The Clippers hadn’t conducted a head coaching search since 2013 before this season. Back then, their process was uncommon as a still-employed Doc Rivers chose to leave his existing job to coach the Clippers.
This time, no championship-winning head coach like Erik Spoelstra or Rick Carlisle was asking out of his contract to come to Los Angeles. Instead, the title-winning coach was on the Clippers bench all along, as Tyronn Lue will officially become the new head coach of the LA Clippers.
Lue was close to being a head coach for the 2019-20 season; he was the top choice of the Los Angeles Lakers until the two parties couldn’t agree on a contract. The Lakers were only willing to offer Lue three years, and he walked. It worked out for the Lakers when they hired Frank Vogel, and it has now paid off for Lue, since the Clippers signed him to a five-year deal.
Let’s not mince words here: Lue is the best coach available for the Clippers. He is the only coach on the market who has won an NBA title. Not only has he won a championship, but he made it to the Finals in each of this three seasons that he finished as a head coach. Some credit admittedly goes to LeBron James, but it’s not like Lue is working with a roster of misfits in Los Angeles. Lue had less talented rosters in Cleveland than what the Clippers currently have.
Two of the major concerns the Clippers had with Doc Rivers were his inability to hold the stars (Kawhi Leonard and Paul George) accountable, which created a rift between them and the longer-tenured Clippers in the locker room, and Rivers’ failure to adapt in the playoffs. Lue’s hiring addresses both.
Lue famously cursed out James during halftime of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals; he had no problem calling out the biggest star in the league, even as a rookie head coach. Evidently, it worked, as the Cavaliers came back from a halftime deficit to win the crown. Lue also consistently made necessary adjustments as the head coach during the playoffs. He benched Kevin Love, an All-Star, for Richard Jefferson in the 2016 Finals. He used different closing lineups in every series of the Eastern Conference playoffs in 2018, and routinely broke out new offensive wrinkles that left opponents scrambling.
Every Eastern Conference team spent that four-year stretch gearing up to beat James and the Cavaliers, but Lue kept finding ways to keep Cleveland a step ahead, whether that was blitzing the Raptors with five-out lineups or utilizing the James/Jeff Green pick-and-roll to get past the Celtics. The Cavaliers had the best player, but they also had a tactician at the helm who kept their sets fresh.
Lue is also young. He’s only 43 years old and hasn’t been a head coach long enough to stubbornly commit to his own philosophies. He was flexible in his coaching tenure in Cleveland, and should remain so in Los Angeles.
There are some who were not in favor of Lue given his position as lead assistant on this year’s Clippers team. As a member of the coaching staff, he bears culpability for the team’s disappointment. But the head coach makes the final calls for a team, and Lue didn’t occupy that position. The failures of the 2019-20 coaching staff’s decision-making lie with Rivers, not with Lue.
Think about the 2018 Toronto Raptors. They had repeatedly faced playoff disappointment and needed a change, opting to fire their head coach Dwane Casey and promote Nick Nurse from within, a situation not dissimilar from what Lue is currently experiencing. Casey was one of the most stubborn coaches in the league, sticking to what worked in the regular season despite the playoffs requiring a different touch. Nurse, meanwhile, has proven to be perhaps the most experimental of any NBA coach. He regularly trots out different defensive schemes and tinkers with his lineups, and the Raptors have benefited from his creativity.
Just because Lue shared a bench with Rivers, that doesn’t mean he shared his coaching philosophy. His track record in Cleveland is more indicative of the type of coach he is than whatever transpired with the Clippers this season.
Over the past few weeks, as the Clippers have methodically conducted their search, it seemed as though they had less interest in Lue because they didn’t immediately hire him upon the departure of Rivers. Per reporting from the L.A. Times, the Clippers met with “a group of nearly 10 candidates” to fill their coaching position, a seemingly unnecessary task when they had already spoken to Lue.
As it turns out, the Clippers just needed to cover their bases. When the pool of outside candidates didn’t match the quality or experience of Lue — and when the Rockets and Pelicans appeared to apply a little pressure with their interest — they sat down with Lue and got the deal done. Now, they have a coach with the pedigree of winning at the highest level who also has a relationship with the present Clippers. As ESPN reported, “Lue has had significant support among key Clippers players in the search process.”
Looking back at that 2018 Raptors coaching search, over a month passed between the firing of Casey and the hiring of Nurse. If a front office that reputable took so long to settle on an internal candidate, the Clippers are certainly validated in arriving at a similar conclusion.
Lue isn’t a perfect candidate, even if he was the best choice for the Clippers. The Cavaliers were very much a flip-the-switch team between the regular season and the playoffs, and the Clippers are trying to break that habit. Cleveland had the 29th-best defense in the league in 2017-18, which simply won’t stand in the West.
But Lue’s positives hugely outweigh whatever baggage he brings to the table. He’s a winner, and he deserved another shot to be a head coach in the league after his time with the Cavaliers. The Clippers are fortunate to be that destination.