Commentary: How Tyronn Lue gained the trust and respect of superstars

Tyronn Lue, then coach of the Cavaliers, and LeBron James chat during a Las Vegas Summer League game on July 15, 2018.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

He walked the sidelines 272 times as the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, hearing his name 272 times during introductions, trying to implement 272 game plans before and after 272 opening tips.

The story everyone loves to tell about Tyronn Lue’s time in Cleveland can be distilled to a single moment of coaching, a single decision that culminated during a single halftime.

The story shows how Lue is willing to coach, no matter who is involved in that moment. For a team like the Clippers, who Lue has agreed to coach, with superstars waiting to win, it’s a story that could end up repeating.

It was Game 7 of the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers were losing. Lue didn’t like what he saw. He made a choice.

He directly challenged LeBron James.

He hated James’ body language, he called him out defensively and he demanded fewer turnovers. Later, during halftime, he even invoked James’ legacy, the two men cursing their way through the most critical intermission of the entire season.

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The Cavaliers won a championship with James notching a triple-double while making the game’s defining defensive play, the chase-down block on a layup by Golden State’s Andre Iguodala. Lue won a title and earned a reputation for not backing down from the game’smost powerful star.

The most important part of this story isn’t that Lue and James went at it, that Lue chewed out his best player. That’s not his style. The important part is that Lue was comfortable enough to do it, to break character when it mattered most, no matter the people it angered.

“Ty is intense, but he’s not always vocal. He’s not always aggressive. He doesn’t need to be,” said Channing Frye, who won a title with Lue, James and the Cavaliers in 2016. “If you prepare, you’re ready to go and you’re team is good, what do you need to be intense about? Obviously, there are certain situations, but when you play 82 games a year, the time to get intense is in the playoffs or if it’s a must-win.

“Ty knows when. He’s been around enough.”

Lue played with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. He guarded Allen Iverson — and was there for other thing that happened. He played with Michael Jordan. He coached Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and James.

Lue’s been around enough to know that no superstar can be coached the same way. But Frye said there are truths that apply no matter the player.

“It’s two things — trust and communication,” Frye said. “If they don’t trust you, you’re f---. And then it’s communication — ‘this is why I want to do this.’ It’s in the film, it’s in the work. And if you have trust and can communicate, you can work with any star. If you trust me that I’m doing my job the right way and I trust you to give you freedom, then it’ll work.”

More than any other candidate the Clippers could’ve hired, Lue has the pedigree. He earned the trust of the stars he’s played with and coached, and he’s gotten the respect of his players with an incredible playbook.

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“I just think it’s just his level of calmness no matter what’s going on,” James told in 2017. “He always talks about, at the end of the day, he’s already won in life so whatever else happens after this is extra credit. And I feel the same way.

“That’s why I’m able to relate to him so much. Lose here, or you win a game here, it’s like, ‘All right, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anybody ever gave me credit of doing or thought I can do, so there’s no reason to get too high or too low.’ It’s the even-keel mentality about our coach and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”

For Lue it means trading a regular-season loss to gain important information he can use to win a playoff series.

“When it comes to Xs and O’s, plays from out-of-bounds, plays against certain teams, that man is an absolute genius,” Frye said. “He doesn’t talk about himself enough. He is that guy.”

Then there’s the ability to communicate.

The Game 7 confrontation with James wasn’t how Lue normally plays it, but in that moment, it was the right thing for him to do.

“It’s how you talk to that person,” Frye said. “Is there trust? Is there love? Do you see each other’s side? That’s what T. Lue did for all of us.”

Now he’ll need to do that for Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Getting the most out of the Clippers’ best, pushing them at the right time and letting them go at others, Lue will have to push the right buttons.

The Clippers’ future depends on it.