Clippers coach Tyronn Lue: Adapt on offense when initial play falls through

Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris is blocked by Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard.
Denver Nuggets guard Gary Harris is blocked by Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Tyronn Lue didn’t want to share how and where the Clippers’ first off-court team gathering will take place this week, laughing Monday as he called it a “secret.”

“A little team bonding moment,” he promised.

Only a day later, however, the Clippers coach offered a preview of what he will say.

“The biggest thing, and the biggest word for us this season, is to be able to adapt,” Lue said. “We have to adapt and be able to play in our surroundings.”

In 2020, that could mean any number of things, from abiding by COVID-19 protocols to adjusting to empty NBA-size arenas. Beginning with Friday’s preseason opener against the Lakers, those surroundings will also include opposing defenses, and adaptability is at the heart of the offense Lue has begun to install during his first three days of group practices.


Amid an offseason of numerous changes, running the offense through Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — who have taken part in every drill and looked “phenomenal” since camp began Sunday, Lue said — will remain the same. But when the initial play call for either player isn’t working, Lue doesn’t want it to become an excuse for a teammate to take it upon himself to salvage a possession.

“I’ve always been a big fan of just playing through our best players, our best offensive players, and then those guys making plays for everybody else,” Lue said. “The biggest thing for us, what we’ve been running the last few days is how to play after the play, you know?

Clippers’ Lou Williams knows he will have to adjust without former teammate and friend Montrezl Harrell, who signed with the Lakers last month.

Dec. 7, 2020

“We run a play for Kawhi or PG, Lou [Williams], any of our guys, Luke [Kennard], Marcus [Morris], that if we don’t have it and they make a pass out of the play, then we’re gonna continue to keep playing without getting stuck and getting stagnant.”

Scoring wasn’t an issue last season for a team that generated the league’s second-highest offensive efficiency until the playoffs, when otherwise open looks stopped falling in the second round against Denver. Following Doc Rivers’ dismissal as coach in September, team sources described his offense as too unstructured and overly reliant on stars to make plays — even if one of those stars, George, has since said he felt misused within it.

Making open shots is something a coach cannot control, but it’s Lue’s job to make the opportunities as easy as possible. Perhaps appropriately, the former point guard has stressed increasing the offensive pace by moving the ball after the Clippers’ 261 passes per game ranked third-worst among playoff teams.

Lue’s Cleveland teams typically ranked among the bottom half of the league’s most frequent passers too, yet could count on the elite vision of LeBron James and Kyrie Irving to bail the offense out of trouble. Though Leonard shouldered more of a playmaking role than ever last season, the Clippers still are without a true distributor, making the habit of looking for the extra pass, and setting up a teammate in his preferred spot on the floor, all the more important.


“Sometimes when the play breaks down it can just turn into a one on one, and sometimes that’s needed,” second-year forward Amir Coffey said. “But other times they want us to reverse it, get drags, get step-ups, things like that to keep the ball moving and keep everyone involved.”

Isolation accounted for 7.3% of the Clippers offense last season, sixth-most in the league, but they ranked 14th in points per possession generated from it. Teams isolate their stars more often in the postseason, as a general rule, and the Clippers were no outlier in the playoffs as their share of isolations bumped up to 11.3%. Doing it more often barely made it more effective, however. The only playoff teams to produce a lower isolation per-possession average than the Clippers’ 0.92 were Orlando, Boston and Portland.

Though Leonard and George will continue to be the focal point, the departure of free agent Montrezl Harrell, who last season produced the team’s third-highest usage rate, will immediately open up more opportunities for the supporting cast.

“More space, more playmaking and we’re able to stretch the floor a lot better especially with Serge [Ibaka] at the five and we go to a smaller lineup,” George said. “I think our ability to playmake now and just be dangerous in many different spots on the floor, it’ll be hard to load up on a single individual.”

The Clippers held their first group workout of training camp. Players are citing as motivation the team’s loss to Denver despite leading the series 3-1.

Dec. 6, 2020

Since the coaching change, George has discussed with Lue finding ways to get him open in isolations and catch-and-shoot situations but acknowledged that “ultimately it’s just me coming into the season being ready and being locked in and ready to perform at a high level.”

One of Lue’s most influential mentors, former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, prodded players to play at a high level through daily mental challenges, Lue said. He needs to “feel out” the Clippers before deciding how exactly he will challenge them. But there is already little doubt the uncertainty of the season ahead could be its own daily test.


“Everyone has to adapt, you know, it’s not just the players, it’s the coaches, it’s the front office guys,” Lue said. “It is what it is and there’s no excuses and, you know, whatever the NBA puts in front of us, we have to be ready for that challenge.”