The Eastern Conference All-Star coach has heard his critics, but continues to plug away at shining at his new career
POSTED: Feb 10, 2016 11:07 AM ET
Coach Tyronn Lue has perhaps the perfect personality to take the Cleveland Cavaliers where they want to go.
Having held his current position for a fraction of a sliver of a season, Tyronn Lue will take his thin little resume as the Cleveland Cavaliers' coach global this weekend when he leads the Eastern Conference squad in the 2016 NBA All-Star Game at Air Canada Centre.
There is no truth to the rumor that next year, NBA D-League players who get hot while called up on a 10-day contract will be eligible to start for the East or West in the annual showcase event.
The Cavaliers were 30-11 when coach David Blatt got fired on Jan. 22. Lue is 7-3 in the not-quite-three-weeks since he got bumped up to replace him. The guy working the West bench Sunday, Gregg Popovich -- whose tenure and job security among NBA coaches rivals the Sphinx -- has a head start on Lue of about 1,059 victories, 246 playoff games and five NBA championships.
GameTime: Tyronn Lue
The new Cleveland Cavaliers coach, Tyronn Lue, talks about his hopes for the team.
One of those guys is an All-Star coach. The other will be managing All-Stars' minutes for a day, though not everyone sees it that way.
"He deserves it because he was part of those 30 victories," said NBA Hall of Famer turned TNT analyst Reggie Miller. "Everybody's saying, 'Can you believe he's coaching in the All-Star Game?' Yes. Because he was David Blatt's right-hand man. He was there for all those wins by Cleveland. I have zero problem with T-Lue coaching in the All-Star Game."
All those wins weren't enough to get Blatt to Toronto for the ceremonial shift Sunday, yet they helped provide Lue with a stage that typifies the development and unlikely hoops career he has pieced together across much of the past three decades.
Considering Lue's size (6-foot, 175 pounds in his playing days) and the underdog vibe that's been with him from the start, there is a curious Forrest Gump-Zelig thing going on with him. From the start of what became an 11-year NBA career -- remarkable, given his abilities and impact through much of it -- to where he is now as the coach charged with ending Cleveland's half-century championship drought, Lue has proven to be both a survivor and an opportunist. In the best, most confident and resilient ways.
"My dream was to make it to the NBA, but when you're small, everybody says, 'Yeah, right,' " Lue, now 38, told the Orlando Sentinel more than a dozen years ago. "It was a goal I had. It was a far-fetched goal, but it was something I was able to accomplish. People doubted me and I used it as motivation."
Turning challenges into positives? Seems to be something of a pattern for this guy.
Lue never one to be overlooked
Early in his NBA career with the Lakers, he blocked a dunk attempt by Kobe Bryant in practice. Bryant at first challenged him to a fight, then demanded that they play 1-on-1 as a way for Bryant to restore his supremacy. Lue declined, which might have been the bravest part of the whole episode, given Bryant's clout even then within the organization in potentially getting the low-rung reserve banished from the roster.
Lue survived and stuck around through the 2001 Finals. He was the guy against whom Philadelphia's Allen Iverson made a last-minute corner jumper, memorably stepping right over his fallen defender to add some insult to the scoreboard injury. At that moment, Lue looked destined to become literally a footnote in NBA history.
And yet, Lue persisted. He had provided the Lakers with an Iverson surrogate in practice -- right down to his size and braids -- and the three-time champions seized their middle title by sweeping the next four games. There are lots of NBA fans who got introduced to Lue on that play, him looking up vulnerably at Iverson, but it's nothing Lue regrets.
"I think it meant the same thing it kind of means right now with getting this coaching job of not really being anybody and getting a chance to perform on a big stage, in the NBA Finals," Lue told ESPN.com recently. "And going against, at that time, the MVP -- one of the top three best players in the NBA -- and just have a chance, coming out of nowhere, to try to take on that challenge has kind of been my life story, being the underdog."
And so it has gone for Tyronn Jamar Lue (his first name is pronounced tih-RAHN). Born in Mexico, Mo., he was raised by a single mother, Kim Miller, along with a brother and a sister; their father, Ron Lue, spent time in prison on drug convictions. As an adolescent, to safeguard against trouble, Lue was sent after his freshman year in high school to live with an aunt and uncle in Kansas City.
He made peace with his father's choices and credits that upbringing for his outlook to this day. He also became a dynamite playmaker and scorer at Raytown High School, averaging 23 points a game as a senior and leading his team to a 27-0 record before it was eliminated in the quarterfinals of the 1995 Missouri state tournament.
