Last time we spoke, I mentioned the emergence of Byron Scott as a candidate for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ vacant head coach position. Two weeks later, Scott has climbed the ranks and is a legitimate contender for the job. However, Dan Gilbert has recently made a strong push for a longtime friend, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, leaving Scott as what is believed to be option 1b.
Lately the Izzo news has been around-the-clock, with fans doing everything from tracking his flight on his visit to Cleveland to holding rallies on the Michigan State campus persuading him to stay. But the interest remains and Izzo is expected to make his decision any day now.
Therefore, without further ado, here is a look at how Tom Izzo would mesh with the Cavaliers, Divine Comedy style.
“Be brave. Take risks. Nothing can substitute experience.” — Paulo Coelho.
While Tom Izzo is literally a living legend on the college basketball scene, he has never coached in any capacity on the professional level. However, this is not my greatest concern. The argument that “a college coach has never had success in his first NBA gig” is a biased assessment and one that looks at less experienced coaches that went to lottery teams. Never before has a coach of Izzo’s stature made the jump to a 60+ win team.
No, that doesn’t seem to bother me. What really concerns me is that quote above and how it applies to Izzo’s start, should he accept the gig. Even though I’m not worried about his eventual transition into the NBA and winning on the professional level over the course of a few years, the problem is the risks, and ultimately losses, he’ll have to take in order to reach that success. In other words, for Izzo to learn how to fight on the NBA level, it may take a few good whippings first.
Having to sell LeBron James on the future of Cleveland’s coaching position may not be a walk in the park when you explain that the guy coming in has been coaching teenagers that made absolutely no money off of basketball for the past 15 years. Add in the fact that expectations will be sky high and the first year under Izzo could be a difficult one for the Cavaliers, much like his 16-16 season his first year with the Spartans. The good news? That was his worst year coaching, holding a 348-130 record (.728) in the 14 seasons since.
One of my biggest stat-based fears deals with Izzo’s history on the offensive end of the ball. Despite having several great athletes throughout the years and a reputation for playing an up-tempo brand of basketball, his teams have never put an overwhelming amount of points on the board. Over his career, his Spartan teams have averaged only 71 points per game, an average that is less than that of Coach K’s by double digits. This past season Michigan State ranked 92nd in NCAA Div. 1 basketball for points per game with an average of 72.6 points per contest.
That ranking put them well behind schools such as Villanova (82.5), Kansas (81.8), Syracuse (81.5), and even teams stereotypically known for running a slower pace, like Duke (78.4). Granted, in the Big 10 teams are relegated to a half court tempo, methodically running plays aimed at ticking the seconds off of the shotclock. However, Michigan State still only placed third in the Big 10 in points per game, and edging out schools such as Illinois, Northwestern, and Penn State isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for one’s offense.
Perhaps the biggest complaint during the Mike Brown era was his reluctance to get out and run on the fastbreak. Locked into a half court system, fans and even some players felt that the athleticism of LeBron James was being wasted away in crucial breaks of the game. Who knows if Tom Izzo would be able to implement a fastbreak system better than Mike Brown’s Cavaliers, who ranked 18th in fastbreak points per game (13.9) and 25th in pace (93.5) this season. However, after having some success in the past with fastbreak offense, it’s hard to imagine he could be any worse.
Lastly, Izzo’s teams aren’t known for efficient shooting from either behind the three-point arc or free throw line. Last season the Spartans shot 68.1% from the free throw line, which was dead last in the Big 10 and tied for 201st in Div. 1 hoops. If Tom Izzo were to take over the Cavaliers, who were last in the NBA in free throw percentage at 72.0% this season, don’t expect the free throw woes to improve short of Mark Price divine intervention.
Michigan State’s three-point shooting was also below average, despite boasting deep threats such as Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen. In the regular season, the Spartans shot 33.3% from three, which was tied for 213th in NCAA basketball. Granted, shooting figures typically have more to do with the players than the coach, but it’s never refreshing to see shooting struggles under such a historic head coach.
In the end, I don’t see Tom Izzo’s “inferno” stage presenting that large of a challenge to the Cavaliers. Under Mike Brown the team was far from an offensive juggernaut, so Izzo would have his work cut out for him. Furthermore, who knows what he would be capable of given world class athleticism and talent.
By far the biggest learning point for an NBA coach is managing your team. Sometimes, in the case of high profile gigs such as Los Angeles in the early 2000’s, it means helping Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal coexist for as long as possible. In this regard, Phil Jackson may be the best example of successful ego management in NBA history.
However, it’s also very important for any coach, especially a coach new to the NBA ranks, to keep his ego in check. Izzo is known for getting in the face of his players, looking to get the most out of them. While a passionate coach that stays on you is a great blessing in the NBA, particularly after five years of Mike Brown’s smiles and blank stares, Izzo will have to learn how to tone it down a notch or two before having success with it. After having a conversation with tough minded NBA head coach and former Spartan Scott Skiles, Izzo appears to be on the right track in learning how to manage his fieriness.
That reported conversation brings up another issue as well. Skiles told Izzo “you play so many games [that] the losses pile up,” explaining the up and down nature of the league. This is one of the main concerns experts have anytime a coach goes from the college ranks to the NBA. Sure, you can have a decent record and manage a team in a 30 game season where the postseason involves playing a team you likely haven’t seen in a few years, but how will you fare when 90+ games is expected of you each season and not every three? And no one but Tom Izzo, who doesn’t even know yet and would only find out halfway into his first season, can answer that question.
