What’s next for Donovan Mitchell, J.B. Bickerstaff, Darius Garland and the Cavs?

CLEVELAND — In the second game after they learned in December they’d be without both Darius Garland and Evan Mobley for a while, the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Houston Rockets in overtime. That night on Dec. 18, Donovan Mitchell played 45 minutes, including the entire second half and all but four seconds of the extra period.

After the game, Cavs president Koby Altman walked into the coach’s office and admonished head coach J.B. Bickerstaff in front of his entire staff for playing Mitchell such heavy minutes, multiple sources briefed on the interaction told The Athletic. Descriptions of the incident spread across the organization, including the locker room.

“(Altman) got at J.B.,” one player said of the incident.

The immediate aftermath of that night was confusing. For instance, Altman was unaware at the time he was scolding Bickerstaff that the coach had asked Mitchell if he wanted to come out, according to league sources, and Mitchell declined. Yet, Mitchell was absent from the court for Cleveland’s next four games due to what the team called a non-COVID illness.

As it turned out, that singular saga from one night in December foreshadowed how the season would end for Bickerstaff. Key players out all over the place, and with him in danger of losing his job.

League sources briefed on the Cavaliers’ mindset told The Athletic that Bickerstaff’s job is in serious jeopardy after five and a half years as head coach, following the team’s season-ending loss in Game 5 of the second round to the Boston Celtics. Two league sources said the team is likely to take some time — multiple days — to make a decision. Bickerstaff, despite all the pressure he and members of the organization above and below him were under this season, has built equity with the front office and was at the helm for Cleveland’s first appearance in a conference semifinal since 2018. This spring marked the Cavs’ first playoff series win without LeBron James on the roster since 1993.

Doing better this season than last was paramount, and Bickerstaff succeeded there — Cleveland advanced past the first round with a Game 7 victory over the Orlando Magic. But the pressure on him all year (which boiled over in that one exchange with Altman in December) was always about more than simply winning.

In trying to do everything they can to persuade Mitchell to accept a four-year, $208.5 million contract extension this summer, the Cavs need their star player to feel comfortable with the long-term direction of the franchise, which includes the coach. Multiple league sources have said, for months, that Mitchell did not have great confidence in Bickerstaff, and he was not alone. Several players questioned Bickerstaff’s strategies, game management, practice habits and accountability measures, privately and publicly, throughout the season.

“No one has told me I’m not (the coach), so I’ll keep showing up until they tell me not to,” Bickerstaff said when asked about his job status after Wednesday’s loss.

He added: “We’ve continued to build this thing the right way. Every single year we’ve improved, continued to get better. Play-In, playoffs.”

Bickerstaff may take the fall for all of this, but there are issues in Cleveland to be worked out, beyond who is coaching the team. While three players — Mitchell, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen — were not on the court for Game 5 Wednesday due to injury, Allen missed his eighth consecutive game due to what the team said was a rib bruise. Allen’s extended absence, which stretched more than two weeks, caused frustration toward him in at least some corners of the organization with teammates and staff members who felt he could have done more to try and play.

There are also questions of fit on the roster to work through, such as whether Allen and Mobley, two non-shooting bigs, can co-exist in the same starting unit, and whether Garland can thrive playing alongside Mitchell as two smaller guards who need the ball.

Furthermore, rival executives believe the Cavs will have to seriously evaluate the fit of Mitchell and Garland and ultimately may have to choose one or the other. Should Mitchell decide to stay long term, sources briefed on the matter say Garland’s representation, Klutch Sports CEO Rich Paul, would have a conversation with Cavs officials on potentially finding a new home for the one-time All-Star.

After an All-Star campaign in 2021-22 in which he averaged 21.7 points, 8.6 assists and 3.3 rebounds, Garland’s minutes, field goal and 3-point attempts and usage percentage have all dropped upon the arrival of Mitchell.

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Donovan Mitchell is extension eligible this summer and has a player option for the 2025-26 season. (Thomas Shea / USA Today)

What lies ahead for roster?

The Mitchell situation will be resolved this summer, and there is a growing sentiment around the league that the Cavaliers will be able to position themselves to receive his commitment for a lucrative contract extension that would keep him in Cleveland past his 30th birthday. Teammates have described Mitchell this season as singularly focused on winning and wanting Cleveland to aim much higher than a first-round series victory for its measure of success.

