“Pure Vibes”: Cleveland Cavaliers Build a Unique Culture

Independence, Ohio – While playing for the Orlando Magic last season, Robin Lopez could feel something special about the Cleveland Cavaliers – and he went above and beyond for their improved play on the field. It’s always obvious every time Lopez opposed to seeing this intangible property up close.

“The Cavs’ reputation from last season, it speaks volumes for a lot,” Lopez said Friday afternoon after training at the Cleveland Clinic Courts. “You can really feel that locker room aura. Being here and witnessing it at training camp, it feels real and feels legitimate.”

How that translates is anyone’s guess. September is the time when good vibes spread across the league. Players are rejuvenated after long summers. Nobody lost a game. The schedule had no effect. The pressure hasn’t choked yet. An intense qualifying hunt is still months away. It is natural to be filled with hope and joy. Still, Lopez has been around for a long time. He was taken with the 15th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, entering his 15th season in the NBA. The Cavs are their ninth team. He’s seen a lot throughout his career, so what he thinks – and says – should not be diminished.

It took less than a week for Lopez to start scrambling for the head coach of the culture instilled by JB Bickerstaff. It took him less than a week for him to start showing off his team collaboration.

The last time he remembered seeing such positive indicators of success was the 2019-20 season as a member of the top seed and championship contender Milwaukee Bucks.

“It’s a rarity,” Lopez said.

The first week of boot camp was a carryover from last season, when the Cleveland team’s unit helped ignite the franchise’s transformation. It’s a hungry, tight-knit young group that isn’t escaping higher expectations after a season of 44 wins and the addition of superstar shooting guard Donovan Mitchell. Upon entering the training facility, an indefinable feeling fills the room. The right mix of fun and competition. A mixture of young and old.

“Pure ambiance around the gym,” said All-Star point guard and captain Darius Garland. “A lot of energy. Everyone comes up with high energy, ready to work, ready to learn.”

So, what does Bickerstaff do behind the scenes to create these “pure” feelings? playing music? Pizza parties? jokes? BS’ing with guys on the sidelines? Running loose training sessions? Twisted drills? Featured competitions? Barking happily like a dog the way he did after the occasional victories last year? Anything special that other coaches don’t do?

“It’s just this group. We foster the relationships they have, the way they treat each other and the way they treat themselves on the court, in the locker room,” Bickerstaff said, redirecting the praises. We will have a great time. But our guys understand that when it’s time to go to work, we go to work. We can be purposeful and still have a good time. This is this building. That’s what we’ve been working on creating.”

Veteran Kevin Love says he’s never had so much fun coming to work. Caris LeVert, who reached mid-season trade last year, says he was immediately welcomed with open arms – and those bonds with his teammates have only strengthened since then. Garrett Allen is feeling “excellent” about the team heading into the season. Mitchell, who came from Utah—a place with his older, more experienced teammates—was rejuvenated with Cleveland’s exuberance and camaraderie. Mitchell already uses Cavaliers’ language, often explaining which of the five words, Organizational Core Values, at any given moment.

Competitive workouts. The quarrels are intense. Post-workout shootouts are filled with friendly trash talk, laughter, and hilarious punches. Mobile gym. It’s not monotonous or martial – although push-ups are sometimes required for losers.

“I think it’s just the mood of this group,” Love said. It’s one thing to say and one thing to see is already here. More than anything else, men have the desire to just listen, and the ability to really communicate at a very high level. I think it all starts with JB but flows through the technical staff. I think we have very high personalities, not to mention players, here with us. I think we’ve improved every practice so far. I know it’s only a small sample size. But I think the players’ willingness to improve, communicate and do the right thing is a very high level so far.”

“It’s a unique group in the sense that everyone celebrates each other and celebrates the win,” Levert explained. “We’re always looking out for each other. This is very unique, especially in the NBA with a lot of different mindsets about the league. I think it’s all here about the team, it’s all about the family.”

Garland deserves recognition for her pioneering role in transforming culture. The 22-year-old sparkling max player is a natural coordinator. He has a Stephen Curry-like charisma and an exuberance that permeates it.

“Just trying to lead us, trying to take us to the next step,” Garland said. “This has always been in the back of my mind since last year I tried to think of what we could do to take the next step? What should I do to make my teammates in a better position for us to win those two games, or some games we shouldn’t have lost?”

Part of the reason the Cavs have been able to hit the ground running in training camp is the stability and consistency from top to bottom from last year. Of the 14 players currently expected to be on the opening night roster, only three weren’t with the Cavs at some point last season – Lopez, Mitchell and Raul Neto. That number left could go up to four if Sharife Cooper, Nate Hinton, Mamadi Diakite or Jamorko Pickett — who calls camp — all take last place on the list.

Every beginner fits in seamlessly, especially Mitchell – the coolest and most important off-season addition.

“A lot of what we do is use our resources and our relationships to provide background on people. You can see that from top to bottom, this organization has put a high level of interest in the character,” Bickerstaff said. “All these guys out there—and I’m saying this honestly—not one of them I don’t like coming into work and seeing. That’s not the case for all places. We didn’t have to compromise on personality for talent with Donovan, and we had that information before the deal was done. It’s a tribute to (Chief Basketball Operations) Kobe (Altman) and (Chairman) Dan (Gilbert), From top to bottom, we don’t sacrifice people and quality people just to jump into something we can be uncomfortable with to win. We’re lucky because the guys we have are extreme talents, but even better people.”

There is also continuity within the technical staff. Dan Geriot is back from the G League’s Charge, but he’s technically not a new face given his previous coaching career in Cleveland. The only real addition is Luke Walton, the former NBA coach who has known Bickerstaff for two decades and was named to the team this summer.

“It was easy. He and I have been friends for 20 years. A lot of us had relationships with him before he got here,” Bickerstaff said of his relationship with Walton. But his personality fits anywhere. He’s very low ego, wants the best for the group, and is selfless in the way he handles everything. Confident at the same time, willing to make suggestions and willing to tell me I disagree, then we move on.”

The system has not changed. The defensive focus is still there. Terminology translate. Many roles are assigned. The principles are the same. Not as much as teaching.

There is understanding and acceptance. Accountability and respect. Selflessness and dedication. There is also more confidence. With that comes confidence.

“These guys feel more comfortable in what we’re doing,” Bickerstaff said. “Last year a lot of this stuff was new and when things are new and you’re not sure, you’re probably going to be calmer because you don’t know exactly what you’re going to say. I think guys knowing the system makes them more confident and willing to use their voice.”

In the early days of bootcamp, the Cavs usually bring in countless guests to observe their practices. High school coaches. college coaches. Athletic directors. his former colleagues. Mentors. The proteges.

One of them was present Friday with the organization during the early stages of this rebuilding process. He couldn’t believe how much the weather had changed in such a short period, noting that the weather was “night and day” and “unrecognizable.”

Or better yet, borrow a term from Garland…

Immaculate, very clean, very organized.

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