When he ripped off his warmup pants and checked into the game off the bench, Tyronn Lue drew a stiff defensive assignment. Now, in his third season as Cleveland Cavaliers head coach, the burden of responsibility weighs heavily on his shoulders.
This season, the team rode a roller coaster with many turns and twists. And since the start of the Finals, the Warriors have crossed up Lue for the 3-point shot on the wing and infamously stepped over him. Seventeen years ago with the Los Angeles Lakers, Allen Iverson famously used his crossover dribble to shake and create space for the corner three on the baseline.
After contesting Iverson’s shot, down went Lue. The ball glided gently through the net with under a minute remaining in overtime. And stepping over him was Iverson.
Above all, Lue was tremendous guarding Iverson in the 2001 NBA Finals and it led to good results in the end. It worked so well, that his contributions was of immeasurable importance to the Lakers. Just his presence alone was a substantial part of the Lakers defense.
These days, Lue is the driving force of the foundational structure in Cleveland, and somehow, in any way he could, held together the Cavaliers and survived the dysfunction created in the locker room during the regular season. Back in the day, to refresh one’s memory, he stepped in and neutralized the Sixers’ top player as the Lakers went on to win their second title of three that year.
He took over the reins at the midpoint of the 2015-16 season from his predecessor, David Blatt, who apparently caused a rift with LeBron James. The deep mutual respect Lue earns from Cavalier players is contagious. Battling the odds, handling the adversity, Cleveland quietly kept pace with Toronto and Boston and kept the doubters silent with a series sweep of the Raptors (4-0) and a dramatic series win over the Celtics (4-3).
Presented with his first chance as Cavaliers head coach, Lue led the Cavaliers to their first NBA championship. In Cleveland, a tortured city for over five decades, fans were in a jubilant mood as complete joy lied deep within the fans’ souls.
The two-time Lakers champion was won over by the players and fans. The Cavaliers champion was even endorsed wholeheartedly by his friend LeBron and, ever since he was promoted to the head coaching job permanently, Lue established a working relationship with James.
Instead of coaching the Cavaliers—once rumored—James is enabling Lue to call the plays. He’s content with having Lue on the sideline, his Cavaliers are in the same place they were last season, down 2-0 in the series. But it is by James’ words that the connection between the player and coach feels like a good marriage.
It is generally understood that he’s a competitor and hates losing games. The players have stood behind James, their effectual leader. He has taken strong leadership of the Cavaliers while possessing all the ingredients of a basketball whiz, that even Lue could learn from.
The same can be said about Lue. He has all the lettered credentials, but if the Cavaliers fail to beat the Warriors for a second consecutive season in these Finals, his job could certainly be in jeopardy. Whatever happens, once the series is decided, Lue, if not in Cleveland, will fill someone’s coaching vacancy in another major city for an NBA franchise when the time is right.
The 38-year-old is like an older brother to James, only seven years younger than his buddy. Age is just a number and experience is what qualified him to become the Cavaliers coach. Lue played 11 seasons in the NBA and much of his success came with the Lakers before bouncing around for most of his career.
Some believe that Lue wins games because of the players he’s coached in such a short time. Some believe that James, the 6-foot-8 superhuman, makes Lue look like a mastermind. If with the right players, any coach can succeed and, if lucky, maybe even win multiple championships.
Credit for every victory goes to James. But blame falls in the lap of Lue, whose coaching philosophy helped get the Cavaliers back to the NBA Finals. By everyone’s perception, Cleveland vastly underachieved but a person in his or her right state of mind would point fingers at the front office.
The truth hurts, but Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert set James and Lue up for failure. Ownership fostered an unstable culture and showed a degree of apathy. Under Lue, Cleveland turned its focus to an uptempo offense.
It was Lue who benefited greatly from playing alongside Hall of Fame-caliber players and also working under Doc Rivers as an assistant with both the Celtics and Clippers. It is James who benefits greatly from Lue’s meticulous blueprint that took shape as the Cavaliers began to speed things up offensively.
Not afraid to call out his players publicly or speak his mind, Lue got into a heated exchange with James on the bench after his superstar attempted a terrible shot in a losing effort to Portland.
There’s been much on his mind, so much that he’s dealt with all at once, but with strength and focus, he put his personal issues behind him and lived up to this challenge. He took a leave of absence on March 19 for health concerns, then complained of chest pains when he returned to the sidelines nearly a month later. Immediately following, he revealed it to everyone that he was being treated for anxiety while he pressed on.
Dressed in a suit and tie, walking gradually up and down the sideline, Lue is guiding this Cleveland team. In Game 3, on Wednesday, the Cavaliers are looking to regain their footing in this race.