Cleveland Cavaliers assistant coach Lindsay Gottlieb left her mark on the organization. cleveland.com
By Chris Fedor, cleveland.com
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Lindsay Gottlieb wasn’t looking to leave.
April 21 was a typical gameday. Morning shootaround. Back home. Drive to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse. It was everything she had been doing for two years as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
As Gottlieb sat in the coaches locker room next to assistants Dan Geriot, Dan Vincent and J.J. Outlaw, discussing her scouting report for that evening’s matchup against the Chicago Bulls, she scrolled through her phone. She saw a social media notification about Southern California women’s basketball coach Mark Trakh retiring.
“This is interesting,” she uttered out loud.
In the release, USC athletic director Mike Bohn asserted a new financial commitment to women’s basketball -- a noteworthy proclamation in what is typically a mundane announcement.
Having been the women’s coach at California-Berkeley before coming to Cleveland, Gottlieb was intimately familiar with the routine of hirings and firings. All too often schools acted as if wins came simply with the right personality. As if they were a result of one person’s individual will.
She knew better than that.
When calls came this past offseason from interested college programs -- men’s and women’s -- Gottlieb’s answer was always the same: Thanks, but no thanks.
Cleveland is where she wanted to be. This hadn’t been about being a trailblazer as much as fulfilling a childhood dream as real to a little girl as it had been for any player on the roster. She negotiated an NBA out clause in her Cal contract -- just in case.
Two years in, she welcomed the pressure attached to the upcoming 2021-22 season. She coveted the chance to guide Cleveland’s kids -- Darius Garland, Collin Sexton, Isaac Okoro and Jarrett Allen -- while they grew up.
But that USC opening -- a public declaration to do what must be done to revive a dormant program -- clearly had her attention.
This was interesting.
Vincent, Geriot and Outlaw all asked the same follow-up question. Is that a good job?
“I think it could be a really good job,’” she answered.
How does one turn down a job with everything?
The next day, following a 121-105 win that snapped a three-game losing skid, the Cavs left on a five-day, three-city trip beginning in Charlotte. On the road, Gottlieb often had her own locker room. A little more than an hour before tip versus the Hornets, a close friend with college connections asked whether Gottlieb had any interest in USC. She was focused on the Hornets. She wanted to sleep on it.
When she returned to the locker room following the loss, Gottlieb had a text message from Bohn. No agent. No search firm. No media leaks. He introduced himself and asked to have a longer, informal conversation at some point over the weekend.
The next day, inside the Georgetown Four Seasons, Gottlieb spoke over the phone with Bohn, USC President Carol Folt and another top aide for about 25 minutes. Bohn, clearly impressed by Gottlieb’s resume, pitched his vision.
“I said, ‘I didn’t come to the NBA to turn right around. I’m really enjoying what I’m doing. I feel like I’m part of something,’” Gottlieb recalled. “‘However, I do feel I want to be a head coach again, whether that’s men’s college basketball, women’s college basketball, the WNBA.’
“I understand what USC can be and it’s intriguing to me to have a conversation. I got off the phone after 25 minutes and I didn’t feel too strong either way.”
But Bohn did. She moved to the top of USC’s wish list.
Bohn didn’t relent. The next conversation focused on the Trojans’ newfound commitment to women’s basketball. She heard rumors about Bohn’s willingness to pay the next coach a salary that would rank in the top-third of the conference. As Gottlieb had breakfast with J.B. Bickerstaff, she wanted to be transparent, filling him in on the talks.
USC tugged, making a “ridiculous offer” with the kind of financial security the NBA doesn’t typically provide and a longer contract than what was remaining in Cleveland. Gottlieb declined.
She wasn’t ready to leave the NBA. This had never been a stepping stone to her. It was the life she always wanted.
Bohn kept pushing. He provided a blank check for assistant coaches. Told her she could run the program in her vision. Gottlieb had contemplated one day joining an NBA front office. But now, USC wasn’t just about money or years. She would be the coach and GM. How many people get everything from a potential employer?
On May 6, the Cavs left for Dallas. Gottlieb didn’t go, asking Cavaliers GM Koby Altman for extra time to focus on the potential life-altering decision. There was a lot to consider. Gottlieb hadn’t sought out USC, yet was being asked to leave a lifelong dream for an astonishing opportunity.
She chose the NBA.
Spending the weekend reflecting, she was content with the final decision. USC would have to move on. But the Trojans were smitten. She received another text message from Bohn to call immediately. More years. More money. More assurances. More to ponder.
“He said, ‘You are our coach. We think you can do exactly what we want, what we need here,’” Gottlieb remembered. “They said ‘be the GM and head coach of USC women’s basketball. You get to construct it. Tell us what positions we need. Tell us how to run this thing.’
“Then I was sort of like, ‘What am I doing?’”
After that came another important family conversation between Gottlieb, her husband, Patrick, and son, Jordan. Returning to California would be better for Patrick, who is still working remotely out of there. Jordan enjoyed his school and plans were already in place for him to attend summer camp in Cleveland.
