It was late January 2016 when assistant coach Tyronn Lue took over as Head Coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lue stepped into what many would describe as an impossible situation. He was the highest paid assistant coach in the league and was Lebron James’ favorite for the position. No pressure, right?
Well, Lue responded in remarkable fashion leading the Cavs through the Eastern Conference playoffs and then to an improbable comeback win over the Golden State Warriors, after trailing in the series 3-1 at one point. World Champion in his first stint as a Head Coach, not even a full season as the leading man and he had reached the pinnacle of his profession. With so much already accomplished before he even had spent a full season with his team, let alone an off-season of work-outs and training camps, what would Lue be able to do with this team in 2016-17?
Lue had the Cavs ready to pick up right where they left off in the 2016 NBA Finals, running out to a 13-2 start in the regular season. The Cavs embraced Lue’s fast-pace style of play and they were firing on all cylinders early, looking like a team to be reckoned with. Little did he know the adversity that lie ahead in his first full campaign as the Cavs head coach.
The Cavs would continue to roll into December, outscoring teams with their fast up-tempo style of play, implemented a year ago when Lue took over. It was December 23rd when things started to go haywire. The Cavs starting shooting guard, JR Smith went down with a complex fracture of his right thumb, just days before the Cavs were to face Golden State on Christmas Day. Smith was projected to miss 12-14 weeks, hopefully returning just before the Cavs would begin post-season play.
With Smith missing from the line-up, Lue was forced to make changes to his rotation. For the first time since he took over, just 11 months prior, Lue started to struggle to find the right personnel combinations with his team.
Lue would elect to start Deandre Liggins with Smith on the shelf. He would stick with Liggins in the starting back-court until January 13th. In the ten games that Lue elected to roll with Liggins the Cavs went a very pedestrian 6-4.
On January 8th, the Cavs front office pulled off a deal with Atlanta that brought sharp-shooter extraordinaire Kyle Korver into the fray. On January 25th, Lue sent Liggins back to the bench and tapped Iman Shumpert as his replacement in the starting line-up. The move pushed Liggins’ minutes way down as Korver began to work his way into the rotation.
With Shumpert starting at shooting guard the Cavs dropped their Martin Luther King Jr. Day rematch against the Warriors and lost four of six with their new line-up. They would go 9-6 with Shumpert starting and Lue giving minutes to Korver off the bench, in attempts to get him acclimated.
More trouble would plague the Cavs and Lue in February though, as Kevin Love would injure his left knee requiring arthroscopic knee surgery on February 14th. Love’s surgery, which requires six weeks to recover from, put the Cavs in a precarious situation. With the play-offs getting closer, how were the Cavs going to gel as a team with two starters dinged during the final months of regular season play.
In late February, the Cavs added Derrick Williams and Deron Williams to the roster in an attempt to provide some depth. In March, they took two shots at acquiring another rim protector in Andrew Bogut and Larry Sanders, both of which experiments missed the mark by a considerable margin.
Coach Lue was forced to tackle the arduous task of getting a group of new players accustomed to his schemes and culture, while having to turn around just weeks later and do it again when Kevin Love and JR Smith returned from injury. It is one thing to get a team to gel at the right time but another to do so with when the personnel available to you is fluid.
The Cavs were known for being an solid defensive team in the two seasons prior to this years, but the Cavs struggled to play defense at a mediocre level in 2016-17. The Cavs were the 22nd ranked defensive team in the NBA before the All-Star break and were an awful 28th in the league after the break.
The Cavs looked like a shell of the team they once were down the stretch going 11-15 after the All-Star break. They coughed up their hold on the Eastern Conference’s number one seed and at times put forth an embarrassing effort defensively. Coach Lue’s 2016-17 Cavs finished second in the East at 51-31. The regular season was a disappointment for Lue’s squad and he didn’t handle the adversity as well as many would have liked. The lack of emphasis on defense has to fall on Lue’s shoulders to some degree and he struggled to get a grasp on his rotations late in the season.
The Cavs were able to “flip the switch” in the playoffs and looked like they never missed a beat as they went 12-1 on their way back to another Eastern Conference Championship and a third straight trip to the NBA Finals. Coach Lue deployed an impressive trapping defense in the first three rounds of the playoffs, making us forget about the Cavs struggles in the regular season.
Lue stuck to his guns again in the Finals, refusing to back off of the Cavs up-tempo style of play, despite the Warriors jumping out to a 3-0 lead. It’s hard to put much blame on Lue for their Finals loss as they were clearly out-manned. He was able to make some excellent adjustments as the series went on, just as he did a year before, but it wasn’t enough this year as the Cavs lost in five games to the Golden State Warriors.
Coach Lue had a difficult first full season as Head Coach of the Cavs. Dealing with injuries, what appeared to be a lack of enforced discipline defensively and some “learning” moments when it came to managing his rotation highlighted a poor regular season as a whole. Whether it’s fair or not, when you are Lebron James’ coach it is Championship or bust, so it was “bust” in 2016-17 for Coach Lue. Although, I have no doubt he is the man for this job, he certainly needs to come back a better coach in 2017-18.