Honesty and understanding. How Clippers’ Tyronn Lue has built trust with his players

Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to forward Paul George during a game against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 7.
Clippers coach Tyronn Lue talks to forward Paul George during a game against the Charlotte Hornets on Nov. 7 at Staples Center.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)
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In the NBA’s past quarter-century 128 head coaches have been hired, a span in which San Antonio’s Gregg Popovich has outlasted them all.

The longevity and the championships since have lent Popovich a certain authority on what makes those in his profession unique. As he said last month, a mastery of Xs and O’s was “really a small part of being successful.”

More important, more elusive, he added, is what Tyronn Lue has.

“His relationships with players, his ability to care about them, to let them flourish in a certain environment, and it’s genuine,” Popovich said. “There is no fake there. He doesn’t purport to be something he’s not. He really enjoys the people that he’s around and that kind of a personality goes a long way with players so they want to hear from him, they want to listen to him.”

It was the latest in a growing chorus of praise, from some of the league’s most experienced and respected coaches, that has followed Lue into his second season as the Clippers’ coach.

Sacramento’s Alvin Gentry called Lue a “good people person,” one who “can be stern with [players], he can discipline them, but they also know that they can come to him for anything.”

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An oral history of why the Lakers’ deal to land Chris Paul was denied by the NBA in December 2011, and a deal to send the All-Star point guard to the Clippers was approved.

Lue was hired in 2020 because of a control of the Xs and O’s that led NBA general managers this fall to rank him the league’s best at in-game adjustments but perhaps the even bigger factor was the relationship-building praised by peers and players alike. They described an ability to forge trust from a roster’s top star to its two-way players by telling hard truths — challenging them for more effort or informing them of a changed role — without compromising buy-in, a tricky balance Lue can walk because he can “connect with everybody and be able to hold people accountable, without leaving bruises,” said Portland coach Chauncey Billups, a close friend of Lue‘s.

Players want playing time. They also want honesty. Because Lue cannot guarantee the former, he says it is his job to deliver the latter.

“A lot of coaches don’t like having tough conversations,” Lue said. “Players know when you’re trying to bulls—- them so if you’re trying to bulls—- them, they lose respect for you. I think if you just tell them the truth and be up front that’s why communication throughout the year is so important.

“They may not like it because they’re competitive. They want to play, but at the end of the day they can respect it and understand it’s all about winning. It’s nothing personal.”

In recent days, the Clippers’ logjam for playing time at center required another such conversation, presenting a test of Lue’s deft touch. Lue and Serge Ibaka met after Ibaka did not play Dec. 8 against Boston, the first of three consecutive games in which Ibaka was healthy but did not play. The 32-year-old then missed a fourth game Wednesday, in Salt Lake City, because a person close to Ibaka had tested positive for COVID-19. Though Ibaka returned negative tests Monday and Tuesday, the team felt it was best for him to stay home as a precaution, Lue said.

Ibaka wants to play, as any veteran of his standing would. The back issues that led the former NBA champion to miss the majority of last season are behind him, he has said.

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Serge Ibaka of the Clippers looks around during a timeout against the Thunder
Serge Ibaka, shown in November, has struggled to find playing time in recent games.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Yet an obvious pathway to the playing time he seeks is difficult to currently envision as Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein continue to establish themselves.

“It’s nothing that Serge has done wrong,” Lue said Wednesday, at the team’s shootaround in Salt Lake City. “But it’s more so just like I said, we gave him an opportunity and we knew it was going to be a process [returning from last season’s back injury], we knew it was going to take some time and Isaiah’s been playing great, so the conversation kind of went like that.

“Any player, you’re not going to be happy about it. But at the end of the day he understood and he was OK and just got to stay ready.”

Trying to find a way to carve out minutes for three centers, Lue had experimented with Ibaka at power forward, a position Ibaka hadn’t played in four years, during November. But the returns of starting and backup forwards Marcus Morris Sr. and Nicolas Batum have left fewer opportunities for such combinations, and Lue prefers Ibaka at center, anyway.

