Don’t sleep on Tyronn Lue’s coaching greatness
Boston’s Brad Stevens wants what Lue already has: an NBA title as a coach
What makes a great NBA coach?
A question with a multitude of answers has intensified throughout the NBA playoffs, but especially in the East. The centers of attention are Brad Stevens and Tyronn Lue.
Stevens is described as the Celtics’ “bright young coach” who wins with strategy and guile. Lue is the Cleveland head coach who wins, so goes the narrative, because of LeBron James.
Forget that both coaches are 41 years old.
This media-instigated double standard has become more pointed, and convoluted, with each game these teams play.
When the Celtics win, Stevens takes a step closer to the Hall of Fame despite having won no NBA titles, no conference titles. When the Celtics lose, as they did by 30 points on Saturday, it’s because of Boston’s youth.
Conversely, when Cleveland wins, James gets the credit; when Cleveland loses, it’s Lue’s fault.
After the Cavaliers’ lopsided Game 3 win, I asked Lue about what appeared to be his no-win predicament.
“At the end of the day, I don’t care,” a weary Lue said. “I do what I do to the best of my ability; the outside noise doesn’t bother me.”
During his playing career, Lue played with Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He knows the benefits of playing with Hall of Fame-caliber players.
“I played with all those guys, so I know what it takes to win,” he said. “LeBron’s a great player; we wouldn’t win if it wasn’t for him. I understand that. That’s how it goes.”
On Sunday, I went to the Cavaliers’ practice to follow up on that question — what makes a great coach — and to ask one more: What are the perils of coaching a megastar?
Larry Drew, the Cavaliers’ associate coach, described a multitude of factors that define a great NBA coach. Drew played 11 NBA seasons, after which he was an assistant for five teams and a head coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee.
“It starts with the coach’s ability to relate to players,” Drew said. “A great coach has to know players, know how to put players in a position to be successful and has to know how to adjust.”
The greatest challenge for an NBA coach who leads a team with a megastar player is gaining the player’s respect. “If they see you’re not on point and you don’t know exactly what you’re doing, they can lose respect for you,” Drew said.
The challenge is compounded for anyone who coaches James because his basketball IQ is off the charts.
“LeBron is as sharp as they come,” Drew said. “You’ve got to be pinpoint with your strategy, with what you do, why you do it and what happens if it doesn’t work.
“All those types of guys,” Drew added, referring to iconic players such as James, “that’s what they expect. Anything less will likely end in failure.”
Having generational players like James can make coaching a no-win challenge: The head coach gets the blame and very little of the credit.
James is often projected as Cleveland’s shadow coach and stealth general manager.
This is Lue’s reality. He has made peace with it but believes that type of talk slights his staff.
“What it does is take shots at people who are working hard, trying to do an excellent job,” Lue said. “That’s the hard part.”
In the 2016 NBA Finals, Cleveland came back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Golden State. Lue replaced David Blatt at midseason and led the Cavaliers to the franchise’s first NBA title.
Lue pointed out that in three out of the four Finals victories, Cleveland held Golden State’s vaunted offense in check.
“We hold them to 89 points on their home court in Game 7. LeBron’s not doing that,” Lue said, simply making the point that his staff did an effective job of putting schemes together to stop the Warriors’ high-powered offense.
“That says a lot. We have a great staff.”
This is the flip side of coaching a generational player.
Critics say that Phil Jackson would not have had his titles in Chicago without Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, or in Los Angeles without O’Neal and Bryant.
It’s hard to coach superstars, Lue said. “You have to get them to buy into your plan, your vision. You must have a shared vision.
“The players run the league,” Lue said. “This is not college, where the coach runs it. It’s not overseas. This is the NBA, so when you have those great players, they run the league. If they’re not happy with you, you’ll be gone.”
As we concluded the conversation, Lue thought about the future and said at some point in his head-coaching career, he would like to coach a team of younger, less experienced players.
Obviously, the run with James and a veteran Cavaliers team has been great.
“I’ve seen that side. I’ve dealt with a veteran team for the last three years,” Lue said. “If I get a chance or an opportunity, I would like to coach younger talent to see if I can coach those guys to take on my personality, coach them and mold them to the team I want them to be.”
He added that it’s rewarding to coach veteran teams like Cleveland because the players have been through the battles, they know who they are.
“When you coach a veteran team, you can’t mold,” he said. “They already are who they are. There is no changing those guys — which is not a bad thing.”
Lue said coaches are no different from players who want to challenge themselves.
His challenge would be eventually winning with the type of younger players Cleveland traded for this season. “You want to take on a different role and responsibility, that you can coach a young team and mold that team to be a good team, a tough team, a playoff team when they have not won,” Lue said.
James, Lue said, “has paved the way so they see what it takes to win, they see the work he’s put in, how hard it is to win, what it takes to win.”
Lue won two NBA titles as a player for the Los Angeles Lakers.
He led Cleveland to the NBA title in 2016. Lue was under intense emotional pressure that only a few knew about during the 2016 season.
Two important women in his life were fighting for their lives.
His mother, a minister, was fighting breast cancer; his grandmother was battling lung cancer.
On top of that, critics said that Lue had undermined Blatt to become the Cleveland head coach.
After the Cavaliers won Game 7, bedlam all around him, Lue sat alone on the Cleveland bench, crying.
“All the hate and criticism, having my mom and grandmother going through cancer treatment, it was a tough year,” he recalled. “When we finally won, I finally exhaled. We did it; this is over. We got through it.”
The ordeal put basketball in perspective and has made it easier to accept most of whatever has followed — criticism and praise alike.
“As much as you want to win for the organization, for the city of Cleveland, you still have everyday life stuff that happens that’s bigger than basketball.”
Now the Celtics and their “brilliant young coach” loom for Games 4 and 5, possibly 6, possibly 7.
If Cleveland advances, there will be a likely rematch against Golden State.
But if the Cavaliers advance that far, the narrative around Tyronn Lue will change.
This time Cleveland’s star player and the Cavaliers’ “brilliant head coach” will rightfully take a bow together.