Clippers reach agreement with Tyronn Lue to be next coach
Long before he joined a small number of Clippers officials for dinner during the first weekend of October, Tyronn Lue had earned the team’s respect.
Lue stood just 6 feet tall yet lasted 11 NBA seasons as a player and won a championship in 2001, alongside Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Thrown into a crucible experience as a first-time head coach with Cleveland in 2016 — promoted midseason while shouldering the championship expectations that come from coaching LeBron James — Lue emerged a champion.
For the past year as an assistant to Doc Rivers, who was dismissed as the Clippers’ coach Sept. 28 following a second-round postseason exit that fell well short of the team’s championship goal, Lue had built relationships with Clippers players by amplifying the messages of Rivers, a friend and mentor to whom he was loyal, while trying to bridge gaps between the locker room and sideline when they appeared.
None of that, however, meant that the Clippers’ search to replace Rivers began with their minds made up to hand the job to Lue, multiple people involved in the search said.
Running the first coaching search of owner Steve Ballmer’s tenure ahead of a critical 2020-21 season, the Clippers promised candidates a deliberative approach and interviewed more than half a dozen people who ranged from would-be first-time head coaches to veterans of the profession. Known candidates included Denver assistant Wes Unseld Jr., Warriors assistant and former Lakers and Cavaliers coach Mike Brown and Clippers assistant Sam Cassell. The team was believed to hold interest in Jeff Van Gundy, the ABC commentator and former coach in New York and Houston.
Despite coaching searches ongoing in Houston and New Orleans, where Lue had interviewed with both, the team also stressed they would not rush their process.
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The day after Lue’s dinner meeting, he interviewed with a larger group of staffers at their Playa Vista practice facility. At that Saturday meeting, like the one before it, Lue left the team impressed with his tactical plans and ability as a communicator. With Cleveland, he famously challenged James to play better at halftime of Game 7. And he made clear that his decisions as the team’s leader would be viewed through the lens of whether it would help win a championship the Clippers have chased, without success, for 50 years.
“He’s not going to tolerate mediocrity if it cuts against winning,” said a person with knowledge of the search.
The search lasted nearly two more weeks, but Lue, one of the first to interview, would eventually become the Clippers’ first choice. He agreed Thursday on a five-year deal that lands the 43-year-old with a job that carries high stakes. The Clippers are entering a season in which Ballmer and the team again expect to contend for a title after landing All-Star forwards Kawhi Leonard and Paul George last offseason and building the roster around them.
Lue’s coaching staff is expected to include Chauncey Billups, the former All-Star point guard who served last season as the team’s television analyst, and Larry Drew, a former head coach in Atlanta, Milwaukee and Cleveland, where he was part of Lue’s staff, according to multiple people with knowledge of Lue’s plans.
In the second head coaching job of his career, Lue — who was 128-83 with Cleveland — will try to re-create the results of the first. With Cleveland, Lue coached James and the Cavaliers to three consecutive NBA Finals and won the 2016 NBA championship for a franchise that was in its fifth decade without a title.
In 50 seasons, the Clippers have yet to reach a conference final, let alone taste the champagne from a championship. The taste from their most recent postseason exit was particularly bitter.
Within hours of agreeing to exit as coach of the Clippers, Doc Rivers had teams wanting to meet immediately. The 76ers won because of star power and title hopes.
Losing a 3-1 lead to Denver revealed a roster that was long on talent but short on the stability — whether from injuries or lack of cohesion — to harness it. In several conversations following the early playoff exit, Ballmer and Rivers weren’t aligned on how to move forward, and Ballmer, who believed the team had made key upgrades and progress in other departments yet had stagnated on the court, made the choice to find a new coach.
Rather than focus on how candidates would have solved last year’s problems, the Clippers asked prospective coaches to treat the team and its future as a blank canvas. How they would get the most out of a roster that is still expected to enter next season as a prime Western Conference contender? Lue, according to people with knowledge of the talks, discussed a controlled offense that would emphasize speed and ball movement instead of heavy use of isolation. Defensively, the team is expected to again lean on one-on-one play while mixing in various zone looks. Lue is considered highly adaptable with his style.
Lue’s year as an assistant helped him build relationships with Leonard and George. Yet the Clippers sought a coach capable not only of showcasing their stars but of guiding emerging contributors and young players too. They include starting center Ivica Zubac and guard Landry Shamet as well as young players such as guard Terance Mann and center Mfiondu Kabengele, a first-round draft pick in 2019.
The Clippers welcomed feedback from players during the search but, beyond that, there was trust in the front office to make the right choice. Indeed, players were said to be pleased with the decision to hire Lue.
“The guys have a lot of respect for him,” said one person who had spoken with players. “He’s a championship coach. He already knows the guys, and the transition should be seamless.”
Staff writer Broderick Turner contributed to this report.
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