“Not saying we won’t use him at all,” Lue said. “But right now Zu is the starter and I think Isaiah has done a good job of playing his role and being a big part of what we’re doing right now.”

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Lue and Ibaka have connections that go back years and it was their communication, in a phone call, that helped land Ibaka in 2020 as a free agent. All of it built familiarity and trust, which remains despite Ibaka’s scarce minutes.

“When he presents it to you, you know he’s not necessarily giving up on you. ... You know you still have opportunities, you know you’re still in good grace.”

— Clippers point guard Reggie Jackson on tough talks with coach Tyronn Lue

Batum, who knows Ibaka well and trained with him in France during the offseason, said Wednesday that in all of their recent interactions, Ibaka hadn’t shown frustration and had handled the uncertainty professionally. By the time Batum arrived at the practice facility, it was common for Ibaka to already be there working out or meeting with medical staff, in an effort to stay in condition, Batum said.

“Obviously anyone wants to play more but in our last conversation we didn’t talk about him not playing, he wanted to talk about how much we needed me back,” said Batum, who sat out a third consecutive game against Utah because of a sprained ankle. “He wanted to talk about my playing time, not his.”

Ibaka isn’t the first Clipper whose role has been altered amid a 16-13 start. Justise Winslow, an August free-agency signing, has been out of the rotation for significant stretches. Lue called Eric Bledsoe, a starter for nearly his entire career, only weeks ago to discuss having him play off the bench as the reserves’ primary ballhandler, and while Bledsoe wasn’t surprised — his assumption after arriving in August via trade was that he would play off the bench — he said he appreciated the heads-up from his coach nonetheless, saying others he has played for have abruptly changed players’ roles without even so much as a direct conversation.

“Playing for him is easy,” point guard Reggie Jackson said. “I think he respects everyone as a man first so that’s the biggest thing. It might be a hard conversation, it’s tough, but he doesn’t do it in a way that’s assh—-ish. You know where he’s coming from. He just wants to win. He presents it to you in a way that’s good, like you understand that it’s all about the win.”

Six months before he became a postseason revelation last June, Jackson went through his own moment of uncertainty, out of the rotation after only 10 games, a decision he learned of in a talk with Lue. It stood out to Jackson because, “I don’t think I’ve had a coach who really just addressed it,” he said.

Injuries certainly played a role in the Clippers’ loss to the Utah Jazz, but transition woes played a big part in ending the team’s winning streak.

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From Jackson to Winslow, Patrick Beverley to Luke Kennard, nearly every Clippers contributor whose roles have waned has eventually found an opportunity to gain a foothold again in the rotation. Whether Ibaka can, as well, remains to be seen if Zubac and Hartenstein keep up their production before February’s trade deadline, when the Clippers will have a decision about what to do with Ibaka’s expiring contract. His deep postseason experience holds value if the Clippers are on track for a higher playoff seed. Then again, the point could be moot if he cannot crack the rotation consistently.

“The best part also is when he presents it to you, you know he’s not necessarily giving up on you,” Jackson said. “It’s just something that he’s doing, like I said, he thinks for the betterment of the team or figuring out ways to win. But you know you still have opportunities, you know you’re still in good grace.”

Lue’s 11-year playing career lends itself to trust from players who trust he can empathize with being on the other side of often uncomfortable conversations, Batum said. Lue still remembers one such moment from his last season as a player, in 2009. Traded to Milwaukee, Lue met with then-Bucks coach Scott Skiles, who didn’t dance around the topic.

“Skiles just told me, ‘We’re going with Luke Ridnour and Ramon Sessions, guys that are younger and just stay ready. And if it’s a situation where we can get you to a better situation, then let us know because we appreciate what you’ve done for the team and who you are as far as a person and player.’

“It always comes to that point and I don’t think Serge is at that point right now,” Lue added. “I just think he has to get back from the surgery and he’s going to have to get some real consistent minutes to get that. But throughout the course of a long season, you’ve just got to stay ready.”