“Donovan is playing for his legacy as a winner; that’s all he wants to do,” one teammate said earlier in the season.

Mitchell is under contract for next season and has a $37 million player option for 2025-26, but he is eligible for that four-year extension this summer. Should he decline the extension, the Cavs would have to consider trading him or risk losing him as a free agent in 2025.

If Mitchell is a free agent in 2025, he is eligible to sign for a max of five years and $269.9 million with the team that holds his Bird rights (the Cavs now) or four years, $200.1 million with a new team.

Garland has the richest contract in franchise history and struggled offensively this season, averaging 18 points per game, 3.6 lower than 2022-23 and his lowest since his sophomore year in 2020-21.

Mobley, the third overall pick in 2021, was runner-up as Rookie of the Year in 2022 and last season became the second-youngest player in league history to make the NBA’s All-Defensive first team. But his offensive game hasn’t progressed as quickly as the team expected alongside Allen in the frontcourt. However, while manning the center position in these playoffs, Mobley has seen an uptick: Entering Game 5 against Boston, Mobley was averaging 14.6 points, 10.7 rebounds and 2.1 blocks in seven playoff games as Cleveland’s center while playing with a sprained ankle. In Game 5, he posted a career-playoff-high 33 points.

Interestingly, Mobley’s representation, Wasserman, cautioned the Cavs prior to the 2021 draft not to select Mobley, league sources said. It is a common draft strategy among agents in an effort to get players to certain teams — in this instance, Oklahoma City. The Thunder made multiple offers for the Cavs’ No. 3 pick in the draft that year, league sources said. But the Cavs selected Mobley anyway, and the relationship has remained healthy and positive.

Mobley is now due an extension this summer, after his points per game dipped from 16.2 in 2022-23 to 15.7 this season. Mobley shot a career-best 37 percent from 3 this season but only averaged 1.2 attempts per game. His defensive ability and upside at 6-foot-11 make the 22-year-old a tantalizing player for the Cavs to prioritize moving forward, the type of high-upside player whom other teams could envision as a max-contract-caliber player.

The Cavs seem to be at their best offensively with only one big on the floor, but internally, the franchise believes Mobley’s situation is rare. The focus has been on winning games, not necessarily fully developing his talent, like most players selected third receive in their first few years in the league.

As for Allen, 26, he was arguably better this season than he was in his All-Star campaign from 2021-22. He averaged a career-high 16.5 points to go with 10.5 rebounds and was a rock for the Cavs while both Mobley and Garland were out for two months with surgeries. Before his injury, he was averaging 17 points and nearly 14 rebounds.

Allen played in 81 consecutive games counting the regular season and postseason. He was initially hit in the ribs in Game 1 against Orlando, and in Game 4 of that series, an elbow by Franz Wagner “pierced” a rib on Allen’s right side, according to multiple team sources. The team listed him as “questionable” to play in every game after that, which means there is a chance, though he was never close to getting back into uniform.

Few if any, members of the organization doubted the discomfort Allen has been in since the injury, but the frustration among some members of the team was that he refused an injection to try and numb the pain and play.

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Jarrett Allen and Evan Mobley reach for a rebound earlier this season against Sacramento. (David Richard / USA Today)

What went wrong with Bickerstaff?

Bickerstaff, 45, who is under contract through 2026 and makes roughly $5 million per year, steered the Cavs out from under the collective boot of the NBA when he took over for John Beilein in 2020. When Bickerstaff became the head coach, the organization was in the midst of posting the worst record in the league over a three-year stretch. Under his direction, the team has had stability with a Play-In Tournament and then two Eastern Conference playoff appearances in three consecutive seasons.

But Bickerstaff’s tenure was mired by post-All-Star break slumps each of the last three years and a Play-In collapse in 2022. Last year, the Cavs entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed and were dismissed by the New York Knicks in five games.

The second guessing of Bickerstaff started there. Multiple veterans in the Cavs locker room grew frustrated with Bickerstaff for treating the Cavs as a young team with much to learn, instead of as a team ready to contend. They were also less than enthused by the Cavs’ offense last spring and into the first part of this season. Mitchell was among them. Players would leave practices and morning shootarounds wondering aloud: “Why did we even do that? What did we accomplish” — so perplexed by the lack of structure and intensity in the workouts.

