Tyronn Lue had what can aptly be described as an uneven tenure with the Cavaliers while coaching LeBron James. Since taking over for David Blatt, Lue took the Cavaliers to three NBA Finals appearances, including a historic championship in 2016. All of this despite, according to a source, “not wanting the job, at least not like this,” referring to taking over for the fired Blatt. However, there were, and remain, legitimate questions regarding his competency to manage a roster, motivate guys to play, and settle on reasonable and consistent minutes rotations.
To the surprise of some, Ty Lue was not jettisoned this summer and remains at the helm of a ship in desperate need of a rudder. The margin for error increases almost immeasurably when James in on the roster, obviously, but the real question is: What happens when he’s not there anymore?
Make no mistake. Lue was hired as David Blatt’s lead assistant with the idea that he would coordinate a sophisticated defensive scheme and system to balance out Blatt’s allegedly genius offensive philosophies. We saw Cleveland play great, in spots, defensively, but never with a consistency that would’ve caused anyone to cry out that Lue was executing his purported expertise at a satisfactory level as an NBA head coach.
The Cavaliers have, to an extent, gotten younger this summer. Not so much in terms of average age, but absolutely in terms of meaningful NBA experience. His hesitance (refusal?) to continue giving Cedi Osman consistent minutes was, at best, confusing. A lack of minutes for young big Ante Zizic was confusing, especially given the amount of time that was missed by Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson during the regular season. If, as a basketball community, we are willing to sit back and defend the Cavaliers’ lack of urgency during the regular season by saying things like, “it’s the regular season. It doesn’t matter to them”, then we have to also ask ourselves why, then, if it didn’t matter, was Lue not more concerned with giving youngsters some minutes for the sake of their development, especially given the idea that James may not have been returning?
It goes deeper than that, even. In the playoffs, there were long stretches, even entire pairings of games, where Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and, maybe most notably, Rodney Hood were simply human weights, holding down folding chairs. All of this, in the face of JR Smith being mostly unplayable, and the Cavs putting in performances that were bereft of energy.
Ty Lue has never had a roster like this in his time as an NBA coach, at any level. The Cavaliers now find themselves banking their future on 19-year-old rookie point guard Collin Sexton and the development of the players that I mentioned above. One has to wonder whether or not Lue, a coach seemingly distrusting of young players, is the right man for this job.
Defense, Lue’s specialty, should always be a secondary concern with developing young players. After all, it is exceedingly rare that a young player walks into the league, especially today’s league, with NBA ready defense. Players are expected to develop their defensive skill-sets as they develop their bodies; stronger over time. A place where a rookie like Sexton can really make an impact is on the offensive end. It would stand to reason, in that case, that a coach with a strong offensive background and a reputation for developing talent, instead of letting them rot on the bench, would be preferred.
In 2009, Lue was made the director of basketball development for the Boston Celtics. Another team with championship pedigree, loaded with veterans. Young players on that roster included: Jr Giddens, Nate Robinson, Shelden Williams, Marcus Landry, Big Baby Davis, and Henry Walker. This situation is not unlike the one that the Cavs find themselves in now. Those Celtics, like last season’s edition of the Cavaliers, had championship expectations, that, upon the exodus of Hall Of Fame players, would certainly expire.
Of those young guys mentioned above, zero remain in the league eight years later, Davis is battling legal trouble, and most NBA fans couldn’t pick a few of those players out of a team picture. Simply put, Ty Lue was charged with developing young guys to preserve some sort of semblance of an NBA roster at the end of an era. Instead, those players are mere afterthoughts, if thoughts at all.
In 2013, Lue joined Doc Rivers in Los Angeles as an assistant with the Clippers. Again, Lue joined a team full of veterans, with just a smattering of youth. This time, however, the young guys in LA developed a bit better. Blake Griffin is a superstar and DeAndre Jordan is a really good player, particularly on defense. Eric Bledsoe, for all of his faults, is a fine NBA guard, too. That said, however, nobody worth their weight would mistake any of them for franchise players that contribute on both ends of the floor in a consistent and meaningful way. Also worth noting is the important veteran presence of guys like Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups.
The Cavaliers have no such veteran leadership. Kevin Love is a vastly underrated and tremendous player, but nobody, to this point in his career, would view him as a leader. Channing Frye is a respected veteran. Outside of those two, and the injury-riddled George Hill, meaningful veteran leadership like Lue had on that Boston roster where no young players developed, or strong vets like he had in LA where a few developed, is non-existent. Given his again uneven track record in this regard, trusting him to develop the future of a franchise seems like a questionable move from the Cavaliers front office.
Another concerning issue with those circumstances is his apparent inability to connect and massage relationships with point guards, a position that Lue himself played in the NBA. Rondo and Bledsoe are known malcontents. The situation with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland was, according to a source, so bad that Irving was simply not speaking to teammates, and Irving wasn’t the only one that shared the “it’s him or me” attitude about Irving’s place on the roster. Part of what makes head coaches successful is connecting with their players, polishing relationships and dynamics, and, as Phil Jackson showed us, being a babysitter to manage egos and roles. Unequivocally, Tyronn Lue has failed at that aspect of coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers. Given that their lottery pick and new potential face of the franchise is a point guard, it is easy to question whether or not Lue is best suited to serve as mentor.
Tyronn Lue became the head coach of the Cavs by default. His contract figures, his role on the staff, and his relationships with players and the organization made him such. Simply, a lack of better options this summer rendered him, once again, head coach by default. With the future of a franchise, the economic well-being of a city, and the careers of young players in need of true guidance and development, it’s hard to envision a world in which Tyronn Lue is successful.