When did you get sick of the 2017-18 Cleveland Cavaliers? Was it during the Isaiah Thomas experiment? How about when the team faced elimination against the Indiana Pacers? Maybe it even started back in the summer when the team traded Kyrie Irving.
This season, Tyronn Lue often looked like the physical manifestation of all the stress, anxiety and drama that surrounded the Cavaliers. He took a leave of absence from the team after weeks of coughing blood and struggling to complete games.
A mix of fatigue and desperation, the camera panning to his exasperated face after another error made him an easy target for ridicule and a scapegoat for the failings of the team.
But how much criticism is warranted? Coaching is one of the most difficult positions to discuss from an outsiders perspective because we are faced with the reality that we have little to no idea what we’re talking about.
As much as we discuss coaching as the work of one man, the reality is that the tasks are delegated throughout the staff. We don’t know the particulars of who was responsible for what. Whether or not calls were made from the bench, only to be hijacked by an overly ambitious player.
For simplicity sake, this will be a review of the coaching staff as a whole branded under Lue.
This season was far from a masters class in coaching. After seeing Kevin Durant torch LeBron James in the 2017 Finals, the team started the year with Jae Crowder as the theoretical defensive stopper and Kevin Love at center.
While these lineups bled points, the team was able to capitalize on a weak schedule and win 12 consecutive games. But the real catalyst of that streak was the team’s bench unit.
After granting Dwyane Wade the opportunity to start out of respect, Lue was able to get him to embrace a leadership role coming off the bench. The up-tempo bench lineups ran by Wade helped make up for the struggles of the starting lineup. Which, outside of LeBron and Kevin Love, failed to make an impact on a consistent basis.
Perhaps it was the success experienced with Love at center that caused the team to stick with it too long in the playoffs. But it became the first of many rotation issues that took far too long to fix.
The season progressed, Thomas came back and blew up any team chemistry that existed. Half the team was traded at the deadline, three quarters of which suffered injuries down the stretch.
Even those that view life through heavily tinted wine and gold glasses would struggle to say that Lue did a great job this year. The absence of chemistry can be attributed to the turnover and dysfunction, but to leave him blameless in that equation would be naive.
The most glaring issue with the coaching this season would be the glacial process of making adjustments. Leaving players in for too long when it clearly isn’t their night, continuing to go to pairings that haven’t worked all season, Looking at you, any combination of Jeff Green, Tristan Thompson and Larry Nance Jr.
In the past the adjustments Lue has made have really helped this team progress in the playoffs. The adjustments made down 2-0 in the 2016 and 2017 Finals helped the team be more competitive for the remainder of those series.
Looking at the series against the Indiana Pacers, it took far too long to attempt to counter Thad Young by playing Tristan Thompson. But with the season on the line, in came Thompson and he played a major role in the team’s 105-101 Game 7 win.
The game plan against the Toronto Raptors was good enough that no adjustments were needed. The team used Love and Kyle Korver in ways that provided LeBron James with enough help to sweep them.
Against the Boston Celtics, the Cavs were slow to go to Thompson to help neuter Horford and the Celtics offense. But once the adjustment was made, it was on the team to execute and hit open shots. In games they did, they won. In games they didn’t, they lost.
So how much blame should Lue receive for the struggles of this season? How much chemistry would any coach be able to build when Game 1 of the Conference semifinals was the first game that the team was fully healthy and completed the game that way. Some teams are able to weather the storm of injuries and turnover, but that’s usually off the back of an established system and culture. The Cavs had to start from scratch multiple times throughout the year after the foundation had been pulled out from under their feet.
Lue has not done a good job this season, but he still did what was necessary to get the team to reach it’s ceiling. Which is of course a loss in the NBA Finals. When tested, the Cavs came up big and some credit has to be given to Lue.
While some coaches may have done a better job, the circumstances probably would prevent anybody from doing a truly effective job. When you throw in the health issues that Lue was dealing with, it made that task even more difficult.
With or without LeBron, Lue has earned the benefit of the doubt and the right to choose whether or not he returns next season. By all accounts, he still has a connection with the players and the respect of the locker room.
If his health issues continue to be a factor, it’s possible that he’d choose to step away from the position. But he is a young coach that has shown he can get it done in the past. At 41 years old, we see Brad Stevens get a pass for mistakes made in the playoffs because he’s learning. But that leeway isn’t granted for the 41-year-old Lue.
Now, Lue obviously isn’t the same caliber as Stevens, but the backing of the organization and the benefit of the doubt could go a long way towards his development. Maybe changes can be made to the assistant coaches to help with shortcomings. But the limited ceiling of this roster had far more to do the front office than the man sitting on the bench.