Cavaliers fire coach J.B. Bickerstaff despite some progress and making second round of playoffs

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CLEVELAND (AP) — J.B. Bickerstaff was fired as Cleveland’s coach on Thursday despite leading the Cavaliers through a major rebuild, an injury-ravaged 2023-24 season and into the second round of the NBA playoffs.

Bickerstaff’s dismissal came one week after the Cavs were eliminated in five games by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Cleveland played the final two games of the series without All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell, who played with a left knee injury for more than two months before he hurt his calf in the closing minutes of Game 4 against the Celtics.

Mitchell has to decide whether to sign a long-term contract extension this summer, and his future may have played a role in the team moving on from Bickerstaff, who made incremental progress in each of his four-plus seasons with Cleveland but not enough to keep his job.

The Cavs delayed their decision in order to meet with Bickerstaff and discuss the team’s future. In the end, president of basketball operations Koby Altman and chairman Dan Gilbert decided a change was necessary.

“J.B. is a well-respected NBA coach and an incredible human being,” Altman said. “Over the past four years, he helped establish a culture that progressively drove players to become the best versions of themselves. Decisions like these are never easy, particularly when you look back at where this franchise rebuild started under his leadership.

“The NBA is a unique business that sometimes requires aggressive risk-taking to move a franchise forward and ultimately compete for championships. We owe a ton of gratitude for everything J.B. has contributed to the Cavaliers and his engagement in the Cleveland community.”

The team already has begun its search to find a replacement for Bickerstaff, who coached Memphis before coming to Cleveland as an assistant and taking over for John Beilein midway through the 2020 season.

Bickerstaff was under contract through 2026.

In his first full season, the Cavaliers went just 22-50 with one of the league’s youngest rosters. They jumped to 44 wins in his second year before losing in the play-in game while showing major strides.

After acquiring Mitchell via trade, the Cavs went 51-31 last season and had home-court advantage in the first round before getting knocked out in five games by the New York Knicks. The early exit put added pressure on Bickerstaff to do more this season.

The 45-year-old Bickerstaff went 170-159 in the regular season and 6-11 in the playoffs with Cleveland, which defeated Orlando in seven games this year before losing to Boston. Along with Mitchell, the Cavs were without center Jarrett Allen, who suffered a rib injury in the opening round against Orlando.

Their series win over the Magic was the franchise’s first without LeBron James on its roster since 1993.

The Cavs went 48-34 this season — and stayed among the top teams in the Eastern Conference — amid a rash of major injuries that forced Bickerstaff to juggle his lineup on an almost daily basis and throughout the postseason.

But while Bickerstaff helped nurture a strong culture in Cleveland, the knocks on him were his struggles with in-game adjustments, a stagnant offense and the slower-than-expected development of guard Darius Garland and forward Evan Mobley.

Gilbert may be looking for a stronger voice and perhaps a coach to satisfy Mitchell, a six-time All-Star who is under contract through the 2026 season and eligible to sign a deal worth roughly $200 million this summer.

Mitchell has given no indication he wants out of Cleveland.

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This story has been corrected to show that the Cavaliers went 48-34, not 51-31, this season. They went 51-31 in 2022-23.

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AP NBA: https://apnews.com/hub/NBA

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