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When Tyronn Lue agreed to become the head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, as was first reported by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, his biggest challenge instantly became handling a superstar in Kawhi Leonard.
While most coaches can only dream of being given the chance to work with a player like Leonard, he’s only the second-greatest talent Lue, now in his second lead job, has overseen.
Spending two-and-and-half seasons (four total counting his associate head coach duties) with LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers from 2014-18 has prepared Lue not only to handle a superstar on a team ready to compete for championships right away, but also to push that player by any means necessary.
After he coached James and spent time around some of the greatest players and coaches the NBA has ever seen, perhaps no one is better suited to lead Leonard and the Clippers.
As was the case in Cleveland, he’s coming into his new job well-prepared.
Lue and David Blatt were the two finalists for the Cavaliers’ head coaching job in 2014 before James had made his decision to return. General manager David Griffin liked Lue and wanted him to win the job. Cavs governor Dan Gilbert preferred Blatt and his overseas experience instead. Clearly, the person responsible for writing the checks got the final say.
Lue agreed to join Blatt’s staff despite losing out on the job, and the Cavs made him the league’s highest-paid assistant at the time. When Blatt was fired in January 2016, Lue didn’t even want the job and was only pushed into taking it in part from advice he sought from Doc Rivers, the man he’s now replacing in Los Angeles.
Lue spent a year and a half getting to know James, gaining respect from him and those in the locker room next to him. Similarly, he has spent the past season as Rivers’ assistant on the Clippers, already establishing a relationship with the incumbent players.
Perhaps the most important thing a head coach can do is get his star player to buy in to his system, a strategy that allows all others to fall in line.
While James never seemed to respect Blatt or Mike Brown before him in Cleveland, Lue was different.
There was a timeout where James would typically talk over Blatt, only this time it was Lue telling James, in front of Cavs teammates: “Shut the [expletive] up. I got this.”
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Lue stated that the first thing he did when taking over as head coach of the Cavaliers was to sit down with James one-on-one and explain his vision and what they had to do together to fix the team.
Lue relayed James’ response, per Joe Vardon of The Athletic: “Man, T. Lue, I’m on board. Whatever you need to do, whatever you need from me, you got it.”
Now, he and Leonard need to have the same conversation.
Obviously, James and Leonard are very different players and people. While James has time and time again demonstrated his passion during games and timeouts (for better or worse), Leonard has preferred to lead by example and skip the yelling and screaming.
Neither is right or wrong, of course, as long as the message gets delivered.
Lue is actually more similar in personality to Leonard. He’s fairly calm on the sidelines, an excellent observer who rarely picks up technical fouls. His even-keeled demeanor should blend in well with Leonard, who received very different coaching from Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs.
Lue needs to pick his spots to push and prod Leonard as well, not allowing his superstar to get too comfortable or believe he’s doing enough.
Even in their biggest moment together, Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, Lue still challenged James in front of the team. Near halftime, James was on his way to a triple-double and had been brilliant while leading Cleveland to a 3-3 tie against the Golden State Warriors after starting the series down 3-1. Still, it wasn’t good enough for Lue.
He criticized James for being passive, for being sloppy with the ball and for letting Draymond Green hit five three-pointers in the first half.
“Bron was mad, pissed off at me, and then we went into the locker room at halftime and I told him the same thing in front of all the guys,” Lue told Lee Jenkins, then of Sports Illustrated. “He was mad again, pissed off again.”
The moment may have been uncomfortable, but it worked.
James finished the game with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists, and he turned the ball over just once in the second half while holding Green to 1-of-3 from deep after he went 5-of-5 in the first half.
While most coaches wouldn’t have dared upset their superstar with Game 7 of the NBA Finals on the line, Lue knew all the right buttons to push. In the end, he got the result he was seeking.
Lue’s experience in the NBA also goes well beyond James.
As a player for 11 seasons and now entering his 10th as a coach, his NBA contact list is legendary.
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As a point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers, he saw firsthand how Phil Jackson managed the egos of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, an experience that ended with a championship ring in 2001. He played alongside Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards, Jason Kidd and Dirk Nowitzki on the Dallas Mavericks and prime Dwight Howard on the 2008-09 Orlando Magic for his final season.
The list of players Lue has overseen as a coach is equally impressive.
Besides James, he managed Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce as an assistant under Rivers with the Boston Celtics and Chris Paul and Blake Griffin with the Clippers.
Perhaps that’s why Lue never blinked when coaching James.
Having that one-on-one conversation with Leonard is a must, as is getting him to buy in and trust that Lue can get the Clippers to a championship just as he did with another superstar small forward on a franchise that had previously never won a title.
He must establish that relationship now so that when things get rocky, which they will, Leonard will have a solid base of trust to draw from, knowing Lue only wants what’s best for the team.
James believed in Lue’s vision, and it ended in three trips to the Finals and a ring. The Clippers have the talent to make a similar run, but only if Leonard does the same.