But finally, it was obvious. Taking over at USC was the best decision for everyone.
“I felt like I was being a little selfish,” Gottlieb said. “Yes, I want to stay in the NBA, but ‘Lindsay, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.’
“There is part of me that’s like, ‘Did I tap out too soon?’ Who knows what could have happened here in Cleveland? Some part of me feels guilty for going back to women’s basketball. I don’t think anyone else sees it this way, but even though it’s this unbelievable opportunity, it’s as if I’m letting down this sort of fight for someone who could potentially be good and make headway in the league.”
Nothing around the NBA or the Cavaliers is a given. Chairman Dan Gilbert is unpredictable. Altman’s future is uncertain. None of Gilbert’s GMs have lasted more than five years. If Altman makes it through next season, that will be the magical benchmark. Bickerstaff is the fourth head coach since LeBron James left in 2018. His multi-year extension signed last March doesn’t guarantee anything.
The NBA, in general, is synonymous with variability. Same goes for the Cavs, who finished 22-50 this past season. What if the organization doesn’t move forward? What if Gilbert gets antsy once again and makes changes? Where would that leave Gottlieb? She didn’t talk with Gilbert before making her decision. But she did speak with Bickerstaff and Altman multiple times.
Bickerstaff told her she would have a job for as long as he remains with the Cavaliers. He also offered advice.
“That job was too good to turn down,” Bickerstaff told cleveland.com.
Altman told her she was a beloved and valued member of the organization. Still, no one speaks with certainty in the NBA. Coaches don’t get six-year deals, let alone assistants. Plus, this wasn’t 2019 when she had a three-year contract with a team option in Year 4. Gottlieb was entering the final guaranteed year.
She believed in Bickerstaff, Altman and the Cavaliers’ plan. She also believed she had to ponder all possibilities.
“There was no time at all in the two years that I was feeling antsy,” she said. “When you’re an assistant in college for a long time and kind of know you are ready to be a head coach, you start to get a little bit like, ‘OK, I’m ready to be the one.’ You’re still a loyal assistant, but you’re ready to be the one. I had zero feelings of that in the two years. Not under (John) Beilein. Not under J.B. I was enjoying not being a head coach. I was enjoying learning and not having the pressure of having to make every decision.
“But if someone says, ‘Lindsay, what’s next for you?’ My gut was more, ‘Hey I think I want to be a head coach again.’ After two years, I was feeling like that was most likely to happen in the WNBA or women’s college basketball. When someone is dangling this spectacular job ... and be the CEO, GM and head coach, what are you supposed to do?
“This situation is what I’ve worked for -- to have the trust from an AD that’s the same way I think a GM wants trust from an owner to essentially say you have this blank canvas to make USC women’s basketball the type of program you want.”
Lindsay Gottlieb 2.0
In a way, this is a chance for Gottlieb -- who ascended near the top of Cal’s leaders in wins, helping the program to the most wins in a single season and its first Final Four trip -- to reinvent herself.
“I talked to J.B. and he said, ‘Lindsay, I think the most important part of this is creating something special,’” she said. “He was like, ‘I hope we’re doing that here and you’re a part of it, but also if you have a chance to create something special -- NBA, college, WNBA, whatever -- it’s all basketball and a chance to do something special in a way that hasn’t been done.’
“I’m slightly sad. I think I had more to learn in the NBA. At the same time, you can’t control time.”
Others asked whether she truly wanted to jump back into college basketball, where student-athletes are gaining more power. That part excites her.
“We should allow the players to profit and let the players have the autonomy to do what they want,” she said. “Then I started thinking, ‘Can I be the spearhead for what the modern NCAA looks like?’ Where I do a model of it that’s really good for everybody -- still build team culture but also take care of players? Then I got excited thinking can I be Lindsay Gottlieb 2.0 as a coach and take all the things that I’ve learned already and be this way better version of what I was?
“I can be this linchpin between men’s and women’s basketball, pro and college, and be unique in this world. The sadness of leaving a little bit too soon turned into excitement. That’s where we focus less on what I’m going to miss and more of what I can be, do and who I can impact.”
Lindsay Gottlieb watched film with Collin Sexton before games. NBAE via Getty Images
Given a unique platform two years ago, Gottlieb was treated the same as every other assistant coach in Cleveland. Just the way she liked -- and wanted -- it.
One of eight women assistant coaches in the league in 2020-21, she talked about personnel decisions with the front office. She worked on the draft -- critical area for a rebuilding team. Broke down film. Compiled scouting reports. Oversaw the development of young players. She was involved in high-level conversations about the team’s future.
This season, she even moved to the front of the bench where she helped keep the feisty Bickerstaff calm.
“He became my guy -- an NBA lifer who took me under his wing as a colleague and friend and taught me the ins and outs of the NBA,” Gottlieb said. “Once he was promoted to head coach, he advocated for me, he moved me into the front of the bench and gave me a close-up view to his leadership style and his brilliant mind.”