Everybody's saying, 'Can you believe he's coaching in the All-Star Game?' Yes. Because he was David Blatt's right-hand man. He was there for all those wins by Cleveland. I have zero problem with T-Lue coaching in the All-Star Game.
– TNT analyst Reggie Miller
Lue showed enough to earn a scholarship to the University of Nebraska, where he hiked up his game each year, averaging 21.2 points and 4.8 assists while making 37.3 percent of his 3-pointers in his final season with the Cornhuskers. That was good enough to make him the No. 23 pick in the 1998 NBA Draft, right behind Baylor's Brian Skinner and just ahead of St. John's Felipe Lopez. Of the 37 players selected after Lue that year, only seven played as many or more games in the NBA. None is involved, if at all, to the extent Lue is, coaching a championship contender.
"He's a natural leader," Mark Scanlon, Lue's coach at Raytown, told the Kansas City Star when he moved into Blatt's job. "He's got great people skills. Those two things always stood out, and that's a lot of coaching right there. He'll be good. ... When he played, he never talked about coaching. He just thought about playing. When he started helping Doc Rivers [in Boston and L.A.], I think he caught the bug then."
GameTime: Barkley on Blatt
TNT's Charles Barkley weighs-in on the Cavaliers firing head coach David Blatt and hiring Tyronn Lue as head coach.
Nomadic playing days, stable coaching path
Lue's journeyman career -- seven teams in 11 years -- exposed him to some of the league's best coaches and brightest talents. He played for Phil Jackson, Doug Collins, Rivers, Jeff Van Gundy, Scott Skiles, Avery Johnson and Stan Van Gundy. Among his teammates: Bryant, Shaquillle O'Neal, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd and Dwight Howard.
Lue got comfortable dealing with stars -- a handy skill for a coach -- and he gave them something back: Lacking the abilities those guys had, as well as the size of most, he did demonstrate a drive that maybe the stars didn't always tap. At least, he provided a reminder of the value of hard work.
During his three season with the Lakers, Jackson once talked up Lue while explaining his decision to include the little-used guard on the postseason roster: "[He is] a real good team player, a good locker-room kid and is a gym rat. So I opted to go with that. There are so many skills that are important in basketball, but hustling and aggressiveness and defense and all those things, which Ty Lue has, come to the forefront."
Tyronn Lue Takes Over
NBA TV's Sekou Smith discusses the new head coach in Cleveland, Tyronn Lue.
All those things are what Lue has been stressing lately to the Cavaliers, who have the pedigree without the actual championship degree. In the meantime, he has what his mentor Rivers called the "toughest job in the NBA: coaching LeBron James."
Rivers and Lue had overlapped in Orlando for all of 11 games in 2003-04 before Rivers was fired, but from that brief time and the training camp/preseason that went with it, Rivers saw a spark in Lue that proved prophetic. He told Lue if he ever wanted to try his hand at coaching to give him a call.
Somewhat to Rivers' surprise, in the months immediately after Lue's playing days were over in 2009, that's exactly what he did. In Boston by then with a full staff, Rivers and team president Danny Ainge created a position for Lue and never regretted it. The phrase "like a sponge" describes perfectly how earnestly the then-32-year-old went about developing in his new field.
After four seasons in Boston and another next to Rivers with the Clippers, Lue was a finalist for the open spot in Cleveland when Blatt was hired. The Cavs were impressed enough to hire Lue as well, making him Blatt's associate and, with a reported four-year, $6.5 million contract, the NBA's highest paid assistant.
Lue oversaw the Cavs' defense under Blatt and got some attention when fans and critics noticed how comfortable Cleveland players seemed in talking on the bench and in huddles with him vs. the head coach. In pivotal Game 4 of the East semifinals series against Chicago, he was the guy who saved Blatt from calling a late timeout Cleveland didn't have, keeping alive what became a victory.
Cavaliers veteran James Jones told ESPN.com recently: "He's extremely detail-oriented. He can tell you anything and everything about every player he played against. He's perceptive. And I think that's why he was able to be successful in all the various situations he was in. Good teams, bad teams, leadership role, major minutes, support [role], as an assistant coach and as an associate head coach."
'Respected' voice around the NBA
Sufficiently humble without being shy, Lue has felt ready for his current opportunity for a couple years. Even some who didn't know him seemed to agree.
Lue Installs Changes
NBA TV's Leigh Ellis talks with Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and head coach Tyronn Lue about the changes he has installed.
For instance, Popovich only knew Lue as an opposing NBA player. But he could see the wheels turning beneath Lue's braids.
