He’s been relegated to footnote status in another King James media coronation, but Tyronn Lue has to get his props for taking over a team that had the pressures of the world on its shoulders and the hopes of a broken sports town at their fingertips, and twice when it was slipping away, he held it together.
We give coaches like Gregg Popovich and Steve Kerr so much credit for how they manage the game and make good decisions. Therefore, Lue’s performance in helping his team become the first to rebound from a 3-1 Finals deficit can’t go unnoticed. His coaching prowess, understanding of his players, the pieces available and how the chess board should be set up was impeccable.
Would it be a stretch to say that Lue exhibited one of the greatest coaching performances in NBA playoffs history?
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The media and marketing machine tends to highlight LeBron and give the impression that basketball is a one-man sport. If anything, this finals proved that coaching is very important, especially in developing a championship locker room and solid chemistry throughout the season.
Lue said he was the man for the job, graciously and fiercely embracing all of the pressures of being a rare African-American head coach in the envious position of inheriting a championship-caliber squad led by the game’s most dominant all-around force. It was a gift and a curse, and there was no guarantee it was going to work.
But Lue was up to the task, and he proved himself and Cavs management geniuses in the end.
In addition to becoming the fourth-youngest coach in NBA history to win an NBA championship, Lue became just the sixth African-American coach to win it all. He's one of only eight black coaches in the NBA.
“When you get a chance as an African-American to win a championship, it's very important, it's very special, and hopefully that opens doors for other black American coaches,” Lue told reporters after the 93-89 Game 7 victory last night.
Doc Rivers was the last black coach to win a championship and is Yoda to Lue’s Skywalker. With that kind of coaching lineage, it makes sense that Lue was equipped to handle such a crucial and sensitive situation in his debut performance as a sideline stalker.
After the Celtics won it all in 2009, Rivers gave Lue his leg up in coaching as an assistant in Boston. And when Rivers left to take the LA Clippers job in 2013, Lue tagged along.
The relationship between the two is a prime example of why diversity in NBA hiring and decision-making positions is so important. Doc was able to see the intangible talents and beaming potential within Lue, that other guys in a position to hire, with more typical methods of evaluating a candidate might overlook.
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"Man, just so much love and respect for Doc, who is my mentor, and everything I've learned and everything I do is Doc Rivers driven,” Lue told reporters after the Cavs clinched the championship. “Seeing me being a great coach...when he told me you can come coach for me, when I played for him in Atlanta, I was like, yeah, right. I don't want to be a coach because I see how hard and difficult it is."
"But he saw something in me that I didn't see in myself. He gave me my first opportunity, and I'm very thankful to Doc and I'll always love him. He'll always be my mentor."
After taking Cleveland to the NBA Finals as a rookie coach, David Blatt's second NBA season seemed to be going even better. But behind the scenes, there were rumblings and hints of division within the locker room. Despite holding the weaker Eastern Conference’s best record at 30-13, the performances we were seeing on the court didn’t scream "championship-bound squad."
Blatt was fired and replaced by top assistant Lue. The NBA world was shocked and some even lashed out at LeBron as a coach killer who was overstepping his boundaries as a superstar. However, according to general manager David Griffin, Blatt basically had lost the pulse of the team and if a change wasn’t made, the season could be lost.
In hindsight, we now understand that switching coaches is what won the Cleveland Cavs this first NBA Championship. The heroics of LeBron James was the key. The coming out party for Kyrie Irving as an elite point guard sealed the deal.
But Lue provided the perfect pitch of leadership, poise and the ability and confidence to tell LeBron when it was his time to listen and execute.
Once James was comfortable with the leadership and direction of the team, the players around him fell into place and they were able to maximize their abilities at the most crucial times.
Now we can honestly say that the Cavs knew what they were doing.
Back in late January, in the midst of a chaotic news week, where the NBA community second guessed every move that LeBron and Cavs management made, from the way Bron openly and candidly criticized his teammates to the way he acted as if he knew nothing of Blatt’s impending firing, Griffin took control of the rumor mill and kept it real by citing "a lack of fit with our personnel and our vision," as to why the move was made.
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Everybody with half a brain knows that it was championship or bust this season for Cleveland. There was no guarantee that LeBron was going to stay and there still isn’t. He doesn’t owe the city anything. He came back and delivered on his goal.
And if King James was the boss driving Cleveland’s championship whip, then Lue was keeping the engine oiled, the transmission percolating and gas in the tank, ensuring for a bumpy but safe ride home.
"What I see is that we need to build a collective spirit, a strength of spirit, a collective will," Griffin said at the time of Lue’s hiring. "Elite teams always have that, and you see it everywhere. To be truly elite, we have to buy into a set of values and principles that we believe in. That becomes our identity."
Griffin, a 24-year veteran of the NBA said of the Cavaliers: "I have never seen a locker room not be as connected after wins as they need to be. We've only been galvanized when expectations were not high."
With that statement, it was revealed that as brilliant a player and on-court leader as LeBron is, he also needed some guidance and advice on how to handle the team and create a consistent, championship environment. David Blatt’s rap wasn’t getting it done.
Enter Tyronn Lue, who understood what changes needed to be instituted and he did it. It was a matter of pedigree and Lue had it. Blatt did not.
Lue played in the “L,” put in his time on NBA benches, developed relationships and gained the respect of players. Lue spoke the language these guys needed to here. He was able to bridge whatever gap or disconnect that existed in the locker room. He was able to reinvent the team and motivate King James.
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With this monumental victory, Lue has also finalized his own reinvention. Before he hoisted the Larry O'Brien trophy and broke down in tears of joy, the lasting image of Lue in our heads was as an overmatched, undersized guard getting torched and then stepped over by the basketball giant Allen Iverson in 2001.
Today he is an icon in Ohio, who just out-coached a product of Phil Jackson's coaching tree on his first trip out of the gate. Lue was fortunate to get the chance to coach a team at the championship crossroads.
But there was nothing lucky about what he did to help galvanize the Cavs locker room and inspire them to not only beat the “unbeatable” 73-win juggernaut, but come back from the brink of hopelessness to do it in a manner that reflects the grit and resilience of the state of Ohio, and the coach who led them.