That’s why these issues are filed under the “purgatory” phase. These concerns aren’t as troublesome as those found in the inferno, but it could cause some sort of temporary punishment for the Cavaliers if Izzo takes over next season.
There’s no other way to say this, but Tom Izzo is a flat out winner. He has consistently overachieved with his teams despite injuries and often times lesser talent. There is no doubt in my mind that if the Cavaliers were able to hire this former NCAA coach of the year, champion, and future hall of famer, that it would catch the eyes of LeBron James more so than a candidate like Tom Thibodeau or if Mike Brown were retained.
Tom Izzo has appeared in 13 straight NCAA tournaments and has been in six of the last 12 Final Fours. That’s six times that Izzo’s team was considered to be one of the top four teams in the country without the benefit of having a top four recruiting class. Since Rivals started ranking recruiting classes in 2003, Michigan State’s highest class ranking has been 11th (’03 – 13th, ’04 – 11th, ’05 – NA, ’06 – 18th, ’07 – 14th, ’08 – 22nd, ’09 – NA, ’10 – 11th). Since 2007, John Calipari’s recruiting classes have been ranked higher than Izzo’s each year (’07 – 10th, ’08 – 4th, ’09 – 1st, ’10 – 1st), yet Izzo has edged out Calipari in the NCAA tournament over that span, boasting an 11-3 record. In fact, Izzo has the third best postseason record among active coaches, 35-12 (.745), behind only Coach K (.778) and Roy Williams (.753). That’s the difference between a coach and a salesman who has exploited an NBA rule in his favor for recruiting purposes.
But more important than winning, it’s how Tom Izzo wins that would best benefit the Cavaliers. In five tournament games this past season, Izzo’s Spartans allowed only 64.6 points per game, limiting their opponents to 108-263 (41.1%) shooting. Most of this is due to the man-to-man pressure, stay in front of your guy, accountability defense that he preaches. As blogger “Sparty” explains, “State doesn’t shoot gaps to try and create turnovers, they are more concerned about protecting the basket and grabbing rebounds, reducing teams 2nd chance opportunities.”
Many of you Cavs fans remember there was once a time when playing for Mike Brown’s Cavaliers meant you protected the basket first and always put in the effort. Excuses like “my defense is my offense” landed Sasha Pavlovic on the bench for a season and a half. Unfortunately, once the talent-hungry Cavs got their hands on some offensive help, sacrifices were made. In Brown’s first three postseasons (2006-08), the Cavaliers allowed only 88.9 points per game in 46 games. In the last two postseasons, Cleveland has allowed 93.4 points per game in 25 playoff games, despite having much better regular season records and far more talented teams. This time span not-so coincidentally syncs up with the arrivals of Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, and Shaquille O’Neal, all players who Brown had a hard time integrating into his defensive concept. However, one can only wonder how hard he tried to integrate them after watching Mo Williams play matador defense and Shaq lazily show on every pick and roll possession after possession. Brown almost seemed content sacrificing this horrendous defensive show for the off chance that either player would provide an uplifting offensive spark, like Mo’s scoring tear after his dunk on Paul Pierce in game one of the semifinals.
Therefore, this is what I believe would be Tom Izzo’s biggest asset to the franchise, should he be able to perfect it as I mentioned above. His full contact, football pad practices certainly wouldn’t fly, but his in your face nature would demand accountability on the defensive end of the basketball.
There is a misconception floating around that LeBron James wouldn’t and doesn’t respond well to fiery coaches that openly correct their players. However, in the documentary More Than a Game, viewers are met with several clips of current University of Akron coach Keith Dambrot scolding his players, which included LeBron. LeBron talks about how he first reacted to the style of Dambrot and went on to mention his demanding nature and how he was the first coach to actually teach him a lot about the game.
Similarly, while playing for Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the 2008 Olympics, LeBron said “he wants us to be perfect and that’s what he’s about, and we like that, we like that kind of challenge… you see how fiery he is during the course of a game.” He went on to claim “I have never played for a collegiate coach, but I didn’t come into it saying ‘well we have a collegiate coach, how are we gonna adjust to him?’ He’s one of the greatest coaches, no matter what level it’s on.”
As a collegiate coach seemingly on the same level as Coach K, considered a top 3 NCAA head coach, Cavs fans could only hope that LeBron would have a similar outlook on Tom Izzo if he were to accept the job. As with Mike Krzyzewski, Izzo is very fiery and demanding and would want only the best from LeBron James and his teammates. I believe this mentality is needed from the new head coach no matter who it is, as it became evident that Mike Brown lost his team in the playoffs.
In the end, with all of the intangibles that Tom Izzo brings, including the “big name splash,” I feel that he is the best option for the Cleveland Cavaliers right now. Furthermore, if Dan Gilbert and the front office can convince him to commit to the team without a firm commitment in place from LeBron James, as they are trying to do now, then the move becomes a great success. However, if Izzo were to decline the job, then as you found out in my last Italian trio themed head coach profile, Byron Scott would be a buono number two option.