Column: Tyronn Lue carries his championship past — and the Clippers’ past — into a new future
Tyronn Lue needs a hobby.
He doesn’t need anyone’s pity over missing out on the Lakers job last year. He’s not interested in joining the chorus of Doc Rivers critics who have been chirping since Rivers was let go. And he’s certainly not nervous about taking over a squad that started last season promising to go where no Clipper team had gone before, only to end up where they’ve always been.
No, what the famously laser-focused 43-year-old Clippers head coach needs is a distraction.
“Everyone’s been on me about golf,” he said in a Thursday interview with The Times. “Chauncey [Billups], Doc, Jerry West. … They’ve all been telling me to pick it up, so maybe I’ll finally give it a chance. I need to do something besides just basketball.”
It’s been 775 days since Lue was fired by the Cleveland Cavaliers following an 0-6 start in 2018. The following offseason, he and the Lakers could not reach an agreement to reunite him with LeBron James, with whom he had won the 2016 NBA championship. So he rejoined Rivers, who first hired him as an assistant with the Celtics in 2011.
“I don’t have butterflies or anything like that. When you work hard and prepare, you put your team in position to be successful. Being prepared takes away the nervousness.”
— Clippers coach Tyronn Lue
“Ty called me and we didn’t have a job open in Boston,” Rivers said in a 2018 interview with the Undefeated. “I walked into [Celtics GM] Danny [Ainge’s] office and told him we were hiring Ty Lue. He said, ‘Where?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. We are just going to make room for him’ because he had whatever it is. You could just see it.”
And then Rivers added: “Ty is a great coach with or without me.”
There is glory, and there is a cost to winning it all with the Kid from Akron. Everyone knows who gets most, if not all of the credit, given that James has reached the Finals with five different coaches. It casts a shadow that’s nearly impossible to escape, including for Lue, whose 128-83 coaching record was built on the back of James.
Perhaps this is why the Lakers not only reportedly offered him a lowball three-year deal, but also wanted final say on his assistant coaches. After watching then-rookie coach Luke Walton pick a bunch of inexperienced buddies as assistants, the front office wanted more say. The problem with that is Lue was not an unproven coach, and he already had established himself as something greater than a mere LeBron whisperer.
Now Lue gets a chance to show what Rivers saw nearly a decade ago.
“I don’t have butterflies or anything like that,” Lue said. “When you work hard and prepare, you put your team in position to be successful. Being prepared takes away the nervousness. It’s something I call PACE — preparation, accountability, communication and execution.
Paul George’s deal represents a gargantuan leap of faith, as there’s nothing the Clippers can do at this point to safeguard against the Kawhi Leonard’s possible departure.
“It’s not a championship or bust year for us. It’s about getting better. It starts every day just focusing on us, not the outside noise. It’s about being prepared every day, it’s about being focused during practice and executing during games. Just getting better every day, and hopefully by the playoffs, we’re playing our best ball.”
Speaking of the playoffs…
“We lost … it’s part of the game,” he said when asked about the now infamous Denver meltdown. “In the playoffs, especially in the second round, a team catches a good rhythm and anybody can beat anybody. Look, we were up 16 in Game 5 and in Game 6 up 19 and up double figures in Game 7 — we were doing a lot of good things to get those leads. Give them credit, they played good. [Nikola] Jokic was great, [Jamal] Murray was great, Michael Porter Jr. was really good for them. They all played really well.”
Yes, Jokic and Murray were great. Why weren’t Paul George and Kawhi Leonard?
“They missed shots,” Lue said. “It’s part of the game. You’re not going to play great every night. The biggest thing is having the confidence to keep taking those shots and making plays for other guys. If guys were scared to take shots or had trouble getting good looks or getting to their spots — now we got a problem. But missing good shots? That’s just part of basketball.”
I asked Lue why the Clippers didn’t go after a more traditional point guard to help organize them into set plays to offset the shooting struggles of Leonard and George.
He said they don’t need one.
“When you have great players, you don’t necessarily need a traditional point guard,” he said. “We need Patrick Beverley’s energy and toughness; it’s infectious. I love what he does for his team. You get a guy with zero points and zero shots and he’s happy because the team won. You can’t find those guys.”
Lue explained that he used multiple guys to launch the offense when he was with the Cavaliers. He is confident Leonard and George, as well as Beverley, will be able to do the same. It’s more important, he said, that there is communication on the court and accountability off it. The latter has been a popular subject this offseason, as reports circulated of preferential treatment for the team’s star players last season.
Lue doesn’t buy it, pointing out pecking orders and hierarchies have not impeded previous great teams.
“I played on several teams … [and] star players get treated differently,” said Lue, who counts Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant — 15 titles among them — as former teammates. “That’s the respect they have gained over the course of their career. Now if that player is doing things that are hurting the team, that’s when you have to step in and hold guys accountable.
“Doc did a great job trying to adjust. [The Clippers] overachieved and had great success just the year before. The job he did in Boston … Orlando. Come on man, Doc’s résumé speaks for itself. We got beat. It happens. Doesn’t mean Doc’s not a great coach. Look, it’s hard to win a championship. Miami had three of the top 10 players [in 2010] and they didn’t win that first year. It takes time.”
On a podcast published Thursday, the Clippers’ Paul George talks about not going to the Lakers in 2018 and how he and Kawhi Leonard decided to play together.
True, but how long do these Clippers have? George’s extension locks him in through at least the 2023-2024 season, but Leonard —the larger of the two pillars — can opt out at the end of this season. The two-time Finals MVP already forced his way out of San Antonio, leaving a $221-million supermax deal behind, then said goodbye to the championship confetti and $190-million max deal in Toronto a year later. Predicting Leonard’s next move is tricky to say the least. If money or a chance to repeat isn’t enough to keep him, what will?
That is out of Lue’s control. He can only promise a team that he firmly believes is better positioned to win a title than the team he actually led to a championship.
“In Cleveland we were an offensive team, shot a lot of threes, looked to score a lot,” he said, “but we didn’t have a lot of playmakers. We had LeBron and Kyrie [Irving]. They had to make all of the plays for themselves or the team.
“This is totally different. We are excited about the threes with this team, but it will take on more of my personality. It will be a more defensive-minded team. Obviously, Kawhi and PG are two of the best two-way players out there. We know what Beverley brings. [Nicolas] Batum is another that can lock up guys and score. We are going to be tough-minded and gritty.”
Forgive me, but we’ve heard it all before. Lob City was supposed to banish the franchise’s past. Same for the Elton Brand-led squad that squeezed out one playoff series win in seven seasons. Now it’s Lue’s turn to right the wrongs. Change the culture. Pen a new chapter for the franchise and himself.
Lue has always been more than what people gave him credit for. But the Clippers have chewed up and spit out a long list of great coaches and players alike. If he falls short, few will remember. But if he succeeds, I’ll personally chip in to pay for his golf lessons.
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