Tyronn Lue is uncomfortable being the center of media attention and even when he coached the Cavs he gave few, if any, on-air interviews. Dave McMenamin (ESPN) had to exert a month of effort to get Lue to commit to a far-ranging interview that was less about the Cavs and their championship hopes than it was about the Ty Lue he only allows close friends to see: Ty Lue, the man.
Now that Lue is the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers he is going to be expected to give more than he gave in Cleveland. The city demands media attention. By most accounts, the Clippers have better talent than their richly titled brethren.
Talent doesn’t equal success, however. The Clippers failures are storied and rich. They haven’t been to a conference final. They find ways to choke away wins, underachieve in pressure moments, and always come up short. The die-hard fans talk about a hoax. But when these are your last ten coaches: Bob Weiss, Bill Fitch, Chris Ford, Jim Todd, Alvin Gentry, Dennis Johnson, Mike Dunleavy, Kim Hughes, Vinny Del Negro, Doc Rivers underachievement is both galling and expected. Those ten coaches have 40 playoff victories in 27 years. Doc Rivers is responsible for 70% of those wins.
Lue is following an elite coach and the expectations are equally high, though Lue can’t compete with Rivers. Rivers coached 1,624 NBA games and won 943. He has led his team to the playoffs 16 out of 21 years and he won Coach of the Year in 2000. What Steve Ballmer wants is for Ty Lue to be the anti-Doc. 1. Pay attention to analytics. 2. Make adjustments. 3. Fix the team chemistry issues. 4. Live up to the hype.
211 games are all Lue has in the books but what a 211 games. Down 3-1 and coming back to win the title against a historically perfect regular-season team was exceptional. Lue said a few years back, “One crucial move can cost you. You never want to let your team down. That’s why I stay prepared. Everything I do is for the good of the team but it may not work all the time. You want to put the players in the right position to win. ” And for the most part, he has.
A native of Mexico, Missouri, Lue was drafted with the 23rd pick in the 1998 draft by the Nuggets and then was traded to the Lakers, a move that Lue is forever grateful to Jerry West for. The Lakers were his first up-close and personal experience with the gifted (Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant) but it wouldn’t be his last. He stayed in Los Angeles long enough to win two titles and for Phil Jackson’s influence to make an impact on how Lue coaches today.
“I let guys figure it out. Do your own thing. We have structure but after that, you are a grown man. Be smart. Be safe. But I let the guys do what they want to do.” Lue takes pride in his demeanor on the sidelines.
“I learned to be poised on the sidelines. When you get to the timeouts everyone is poised, everyone is locked in. You can execute better.” (Ty Lue)
As for his first NBA team, the Lakers, Ty Lue has a Laker room in his house. Much of the memorabilia that hangs in Staples Center is in his private collection, an idea sparked by then-teammate and now NBA analyst Brian Shaw.
“I had a chance to get all the Lakers greats, the jerseys you see hanging in Staples Center, I have that hanging in the Lakers room. That is the first place I went and the Lakers mean so much to me. Jerry West drafted me and gave me my opportunity. Brian Shaw said you want to remember these moments. It’s cool to have.”
Lue admitted, wistfully, how easy it was to get memorabilia in the “old days”. One equipment guy would call another equipment guy and then in the mail, there would be a package. In his office, he has Kobe’s shoes, Jordan’s shoes, and Shaq’s shoes. In a safety deposit box, he has the tape of when he visited the White House. When President Barack Obama singled Lue out, said his name as well as his hometown of Mexico, Missouri it was an emotional moment for Lue. He was this little kid, in this little town and now look at him, at the White House, the President knowing who he is.
In his safety deposit box, he also has Kobe’s 81 point game on tape, as well as other memorabilia he cherishes. Lue will never wear the suit he wore in Game 7 versus the Warriors. “It was a special moment for Cleveland and the state of Ohio.”
Particularly because Lue was dropped in the middle of the fire with no training, no experience, no previous job to teach him the nuts and bolts, his learning curve was more pronounced. He didn’t have the luxury to coach when no one was watching his mistakes. He had LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love, and a $100+ million dollar payroll, not to mention the media bubble. Any team with LeBron James on it is going to be dissected backward and forwards. Any team with Kawhi Leonard on it is going to be dissected backward and forwards.
Lue used to get upset about the wealth of stories surfacing in the media, particularly the ones that were not true, but he has had to learn perspective: don’t sweat the small stuff. Let it go. Though it still gets to him why things are written that have zero factual basis.
“People are going to say what they are going to say. They have to sell books. They have to sell stories. That is their job. I don’t like it when they make stuff up and lie. When you make stuff up that’s the part I don’t get and makes me mad.”
His coaching mentor, Doc Rivers, repeatedly told Lue that being a head coach was the hardest job he’d ever have. In a peculiar way coaching the Clippers is even harder than the Lakers gig Lue turned down. The Clippers have a billionaire owner who has already demonstrated he doesn’t tolerate losing. After the 2020-21 season, Paul George and Kawhi Leonard can opt-out and go elsewhere. The roster is loaded with scorers.
So why did the Clips lose in the bubble?
They lacked chemistry. They didn’t have a leader. Paul George rubbed his teammates the wrong way. And Doc Rivers refused adaptations, like using Ivica Zubac on Nikola Jokic instead of an underszied Montrezl Harrell.
Lue accepted his first coaching job after David Blatt was fired. That was four years ago. Lue was 38. At 42, he is five years younger than the man who took the job Ty Lue really wanted, head coach of the Lakers. But that’s water under the bridge. Yesterday’s news. Lue is philosophical now and reflective. A few years back, he had to take a leave of absence because of anxiety- he was coughing up blood. Lue had to change his habits or say goodbye to coaching.
“I tried to be perfect every single time. You never have time to enjoy it. “
He won’t have time to enjoy the Clippers gig who are in win-now mode. All eyes are on him.