In two NBA seasons, Gottlieb experienced plenty. A coaching change, with Beilein stepping down midway through his maiden voyage. Losing streaks. Pandemic. Off-court drama.
“The two years were wild. There was nothing typical,” Gottlieb said. “The way I was embraced by the players and organization was unbelievable and changed my life. It wasn’t without its hard things. It was hard to be going from everything I knew in college to the pros. It’s hard to be the only one who was different in the ways I was different. That’s life. It was hard to navigate being away from my kid as much as you have to in the NBA. There were challenges.”
Gottlieb still remembers one of the first things she was told by her fellow assistants. Well, aside from where to live and which winter coat to purchase. They all told her eventually she would get sick of being around the same people on a daily basis, especially on those lengthy road trips.
She never did.
“I guess I didn’t think about it like that,” Gottlieb said with a chuckle. “I learned different things about the nuances of basketball and my mind was going, ‘OK, would I do it this way? What would I incorporate into my own thing relative to spacing and what we’re running here?’”
A lasting impact
In Year 3 of a grueling post-LeBron rebuild, the Cavs had one of the league’s youngest teams. They needed structure, accountability and tutoring -- all areas where Gottlieb excelled.
Dean Wade, 24, was one of the players who grew close to Gottlieb. He still remembers the day she told him he would be making the first start of his career.
“She’s an unbelievable person,” he said. “She’s one of the top basketball minds I’ve ever been around. She brings you to the side and talks to you. Outside of basketball, she’s an amazing person. I’m sad she’s leaving us but for her and her family, it’s an unbelievable opportunity and I’m very happy for them. I have to become a USC women’s basketball fan.”
Gottlieb was part of a culture change in Cleveland. She will try to do the same with the Trojans. The NBA is a people business. She learned that early on. Her ability to connect to players -- any background, any age -- is a rare gift.
“You have to start there with her as a human being because that’s where she’s most impactful,” Bickerstaff said. “How she cares about other people, how she opens your eyes to different scenarios and things that are going on in the world. It’s every single day that you see it. You see how she embraces people. You see how people welcome her. All those things that make it difficult in our business, she excelled at.
“It wasn’t transactional for her, which sometimes in professional sports it can get to be. She genuinely cared for each individual and loved to work with each individual and got to know them and built relationships with them. ... She’ll definitely be missed.
“Our guys are grateful, and we’re all grateful, for having time with her and learning from her, and being a part of her basketball journey.”
Part of Gottlieb’s gameday routine consisted of watching film with Sexton.
“I know I can go to her and talk to her just about real situations that are off the court, some things that I’m going through on the court,” he said. “At the end of the day, she’s not going to sugarcoat anything. If she feels like I’m not playing up to my potential, she’ll let me know. That relationship is not going to go anywhere. I want her to know that I’m very excited and very proud of her.”
Drafted fifth in 2020, Okoro didn’t get the usual rookie adjustment period. No summer league or offseason workouts. Gottlieb was one of the first people he met.
“She always brought a smile every single day,” Okoro said. “Always lightening up the mood. You know me, I always come with my straight face, not like one to smile, but every time I see her, and she’s always in a good mood, it just brightens up the whole practice. I’m going to miss her, but I know it’s a better opportunity.”
“Always part of Cavaliers family”
Gottlieb was officially announced as USC’s head coach on May 10 -- the new leader for a lifeless program with one NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006. Gottlieb flew to L.A. for an introductory press conference and campus tour the next day. Then, she traveled back for Cleveland’s home finale.
“This has been literally the craziest three weeks of my life,” Gottlieb said. “I include childbirth, I include coming to Cleveland and different moves I’ve had, this has been hard -- and really, really crazy.”
During that May 12 game against the Boston Celtics, Gottlieb received a heartfelt video tribute. She got a hug from Tristan Thompson, one of her old players -- and a Bratenahl neighbor.
The next day, before leaving for her last NBA road trip, the Cavs took a team photo at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Gottlieb stood surrounded by her hoops family, all clad in red USC T-shirts holding up two fingers -- an homage to the school’s traditional celebration. Even Kevin Love, who went to UCLA, joined in the farewell photo.
“She will always be part of the Cavaliers family,” Altman said.
Gottlieb plans to go back and forth this summer, not wanting to uproot her family immediately. Once USC basketball summer school is over around Aug. 10, she’ll again call California her permanent home.
This time, she will bring two years of NBA knowledge and pieces of Cleveland along.
“Once you’re in the bubble of it, it’s just normal people with normal joys and problems trying to accomplish collective goals and individual goals,” she said. “I think being part of that -- fraternity is the wrong word, right? Because I was in it. But this idea of being part of the NBA family and our team family was incredible.
“I love the NBA. I wish I could be in two places at once. Two years seems a little too short. But I think I’ve formed relationships around it to keep being part of it in various ways.
“It was crazy to me that I was in that world.”
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