"Absolutely," the Spurs coach told NBA.com. "Obviously people thought he had it, because Doc took him on. When you're coaching, you've always got guys on your team that you know understand what's going on. And you know who cares about knowing what's going on. Some players just play and they have no interest in that sort of thing. But players who end up wanting to coach, they make it pretty obvious with the questions they ask and the knowledge they display when they play."
In the immediate aftermath of Blatt's firing, Popovich mocked Griffin's rationale for the move -- the Cleveland had cited the mood of the team's dressing room after games, particularly victories, as a sign that the Cavs lacked cohesion. Yet the legendary San Antonio coach didn't blame Lue for promoting himself or doing anything to undercut Blatt en route to that 30-11 record. Nor did Dallas' Rick Carlisle or Rivers, who was happy for his guy but critical of Blatt's dismissal.
The reason? Lue handled himself as Blatt's associate properly, aware of the fine line between asserting himself and usurping Blatt.
"I love the way he's handling the whole thing, with people baiting him into comparisons with David Blatt," said coach and ESPN analyst P.J. Carlesimo. "They say, 'You're doing things better' and he says, 'I was the defensive coach when David Blatt was still here.'
"He's got a very good plan. He's been there. ... He's got a good situation because of the talent on that roster. But it's also a challenging situation because of the expectations. Coaching LeBron is a different animal."
Lue, in an interview with Cleveland.com, said: "I know how loyal I was to Coach Blatt and the people that know me understand that. I have no control over what people think. ... To say I was doing things behind the scenes to get this job is crazy. This job? A team that's in first place? Come on."
GameTime: Does LeBron Have The Power?
The GameTime crew discusses whether or not LeBron James has the power or influence to have a coach fired.
The whole LeBron/friendship connection -- James said he has been tight with Lue since he "was 17" -- might be an issue if other Cavalier players felt favoritism were in play. But insiders say Lue is as direct in confronting James' on breakdowns and failed decisions as he is Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love or any of them.
"The best player in the world should sign off on any coach he plays for," said TNT's Chris Webber, whose five-time All-Star career overlapped with Lue's for a decade. "But the difference with Tyronn Lue is, if you talk to guys who played against him in the league, he was respected. And it was because of his work ethic. It was because of holding guys accountable. Being in that locker room when he played was, I think you can say, akin to Brian Shaw when he was in that Lakers locker room, having a lot of coaches' duties.
"You would think that's why LeBron respects him, because he's the same person he was on the court. A no-nonsense guy who will tell you the truth, tell you how he feels and can get his message across."
A seemingly perfect fit for these Cavs
Lue's biggest messages to the Cavaliers so far: Play faster, pass more, defense and conditioning first and have fun.
Specifically, he has Cleveland getting James out on the break and facilitating a speedier attack, shorter on the halfcourt, isolation game it used out of necessity through injuries last spring. Irving has gotten plenty of touches to shake off remaining rust from his knee-surgery-rehab late start to 2015-16. And Lue has made it a priority to get Kevin Love the ball inside the perimeter, either in the low post or at the elbows, to fully utilize the big man's offensive repertoire.
Blatt is an excellent, accomplished coach who will work again in the NBA if he chooses. But for this team at this time -- given the awkward start and subsequent strained relationship James and Blatt had over one and a half seasons -- Lue's personality seems to mesh better. Whether his friendliness gets taken advantage of, we shall see.
"A lot of coaches just don't know how to communicate, so therefore they don't, and it causes different problems," veteran guard Mo Williams told Cleveland.com. "The older you get, the more years you get, the more experience you have, it's more of a partnership."
Some players just play and they have no interest in that sort of thing. But players who end up wanting to coach, they make it pretty obvious with the questions they ask and the knowledge they display when they play.
– San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, on Tyronn Lue
That's the old "NBA players allow themselves to be coached or not" theory. Lue didn't pass up the chance to note, when the Spurs played at Quicken Loans Arena two weeks ago, the key to that franchise's success.
"Those guys bought in from Day 1. Tim [Duncan], [Manu] Ginobili and Tony Parker," he said. "When you have your top three guys buy in right away, then everybody else has to fall in line. That's kind of the thing I want to try to get here in Cleveland."
As for his own career move -- sliding over the proverbial 18 inches to become the boss -- Lue said: "I was the defensive coach when Coach Blatt was here. Whenever there was a defensive breakdown or any time there was a shot that a guy scored, they'd always come to me like, 'What do we need to do? What do we need to do better?'
"If you look at all the teams that have defensive coaches like the Clippers -- Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, those guys talk to Lawrence Frank, they don't talk to Doc. I still have to be the person to get on guys when they're not doing the right thing, [same as] when I was the defensive coach. Now I think I have to be more."
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