Pressure to win creates stressful job for Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

You don’t need to have hooped at UMass or taken flight from the foul line to be “Doctor” enough to know Tyronn Lue was due for a change.

I locked eyes with the Cleveland Cavaliers coach as he exited United Center Saturday night, having stayed in the locker room for the second half of his team’s game against the Chicago Bulls with unspecified “illness” issues. With a vulnerable, clammy and weary expression on his face, he looked like a man who needed to do exactly what he did Monday – take a leave of absence from his Cavs duties to get his priorities, notably his health, straight.

Lue, 40, announced his decision to temporarily step away from the white board in a statement released by the Cavaliers. “I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year,” he said. “Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is.”

Initial reports were that Lue would sit out a week before rejoining the team, although when Charlotte’s Steve Clifford similarly tapped out early this season to put his health first, he was gone for six weeks after being diagnosed with severe sleep deprivation. It’s been said that most NBA coaches sleep like babies: a few hours here and there, interrupted by fits of wailing.

Neither Lue nor Cleveland general manager Koby Altman, in his supportive comment (“We know how difficult these circumstances are,” Altman said) used the word “stress” in assessing Lue’s condition. But they could have, because stress is the elephant in almost every coach’s room.

That’s no “Eureka!” diagnosis, by the way. The trick is understanding that stress can manifest itself in as many ways as it’s generated. Among the obvious ones, there is stress to win. Then, having won, there is stress to keep winning. Stress from lofty expectations and sustained excellence, which both the Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are facing at unprecedented levels by NBA standards as they try to line up for a fourth consecutive Finals clash.

Stress comes, too, from falling short of such expectations. As well as nosediving into a losing streak, making a dumb mistake or, deep in one’s gut, being exposed as unworthy altogether.

There’s stress when the team flight leaves late due to a weather or mechanical issue. Stress over a digital scouting tool that doesn’t fire up precisely when needed. Stress to manage your players’ minutes, develop that raw young guy or heed a rehabber’s injury restrictions. Always, there’s the original and inevitable stress to beat the other team, whose coach may be as stressed as you.

It would be naïve in considering Lue’s case not to explore the stress of coaching LeBron James.

Just as there are special opportunities and privileges that come with having the best player in basketball on your side, there is duty, obligation and stress to working with him, too. Specifically, that means maximizing his talents and experience to the beat of a ticking clock that represents his useful remaining court life or contract term, against the backdrop of the superstar’s own agenda.

James burns to win – it’s his raison d’être for pushing toward 82 appearances this season, for delving deep into personal training methods to stay resilient and available at age 33. His high basketball IQ, lauded by so many (including James), means he functions as half-a-coach most of the time, with the sway he holds over every organization for which he plays suggesting the other half at times.

James’ personality, frequently described as passive-aggressive, keeps pressure on all around him, whether it’s a current or former teammate like Kyrie Irving to fill and accept the role James sized up for him, a GM like Altman to make roster moves at the trade deadline under an implicit or-else, or an owner like Dan Gilbert to spend extravagantly into a payroll spill of luxury-tax red in hopes of fulfilling James’ ambitions.

No one, however, shoulders more pressure to keep up with James – and the stress that can comes with it – than his head coaches. On game nights or on practice days, drawing up Xs & Os, knowing how hard to scrimmage or giving the squad a day off entirely.

As vocal as James was in supporting Lue when he took over for former coach David Blatt midway through the Cavs’ 2015-16 championship season, and as understanding as he sounded in talking about the coach’s health Saturday night and sudden sabbatical Monday – “Like losing one of your best players,” James said, calling Lue “the captain of the ship” – the four-time MVP sure likely has added to Lue’s predicament. With his presence, with with his capabilities and, yes, with his manner too.

Before Lue took ill Saturday, conversations I had around United Center with several longtime NBA insiders centered on the challenge of coaching James for his personality, not his athletic gifts. Specifically, I sought their reactions to the sideline scene captured on cameras in Portland Thursday when James barked at Lue on Cleveland’s bench and Lue felt compelled to bark back.

The score had gone south. The Cavs were on No. 5 of a six-game, 11-day trip. They were headed to a 15-20 record since their high-water mark of 24-9 on Dec. 21 eight weeks earlier. They essentially have been three teams in one this season: Pre-trade, post-trade and injury-riddled.

So when James and Lue started up, the players and assistant coaches in between looked like kids staring hard at the TV while their parents argued.

Lue dismissed it afterward as a miscommunication over James’ desire to be subbed out sooner. A couple of folks attributed it to disagreement over shot selection, as in putting the ball on the floor vs. settling for a jumper.

No one hinted it reached any sort of “I hate you! Yeah, well I hate you too!” irreconcilable level, though a few guessers and snarkers on social media dusted off the “There goes Ty Lue yelling at the Cavs’ coach again” memes.

But the optics. Oh, the optics.

Having that sort of exchange – urgent, heated, even hypothetically personal – away from prying eyes is no biggie in sports. But James has had them repeatedly with just about every coach for whom he has played. From disagreement with Paul Silas, who coached him his first two seasons, to the shoulder shiver he had for Miami’s Erik Spoelstra in their first season together. From shoving Blatt aside to keep the coach from getting a technical foul to vetoing his last-second playoff strategy against Chicago in 2015. From the timeout huddle James animatedly took over against Toronto in January, his voice and gestures drowning out the staff’s, all the way to last week’s mini-drama at the Moda Center.

Some qualifiers are in order here: Thirty NBA coaches would welcome James on their roster. Most would appreciate his input, however vocal and passionate, based on his knowledge not just of his skills but those of the other nine guys on the floor at any given moment. As for anyone who doesn’t accept the expectations and pressure that come with coaching him – the stress – well, there are a bunch of comfortable Division III or G League jobs where the spotlight doesn’t burn at all.

It’s equally fair to say, though, that James has had more coach commotions captured and archived than any elite player in NBA history.

Some of that is a by-product of performing in this 24/7 media age. Some of it undoubtedly is an outgrowth of James’ status, alone perhaps in team sports, as a partner rather than just a player, a co-everything – coach, GM, owner – in impact and self-awareness beyond outrageously salaried employee.

But some of it, too, is a style that’s indulgent and chaneable. Such that even NBA insiders, Cavs personnel or scouts were left struggling to defend it or shaking their heads.

“Look, they were playing cards on the flight from Portland the day after,” one said. “But would it be better to do that [arguing] behind closed doors? Yes it would.”

Said another, after Lue stayed in the locker room for Saturday’s second half: “Maybe he just decided, ‘I’ve tried. Somebody else try.’”

“When a coach gets called out by a star,” said a third, “he has to go back at him. Because the other players are watching.”

Maybe Lue’s need to attend to his health is wholly physical, something to be remedied with melatonin and a more consistent bedtime. Maybe it’s the equivalent of Dickens’ undigested bit of beef, blot of mustard or fragment of underdone potato, which was what Scrooge was rooting for before he got his reset.

Or maybe it stems in some part from the power dynamic unique to the Cavaliers, largely created and certainly embraced by James, mostly for the organization’s good but not without some unintended consequences.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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