If the Cleveland Cavaliers Can't Have Phil Jackson, Is Tom Izzo Their Guy?
Mike Brown had a nice five-year run as head coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. He led them to the playoffs in all five seasons and took the franchise to its first NBA Finals.
However, Brown is no longer at the helm, and it’s time to move on.
The Cavaliers’ coaching vacancy could be one of the greatest jobs in the history of the NBA, or one of the worst, depending on what LeBron James does this offseason.
Phil Jackson, Avery Johnson, and Mike Krzyzewski have all surfaced as possible candidates to replace Brown. Without James returning, I can’t fathom Jackson or Krzyzewski coming to Cleveland, and I think it would be long shot to see Johnson with the James-less Cavaliers.
In all likelihood, none of the highly sought-after coaches would come to Cleveland without James staying there.
Therefore, let’s assume that James gives an emotional press conference in July saying that he loves the Cleveland area—he always has and always will—he can’t turn his back on the city, he is determined to end Cleveland’s title drought, and he re-signs with the Cavaliers.
Cleveland’s head coaching position just became the best job in the business.
The prized jewel for Dan Gilbert and company is obviously Phil Jackson. Jackson has won 50 percent of the NBA championships over the last 20 years, coaching Michael Jordan to six titles and Kobe Bryant to four. He could surely bring the James’ gang at least one.
Unfortunately, all signs point to Jackson retiring or staying with the Lakers. I myself truly can’t see Jackson coaching another team besides Los Angeles.
So, if Cleveland can’t get Jackson to bite at an opportunity to coach James, where do the Cavs go? Johnson? Krzyzewski? Byron Scott?
While all those guys would be intriguing, the guy Cleveland actually needs to hire is Tom Izzo.
As the coach of Michigan State for the last 15 years, Izzo has led the Spartans to 13 consecutive NCAA tournaments and one national championship.
The four-time National Coach of the Year has taken Michigan State to six Final Fours and his .745 winning percentage in tournament games ranks third among active NCAA coaches—proving that he can get his team to flat-out play ball when it matters most. This is something the Cavaliers have struggled with the last couple seasons.
At 55, Izzo is eight years younger than Krzyzewski. Nothing against Coach K, I think he is a great coach, but he is old and I’m not sure how many more years he has left in the tank. I don’t want him to struggle adapting to the NBA, and realize that he’s too old for the challenge, leaving Cleveland high and dry.
The only drawback to Izzo is that he has never coached in the NBA. Will he be able to make it at the next level?
I don’t see any reason why he wouldn’t be able to. It’s not unprecedented for a college coach to make a successful transition.
Larry Brown, head coach of the 2004 NBA Champion Detroit Pistons, made a successful leap from college to the pros. Brown coached seven years at the collegiate level and led Kansas to a national title in 1988.
San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich roamed the college sidelines before guiding the Spurs to multiple NBA championships. Popovich was the head coach of Division III Pomona-Pitzer College in California from 1979-1986.
Izzo has succeeded in the postseason on multiple occasions, he knows how to handle people and—more importantly—players.
Eighty-four percent of MSU players who have completed eligibility during Izzo’s tenure have graduated. Furthermore, since 2000, Izzo has had 11 Spartans selected in the NBA draft, six of those first-rounders.
Only perennial basketball-powers North Carolina and Duke have had more players selected than Izzo and MSU in that time.
He is a great teacher of the game as well. Five of his former assistants are current NCAA Division I men’s basketball head coaches: Tom Crean (Indiana), Stan Heath (South Florida), Brian Gregory (Dayton), Doug Wojcik (Tulsa), and Jim Boylen (Utah).
Everyone who has ever been around him seems to have bought into what he said and the way he’s done things. No reason to believe that’ll change if he is named head coach of the Cavaliers.
He even has a connection with James.
Izzo recruited him while he was in high school—for a little while at least, until he realized that James was too good to play at the collegiate level.
Johnson and Scott wouldn’t be a terrible choice. I just don’t think they bring the name or the excitement that a Jackson, Krzyzewski, or an Izzo brings.
They each have their flaws too. Johnson already has the stigma that he can’t win in the postseason (isn’t that why Cleveland fired Mike Brown?), and Scott was fired by New Orleans this season partly because the players stopped listening to him, and partly because of a first-round exit in last year’s playoffs.
Izzo brings the name, the excitement, the mindset, the basketball IQ, and the desire to win that Brown’s replacement needs to have.
And by the way, Gilbert is a Michigan State alum. It all makes sense.
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