NBA Mailbag: John Beilein Dilemma, Celtics And Thunder Trade Talk

Could the John Beilein experiment in Cleveland end after one season? Should the Celtics target Andre Drummond? And more.
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Before we get into this week’s mailbag, let’s talk about John Beilein.

The Cavaliers first year coach—in the midst of a dismal season highlighted by ugly losses and reports of player unrest—was in the headlines again this week, after ESPN reported that Beilein referred to his players as “a bunch of thugs” in a film sessions. The comment, understandably, resonated strongly with some players, forcing Beilein to immediately backtrack and apologize.

"Yesterday in a film session, I used a word -- meant to say slug; thug came out. It was brought to my attention a couple of hours later," Beilein told reporters on Thursday. "Talked to all the players afterward, explained the situation. We met about it today; I apologized about it today as well. It was never intended, and players understand that now.

"It was something I have to learn from, just enunciate better, just be clearer with what my words are. They all know it, they understand it. But it's something that's unfortunate that we'll get past."

Cavaliers players were quick to publicly forgive Beilein, if for no other reason than to move past it. The Cavs are 11-27 and Beilein, who signed a five-year contract last spring, has come under fire for his college-like approach to NBA coaching, with long practices and sometimes longer film sessions. Beilein, 66, had never coached in the NBA before this season, and there is a growing belief in NBA circles that he may not be cut out for it.

One NBA executive compared Beilein to Mike Montgomery, the successful Stanford coach whose NBA coaching career ended after two rocky seasons in Golden State.

To be fair: The Cavs front office has given Beilein a deeply flawed roster, one divided by the kind of young players Beilein figures to be built to coach (Collin Sexton, Darius Garland, Kevin Porter) and veteran holdovers from the LeBron years (Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson).

The only way to know if Beilein is capable of being a successful NBA coach is to balance out the roster. The Cavs are actively engaged in trade talks for Love, and there is a league-wide expectation that Cleveland will be able to move Love before the February trade deadline—provided the Cavs don’t ask for more than expiring contracts and perhaps small draft considerations in return. Thompson could be available, too, but even if he is not moved he could be bought out. There are several teams hoping for that scenario.

Beilein’s gaffe hurt his standing in the locker room, and the Cavs will need to act quickly to help him get it back. If GM Koby Altman can clean out the roster, can get everyone on the same page, it’s still possible for Cleveland to build some positive momentum before the end of the season. If not, the Beilein experiment may have to end after one season.

On to your questions …

The NBA needs to go about making the regular season more competitive. That’s how you make it more meaningful, not worrying about tournaments. How about NBA bonuses for players living/signing in less desirable locations to be more attractive to free agents? - @CreamDeutz

I don’t know about bonuses for signing in, say, Oklahoma City or Memphis instead of New York or LA. But I’m with you on nixing the idea of an in-season tournament. It’s goofy, and I’m not sure it does much to significantly impact ratings.

The reason for the NBA’s ratings slip is a heavily debated topic, but for me it comes down to a simple fact: LeBron James is out of the Eastern Conference, and no one replaced him. Up until 2018, James had spent his entire pro career in the East. He drove ratings in that time zone. With him gone, there is no ratings driver. The Knicks stink, Kevin Durant won’t suit up for the Nets until next season and the best player in the NBA, Giannis Antetokounmpo, has not connected with the television audience in the same way James did. Eastern Conference games lack television sizzle.

I’m all for an end of the season, play-in tournament. I think it will add relevance to a usually dismal final month of the season and make the first round of the playoffs more interesting. It worked for baseball, it can work for the NBA. The league should scrap all of its other plans and focus on this one.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Would the Celtics be interested in Andre Drummond? What would it take to get him?

The Celtics are interested in a lot of frontcourt players. The problem Boston runs into is that it has no big salaries to trade, at least not ones they want to trade. Drummond makes $27 million. To make the money work, the Celtics would have to move Marcus Smart (and more) or Gordon Hayward, and my read on the situation is that’s not something Boston is looking to do.

Whoever acquires Drummond—and presumably gives up something substantial to get him—will have to be ready to commit long term to him. Drummond can opt out of his contract next summer, and given the weakness of the free agent class, there’s no reason to think he won’t. He’s a three-time rebounding champion averaging a career-best 16.2 boards per game this season. He’s a subpar free throw shooter but he’s been 60-ish percent from the stripe the last three seasons, a workable number. Even in a league trending toward the stretch-five, Drummond has tremendous value.

The Pistons are open for business, with Blake Griffin likely done for the season and Reggie Jackson dealing with major back issues. ESPN reported that Atlanta was interested—a Drummond/John Collins frontcourt, with Trae Young in front of them, is compelling on paper—and Detroit has spoken to several other teams about Drummond, per a source familiar with the discussions. Drummond, still just 26, is a big time player, one worth seeing play in a winning situation.

Will OKC be sellers at the trade deadline? -Carter Allen

Oklahoma City is a terrific story. The Thunder are 11-2 since mid-December. They have wins over Toronto, Dallas and Houston. Chris Paul has shrugged off last season’s subpar run with the Rockets and is back putting up numbers (and shooting percentages) comparable to what we saw with the Clippers. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is having an All-Star season. Billy Donovan is a candidate for Coach of the Year. OKC is stocked with more draft capital over the next five years than any team in the NBA.

I know, I know—that didn’t answer your questions.

The truth is, I don’t know what Oklahoma City will do before the deadline. There is interest in Danilo Gallinari, who is healthy and averaging 18 points per game. Dennis Schroder—a frontrunner for Sixth Man—has drawn interest. Paul, because of his contract, is always a threat to be moved if a team approaches the Thunder with a real offer. But Oklahoma City—which never expected to bottom out this season, even after trading Russell Westbrook and Paul George—can afford to be selective. The Thunder are firmly entrenched in the playoff field and are a few games back of a top-four seed.

They don’t need to have a fire sale. There are strong reasons why they shouldn’t.

If I had to guess, I’d peg Gallinari as the likeliest player to move. He’s in the final year of his contract and it’s unlikely the Thunder—already locked into several big contracts—would be interested in any kind of bidding war to keep him next summer. OKC can let Gallinari’s $22.6 million salary come off the books and take the cap relief that comes with it. But if a team makes an aggressive offer for Gallinari, I’d expect the Thunder to listen.