call, he said he and owner Dan Gilbert had the same vision. He explained that rebuilding teams take chances on draft picks and misses, and he wished Porter the best. He said he was trying to do justice to Drummond by letting him go, and that the deal for Allen was too convincing not to do so. And Altman said – and that may have been the hardest thing to believe – he believed that love “can really help us, I really do.”
Altman was convinced that there were small victories around him. He knew young guard Darius Garland had a 25-game stretch after the All-Star break, where he had shown tremendous growth with an average of 20 points and seven assists while shooting 47%. He knew the team’s internal numbers had shown that Allen, who they picked up from the Nets as part of the James Harden trade, was their most effective player. He knew that as bad as it looked with Love, the numbers had shown the team was better when he was out there. And when he had talked to his players, they said they liked playing with Love when he was actually focused.
“There’s a lot of optimism about where we are as a franchise,” Altman said that day. “The future is really, really bright.”
You could almost hear your eyes roll.
“It was not a dark place when we lost,” Altman says now, seven months later. “We were there, we saw it. People liked coming to work. They stayed in the low season. JB had worked hard to make it an inviting place, and you felt it.”
SO LITTLE HAPPINESS. The Cavaliers, who are expected to land No. 5, heard their name called No. 3 during the June draft lottery, an important trip for a team in need of talent change. Some years, the No. 3 election is a goldmine. Luka Doncic finished third. Harden and Joel Embiid did the same. But there is no guarantee either: Jahlil Okafor, Otto Porter Jr. and Enes Freedom were all selected there in the previous decade.
Following the selection of Cade Cunningham and Jalen Green, the consensus top two choice in the 2021 draft, Evan Mobley of USC was on the board.
There was no mystery in the first two picks of the draft, and for weeks the Cavs felt confident that it would be Mobley there for them at three o’clock. So they dived deep into him. They had already seen him a lot in his one season with Trojan horses, and their background data continued to be positive.
They loved Mobley’s size combined with his skill. They loved his attitude as the son of a coach, as their research told them they liked being coached. They loved his work ethic, a feeling hardened after the draft when he asked the team if they could send a strength coach to work with him in Los Angeles in the off-season.
The Cavs had been in the lottery three years in a row since LeBron James traveled to the Los Angeles Lakers, but it was the first time they were able to make an immediate difference, a belief that has been supported by his role in the Cavs. ‘ Turn around.
But teams always fall in love with their choices. The Cavs did not just go against the grain; they undertook a path that would be difficult, if not impossible, to unravel.
Four days after drafting Mobley, the team signed Allen to a five-year, $ 100 million contract. Some draft experts and scouts expected Mobley to develop into a franchise center in the current flavor of the NBA. In truth, Mobley and his camp thought this was possible too, so when Allen got paid, there was rubbing in the chin.
“People looked at us sideways. It’s one thing to be great, but we felt like Jarrett and Evan were big and active. It built around that.”
Cavaliers coach JB Bickerstaff
Twenty-five days later, the Cavs bought 7-footer Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls – and then they did nothing with Love, either through a barter or a buyout, as some had expected.
Back in the hotel’s conference room, Bickerstaff and his assistants went through their most basic question: How to design an offensive and defensive two-center system in 2021?
Bickerstaff, 42, has been around the NBA for a long time. This is his 18th season in the league, but he was a ball boy and sponge as a kid next to his dad, longtime NBA coach and executive Bernie Bickerstaff. Translation: He is new school as head coach; old-school and philosophy.
Ask him about his favorite team and he will talk about the 1990s where his dad was GM in the Seattle SuperSonics and they started three guys at 10 yards and over. He will talk about when his dad hit 6-foot-8 Jalen Rose for the Denver Nuggets and made him a point guard.
Lessons, he says, informing now.
“People were looking at us sideways,” Bickerstaff says. “It’s one thing to be great, but we felt like Jarrett and Evan were great and active. It built around that.”