Bickerstaff’s usage of Mitchell, league sources said, was a reason Mitchell provided when declining an invitation to play for USA Basketball last summer at the FIBA World Cup — a refusal that went a long way toward his exclusion from the Olympic team.

Mitchell’s two best seasons as a pro, at least statistically, have occurred in Cleveland. The 27-year-old made his fifth consecutive All-Star team 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 campaign on a nagging bone bruise in his left knee. The injury required multiple absences and a platelet-rich plasma injection in early March and at times hobbled appearance on the court. He ended the playoffs in street clothes due to a left calf strain, missing the final two games against the Celtics.

Cleveland was 13-12 when it was announced that both Garland and Mobley would be out for up to two months with surgeries. Their absence might have permanently sunk Bickerstaff, and it was around this time when Altman scolded Bickerstaff over Mitchell’s usage against the Rockets, followed by Mitchell’s four-game absence.

Instead, Bickerstaff did some of his best work while the Cavs won an NBA-best 22 games from mid-December until the All-Star break and ignited the team’s campaign to get Bickerstaff elected as Coach of the Year (he finished with one third-place vote). The team started playing the style of basketball most of the players preferred — with more emphasis placed on spacing and 3-point shooting. Pressure on Bickerstaff and the organization largely seemed to subside.

But just as they did in Bickerstaff’s first two full seasons, the Cavs slid backward down the stretch. They went 12-17 after the break, which included two ghastly defeats. On April 7, at the end of a 1-4 Western trip, Cleveland blew a 26-point lead to the Clippers, and afterward, players openly questioned Bickerstaff’s defensive strategy.

One week after that, on the final day of the regular season, the Cavs were ahead by double digits in the fourth quarter against a tanking Charlotte Hornets team but finished that game with third stringers and no guards on the court to effectively lose and ensure they would not have to play the Philadelphia 76ers in the first round. Players were upset, though that seemed to be more of an organizational decision than one made solely on the bench.

After suffering a 38-point loss to Orlando in Game 3 of the first round, the most lopsided point differential in a playoff loss in team history, Allen openly praised the adjustments Magic coach Jamahl Mosley made, and seemed to take a swipe at Bickerstaff’s strategy.

“You could tell that (Magic coach) Jamahl Mosley did an excellent job planning for this game,” Allen said. “There’s times when I was just in the corner, I stood in the corner last game, but, just overall, you could see tiny differences that accumulate into a lot.”

The Cavs had a chance to close out the Magic in Game 6 on the road. Mitchell scored 50 points in the game, including all 18 of Cleveland’s points in the fourth quarter — a quarter in which the rest of the team seemed to collapse. A five-point lead turned into a loss, thanks to critical errors at both ends of the court and general complaints that the ball stopped moving on offense, complaints directed in Mitchell’s general direction.

As the Magic series headed for a Game 7, team sources said, the vibe among the Cavs was one of uncertainty. There was a general confidence among players that they could win, but coaches weren’t sure which version of the team would emerge. Fears were realized, initially, when the Cavs fell behind by 18 in the first half, but the team recovered to win going away.

With his team down 1-0 in the series to the Celtics, Bickerstaff made an observation about Boston before Game 2 that left members of the Cavs organization perplexed; it seemed as though he was making an unfavorable comparison to his own team. He said, “You watch the way they play the game and how unselfish the game is played, they have really talented players throughout their lineup, but they all understand their role and they all play their role in a way that’s just going to help them win.

“You sit back and watch the film and study them, you don’t see guys stepping outside of who they are in a way that it’s going to impact other people,” Bickerstaff said. “They don’t mind a Derrick White going off. If he’s going off, they allow him to do his thing. If you give him the ball and put him in position to be successful, and the other guys become great, equally. I think you watch them and it doesn’t appear from the outside that it’s about ‘me’ at all, right? It’s about winning. It’s about winning consistently.”

And then, of course, his team promptly went out and stunned the basketball universe, pulling one of the most lopsided wins by an NBA playoff underdog in history in capturing the Cavs’ first, and only, road playoff win under Bickerstaff.

Afterward, he said the win in Boston showed “the importance of winning” to his players.

“That’s the most important thing to the guys,” Bickerstaff said. “There is nothing else that matters. There is no other agenda. We’ve got playoff games in front of us that we need to win.”

They didn’t win another game.

(Top photo of J.B. Bickerstaff and Donovan Mitchell: Jason Miller / Getty Images)

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