How should we evaluate Tyronn Lue? He’s been an NBA head coach for less than two full seasons, but has an NBA championship under his belt and the opportunity for another. How good do you have to be when you coach a team with LeBron James on it? What’s the actual role of the head coach in that spot?
It’s long been a difficult line for coaches to traverse. LeBron James is a force of nature on and off the court. He’s mercurial. He’s given headaches to just about everyone who has coached him in the league. Of course, those teams tend to win a lot of basketball games as well. Whether it was Mike Brown, David Blatt, or Eric Spoelstra early on in Miami, uncomfortable moments were all part of the LeBron experience.
Except, maybe, Lue. After the Cavs beat the Celtics to go up 3-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, Lue was asked about James’ foul trouble. He responded by saying that he thought the fourth foul was a good call, a clear offensive foul on James.
Asked in Indianapolis before Game 3 of the first round to explain what makes James such a great “free safety” on defense, Lue laughed, and said “He likes to see himself that way.” This willingness to be real about James deficiencies and give him a hard time about how seriously the king takes himself is ... remarkable. And it seems to be fine.
"I just think it's just his level of calmness no matter what's going on," James said Sunday, per cleveland.com. "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.”
That comfort and respect allowed Lue to get on LeBron James during halftime of Game 7 of the Finals a year ago. In a game in which James was playing reasonably well, Lue sounded the alarm at halftime. James needed to play better. He had to find another level. If he didn’t, the Cavs would lose. James was pissed, but he went out and played one of the best defensive halves of his life. He sank a game-clinching free to give the Cavs a title.
How valuable is Lue? He has the full trust of LeBron James. He’s flexible with lineups and plays to his creators’ strengths. He’s willing to play small. He’s bought into the three point revolution. He’s pulled Iman Shumpert out of the rotation when his play warranted it, and praised him and given him playing time when it was earned. Shumpert, like most of the Cavs, comes into the Finals playing some of the most impactful minutes of his career.
So, how valuable is Tyronn Lue? Not every coach with LeBron James wins an NBA title.
If you walk by the Cavs locker room down towards where the visitors suit up in Quicken Loans Arena, you’ll see Cavs legends commemorated on the walls. Players, coaches who have made an impact on Cleveland’s basketball team in a positive way. One of the coaches highlighted, rightfully, is Mike Brown.
Mike Brown has been hired and fired by the Cavs twice. Once in desperation as part of an attempted rescue mission to save a star from leaving, and a second time after just one season. Both are important to look at and make a few notes on the particulars.
First, firing Brown was never going to keep James from going to Miami. By the time James left, he had a relatively strong relationship with Brown. There were whispers around James that the Cavs firing him the second time hurt their chances of wooing him back to Cleveland.
Second, the team he led his second trip through involved Jarrett Jack, Dion Waiters, Earl Clark, and Andrew Bynum playing prominent roles. Tristan Thompson was Kyrie Irving’s best pick and roll option, and this was at a time in which Thompson was not a good pick and roll option. There weren’t shooters to space the floor. Brown may not have been able to connect with the team and build them up in any meaningful way, but it’s not clear very many coaches could.
His biggest failure from his second stint in Cleveland came from the lack of a relationship that developed with Irving. Brown was hesitant to give Irving the leeway and freedom Irving wanted, and Irving wasn’t ready to become a defender on a dead-end team in the way Brown wanted. The frustration that existed for each party was and is understandable, but it’s not something they were able to get past. The 22-year-old All-Star point guard selected No. 1 overall is going to win that battle every time.
Brown has won a ton of games in Cleveland, and he had the opportunity to coach LeBron. He was given a second chance, though it was probably doomed from the start. With Steve Kerr looking at being out for the series with complications from back surgery a couple years ago, it’s an opportunity for Brown to finally lead an ultra-talented team to an NBA championship.
It wouldn’t be how he imagined it; it’s terrible what Kerr has gone through and goes through. But for one of the good guys in the league, perhaps some vindication is coming.