After firing, Cavs embark on coaching search with All-Star Donovan Mitchell's future bigger priority

INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Before starting his summer break, Donovan Mitchell let the Cavaliers know he's happy in Cleveland and excited about the future.

With a new coach.

While Mitchell didn't speak publicly about J.B. Bickerstaff or their relationship, the All-Star guard's input likely informed and shaped the team's decision to make a coaching change despite the Cavs advancing to the second round of the playoffs.

A day after Bickerstaff was fired despite winning 99 games the past two seasons and helping the Cavs return to relevance following LeBron James' departure, president of basketball operations Koby Altman tried to explain the rationale behind the somewhat shocking dismissal.

Bickerstaff didn't do anything wrong. He just reached his limit and expiration date with a team reshaped by Mitchell's arrival in a 2022 trade from Utah.

During a 35-minute media availability on Friday, Altman praised Bickerstaff's “undeniable” success, but said the Cavs feel they're positioned to add a leader who can get them closer to winning a championship.

“Someone with a new approach, someone with a different voice, a fresh set of eyes to help us move forward,” Altman said. "We’ve accomplished a lot in the last few years, getting to a conference semifinal and we don’t want to be complacent.

“We feel we’re not far off.”

Of course, much of that hinges on Mitchell, who can sign a four-year, $200 million contract extension with the Cavs this summer. Altman met with the 27-year-old following Cleveland's loss to Boston in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Mitchell, who struggled with a left knee injury over the final two months of the regular season, sat out the final two games in the series against the Celtics with a calf strain.

Altman said the feedback he got from Mitchell during his exit interview was encouraging.

“This is a player that has had two of the best years of his career here, has had a lot of success here, understands the infrastructure,” Altman said. “I think he has a lot of trust in what we’re doing and understands that our goal is to win a championship.

“From his own words, he says he’s happy here. He likes it here. And so he’s always been very genuine. He’s always been very intentional. He’s been a great teammate. We have to take all that at face value and say, OK, we feel good about where we are with Donovan. Obviously, things could change.”

Altman denied Mitchell's contract or views impacted the decision on Bickerstaff.

The ground has already begun to shift in Cleveland. The decision to move on from Bickerstaff is a bold one and not without risk.

While he had his flaws — rotations, adjustments, third-quarter collapses and post All-Star break slumps among them — Bickerstaff took a 22-win team in 2021 to the cusp of a conference title in three years.

And this season, he kept Cleveland among the East's leaders despite a litany of injuries.

Mitchell played in just 55 regular-season games and guard Darius Garland (57) and forward Evan Mobley (50) were also limited by injuries.

Center Jarrett Allen missed the final nine games of the postseason with an injury Altman described as a “pierced” rib suffered in the opening round against Orlando. For weeks, the Cavs said only Allen was dealing with a painful bruise.

Bickerstaff seemed to get the most out of what he had. Still, Altman, chairman Dan Gilbert and others in the front office felt as if there's more untapped potential in a roster with its share of shortcomings.

The Mitchell-Garland and Allen-Mobley pairings remain works in progress, but Altman, citing statistics, pushed back at the notion they should be dissolved.

Altman also believes Cleveland's core four — Mitchell, Garland, Mobley and Allen — has yet to reach its potential, pointing to Milwaukee, Boston and Denver as examples of teams needing time to build before winning titles.

The coach had to go, but the Cavs may otherwise stay mainly intact.

“I don’t see big major sweeping changes,” Altman said. "More data speaks to (how) this works than it doesn’t. You can’t win 99 games over the regular season, make it to a conference semi and be like, this doesn’t work. This is just Year 2 of this iteration, of this core being together.

“I have a lot of excitement for the future for this group and belief in this group.”

Altman and his staff will use the holiday weekend to decompress before reconvening and beginning their first search for a new coach in five years.

He intimated he doesn't have a list of candidates yet, though outside names are already being floated, with Golden State assistant Kenny Atkinson, New Orleans assistant James Borrego and Frank Vogel, who was fired after one season in Phoenix, among those mentioned most.

Ideally, the Cavs would like to have a new coach in place by the draft on June 26. Altman said there is no timeline to find Bickerstaff's successor, but that there is a mandate to make the correct choice.

“Absolutely have to find the right leader,” he said. “There’s pressure in everything we do, so I get the importance of this. There was nothing that J.B. did categorically wrong. To say that now we have to get this right.”