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Andy Larsen: In the NBA, teams that don’t swim in the same direction find themselves sinking

Cleveland Cavaliers head coach John Beilein, left, talks with Kevin Love in the first half of an NBA preseason basketball game against San Lorenzo, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Having balance sounds great.

It seems like a nice idea to have a roster of both young players with huge potential and savvy veterans with championship experience. It really does. You can have the old players tutor the new players in all of the tricks of the NBA, while the younguns grow and mature. Thanks to this mix of players at various stages of their careers, you won’t need to rebuild, just reload. A good team can be kept good forever.

It just doesn’t work that way.

The Cleveland Cavaliers are the latest example of this fallacy in team-building. This week, their head coach, the 67-year-old John Beilein, left the team by mutual agreement. He was hired only months ago out of a successful Michigan collegiate program, and walked away from the final four years on the five-year contract he signed. That’s how obnoxious the state of affairs had gotten.

The Cavs are 14-40. At one point, Beilein allegedly called his players “a bunch of thugs,” he insisted he meant “a bunch of slugs.” This led to his players playing songs featuring the word “thug” whenever he was nearby, according to reporting from The Athletic, with favorites including Bone Thugz-n-Harmony’s “Thuggish Ruggish Bone” and Tupac’s “Thugz Mansion.”

But the utterance wasn’t the cause of the team’s issues: they were there from the moment Beilein stepped in the door and failed to connect with them in any way. He’s used to dealing with young players at Michigan, but couldn’t make inroads with Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, and the like. Perhaps worse, he never got Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, and their massive veteran contracts on board either.

Beilein was the wrong choice for the Cavs — he didn’t survive even five months in his new job — but it’s hard to argue that anyone in his shoes would have succeeded at a significantly higher level. As much as Love was frustrated by Beilein, he directed most of his anger at Cavs GM Koby Altman for putting together a team that included himself and a bunch of “selfish” young players trying to prove themselves.

And that’s exactly the problem: in a team with a mix of veterans and youngsters, their goals aren’t going to be aligned, making it more difficult for everyone to get what they want. Signing Love to a huge extension in 2018 to “lead the rebuild” doesn’t actually make any sense, and actually has been a negative influence on the young players in both playing time and morale. Watching Love punch chairs does nobody any good.

If you go around the NBA’s worst teams, they nearly all suffer some form of this problem. The Knicks used their cap space on 25-year-old Julius Randle, 30-year-old Marcus Morris, 28-year-old Reggie Bullock, and then told those guys to go to work next to 19-year-old Kevin Knox and 21-year-old Mitchell Robinson. They are 17-38, they too have changed coaches, they too are a dramatic dumpster fire. The Kings signed Dewayne Dedmon and Trevor Ariza, then got rid of them before the deadline because they were so worthless to Sacramento.

I’m not saying this is the major problem in every market. Atlanta’s just bad because they don’t have enough talent: in particular, Cam Reddish and DeAndre Hunter have been huge disappointments as rookies. Golden State’s losing at huge levels, but that makes sense given their injuries. Minnesota’s bad because they gave too much money to the wrong young players, in particular, Andrew Wiggins and Gorgui Dieng. Other kinds of mistakes can be made.

But even in these situations when the veterans aren’t actively making things worse, there’s not a whole lot of evidence they’re working to make things better. The 43-year-old Vince Carter is now Half-Man, Half-AARP, but his veteran presence hasn’t taught the Hawks how to play better on either end. Draymond Green’s bluster hasn’t made a lick of difference for the C-team Warriors. Thirty-one-year-old former All-Star Jeff Teague got benched in Minnesota. “Veteran leadership,” very frequently, is more hope than reality.

The essential thing is to have one unified goal as an organization. That sounds simple — everyone should want to win all the time — but in the long term-oriented NBA, it’s impossible unless the pieces in place fit with one another.

The NBA’s worst teams have forgotten that lesson. Perhaps they never learned it at all.



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