Altman says: “We watched a lot of movies and we watched the last couple of champions. They were amazing defensive teams. The Bucks had Giannis [Antetokounmpo] and [Brook] Lopez. The Lakers had LeBron, [Anthony] Davis and [Dwight] Howard. They played big and won.
“We did not see Evan as a player exactly like Jarrett and thought they could play together.”
CLEVELAND’S BIG SWING have worked. The Cavs ranked No. 25 on defense last season, and in 2019-20, when Bickerstaff took over midfield after John Beilein retired, they were dead last.
This season, with Allen and Mobley both mobile enough to switch out and defend the perimeter and long and defensive-minded enough to challenge shots in the paint, the Cavs’ defense has risen up the rankings and drops to No. 2 behind NBA Best Golden State Warriors.
Their size has overwhelmed the opponents, who shoot the league’s worst 59.3% in the restricted area against them. That’s the basis of their turnaround, which has them 20-13 and in position to challenge for a top-4 seed.
“The other teams really feel that size,” Bickerstaff says.
The Cavs originally signed Markkanen as a backup. After signing, Altman met with Love. He told the veteran, who had two years and $ 60 million left on his contract, that he wanted to be a bench player for the first time in his career.
Love accepted the situation, but had a request: If he served minutes, he would have them. Love saw veterans with big contracts get stuck when the teams got young, namely John Wall in Houston, and wanted to know he would not be buried to wait for his contract.
There was something else in mind for Love. Over the summer, Altman switched to Ricky Rubio to be a stabilizing backup guard. But it was also someone Love could connect with on the other device. They played three seasons together in Minnesota, where Love became an All-Star.
Love arrived at the camp in September in good condition – which was in doubt after he left Team USA training in July after struggling to get in shape. With limited depth on the wing, Bickerstaff made the decision to put Markkanen in the starting lineup on the small forward, so Love would have more room to play.
“I thought we had a great offseason by getting Evan, Lauri and Rubio,” Altman said. “We had [a] process and ping pong balls. But I really liked our top seven to eight guys and I knew we would take a step forward. “
Not everyone agreed. Sportsbooks puts the Cavs’ preseason over / under a total of between 26 and 27 wins. ESPN predicted a 26-56 season. The decision to start the three 7-footers was mocked. They gave a total of 255 points in their first two games. Then, 11 games inside, Collin Sexton, Cleveland’s leading goal scorer last season, lost for the season with a torn meniscus in his left knee.
But the Cavs started to win. Garland, with more playing time with Sexton out, extended his game from last season and is a sudden All-Star candidate with an average of 19.5 points and 7.3 assists per game. Allen, whose big contract was questioned, has been a defensive cut and extremely effective offensively, averaging a career-high 16.8 points and shooting 70%.
Mobley, 20, has shown he can shoot, deliver and defend multiple positions. It’s rare for a rookie to influence winning, but he does. He is one of the frontrunners for Rookie of the Year despite lacking time with a sprained right elbow.
Love, on the other hand, has his most effective season since joining the Cavs in 2014-15. He plays 20 minutes a game and has maintained a positive attitude throughout the season.
“We have a good thing going on and I’m having a lot of fun,” Love said after scoring 22 points in a win over the Toronto Raptors Sunday night. “It’s going to be great to see this young team develop.”
Throughout nearly half of the season, the Cavs have played the toughest schedule of any team so far. Despite injuries and COVID-19 problems, Bickerstaff has them to reach milestones. They went 3-2 on an early Western Conference-heavy road turn, the first time they have had a winning record in a trip of five games since their title-winning campaign in 2016. They won in Miami for the first time in 20 attempts. And they have the easiest schedule left.
At Christmas, the Cavs announced a contract extension for Bickerstaff through the 2026-27 season, the first time a Cavs coach has received an extension since Mike Brown in 2008.
The team still has holes, especially on the wing. But it’s undoubtedly an overachievement – a welcome situation for a franchise that has not reached the playoffs without James on the list since 1998.
“We are not done evolving,” Bickerstaff said. “But we like where we are.”