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The Ty That Binds

In a season filled with adversity, head coach Tyronn Lue has kept the Clippers in the race by being true to himself.

Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

He stood there just off to the side, head tilted back while taking a drink of water after a win.

The cool, refreshing drink quenching his thirst, and the words of his point guard washing over him in the process.

“Let me step out of here,” LA Clippers coach Tyronn Lue quipped, “before I hear more lies.”

Lue disappeared through the door and into the hallway. Inside the room he vacated, Reggie Jackson was holding court after a narrow win over the Washington Wizards. The words Jackson espouses may seem grandiose at times, but the weight isn’t lost on those who listen. And Jackson isn’t alone in the message.

Tyronn Lue is a connector of people; not just players.

Jackson — who has become infamous for his long-winded postgame answers, channeling the wordy nature of Alexandre Dumas’ “The Count of Monte Cristo,” which is just one of the four books that he’s currently reading — raved about Lue believing in the veteran, noting that Lue is the one who lifts Jackson’s spirits if they fall too low.

Uncomfortable conversations seem to be a speciality for Lue. Last season, when the team began the year without Marcus Morris Sr., they reintegrated him by bringing him off the bench before he regained his starting spot. This season, Lue had to navigate a three-center rotation. Before the team traded Serge Ibaka, Lue and Ibaka had several discussions about roles and playing time. It’s not easy for players or coaches to have those heart-to-hearts. But Lue seems adept at it.

Feelings matter, but so do wins. Yet wins also make people feel better. And thus the circle is formed.

Then there’s the jokes.

“He’s gonna tell you a quick joke sometimes,” forward Nicolas Batum said. “That’s what he’ll say, just like a quick joke before the timeout.”

During halftime of the team’s victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on March 3, Lue resorted to a few well-timed jokes in the locker room to get the team back on track after blowing a 17-point second quarter lead.

“I came in there talking stuff to the guys,” Lue said, laughing as he stopped himself short of saying a curse word. “Got ‘em laughing, got ‘em fired up. They started laughing, and then our energy got going.”

The energy did indeed get going as the Clippers ran away from the Lakers in the second half, winning by 21 en route to a season sweep of the team that occupies the same building as them.

But the jokes and words of wisdom aren’t fueled by nervousness or idle hands. Lue genuinely doesn’t get phased by too much. You’ll oftentimes find him looking stoic on the sidelines. His calm demeanor hidden beneath the mask he still chooses to wear. Lue sometimes won’t talk to the players until the final 30 seconds or so of a timeout. He lets his assistants and other staff members, and even the other teammates, hold court first.

Some of it feels by design. Most of it feels like the whim of a man at peace with the journey. Hang around Lue long enough and you’ll hear the phrase “play the right way” rattle around the inside of your head. Results matter to him, but the way you play matters more. And he knows that in order to get you to play the right way, he has to figure out what makes you tick first.

When backup center Isaiah Hartenstein wasn’t being aggressive enough offensively during the first half of that March 3 meeting with the Lakers, the coach pulled Hartenstein aside to have a chat.

“I think that’s helped me a lot through the whole season,” Hartenstein noted. “I think this is the first kinda coach who really pushes me to be more aggressive, so it’s been great so far and it’s been a blessing to play under him.”

Lue wants to get the most out of players, and a quick way to do that is by empowering them. But that’s easier said than done a lot of times. After all, coaches are under pressure to win games. And considering the Clippers have been without Kawhi Leonard all season and Paul George since Christmas, not to mention Norman Powell for the last month, wins can be seen as a chore. Yet that hasn’t deterred Lue from remaining calm amidst the stormy seas of a long season.

The calm, easygoing nature of Lue shows up at some of the most intriguing moments.

On Feb. 25, the first game after the All-Star break, the Clippers were playing against the Lakers as the road team. With his side trailing late in the game, a song started to reverberate through the arena as the speakers hanging overhead came alive with vibrations from the thumping bass.

And there was Lue.

Standing on the sideline, hands planted firmly in his pockets, bobbing his head to the beat while his team looked to get a key defensive stop. Completely and wholly unphased.

There’s nothing fake about the man from Mexico, Mo., nothing counterfeit at all.

“I’m always pretty calm,” Lue says. “I think it gives your team confidence. I think the more irate you are and going crazy on the sidelines with the referees and the players, it just kind of rubs off into the huddles and to your players.”

Interestingly enough, the moments that Lue can’t control, or at least has no say in, are the ones that unnerve him the most. When his good friend Chauncey Billups was playing in the 2004 NBA Finals for the Detroit Pistons, Lue said he was nervous to watch. Floyd Mayweather fights? Lue gets nervous hoping the boxer, who retired at 50-0 back in 2017, doesn’t lose.

“When I can’t control it, that’s when I tend to get nervous,” admits Lue. “But when I’m involved and I have a chance to do something about it, I’m pretty even-keeled.”

Perhaps that’s why Lue vibing to a song during the late stages of a close contest against one of his team’s closest competitors shouldn’t have shocked anyone. It’s who he is.

“It’s not fake or something,” Lue declares.

A lot of times you’ll hear Lue, who led the Cleveland Cavaliers to a title in 2016, championed as one of the game’s best X’s and O’s coaches. A master of adjustments, so to speak. And he absolutely is. His own players rave about him in that regard, as do other coaches.

“He’s not afraid to try things,” New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said prior to the two teams meeting in early March.

That ability to try new things and think outside the box is what helped Lue lead the Clippers to a place they had never been as they made the Western Conference Finals last season. It was the franchise’s first ever trip.

With the team trailing the Dallas Mavericks two games to none and having to head on the road for a pivotal Game 3, Lue threw caution to the wind. Patrick Beverley was benched in place of Jackson. Fans wondered if Lue had lost his mind. In reality, he was only asking supporters to expand theirs. After a win in Game 3, Lue once again got wonky. Starting center Ivica Zubac was sat next to Beverley, replaced in the starting lineup by Batum.

The Clippers went on to win Game 4, and won the series in seven games.

“I try anything, man, because I don’t care,” Lue exclaims.

“I don’t care what people think, I don’t care what y’all write and what y’all say. I just do what I believe that’s gonna work and what’s right. I just feel like I’ll try anything and see what works, and some people are afraid to do that because they’re scared of you guys.”

After falling behind to the Utah Jazz in the next round, Lue was able to rally his team yet again. When they lost Kawhi Leonard to what was eventually learned to be a partially torn ACL, the Clippers won the final two games and clinched a berth to the conference finals.

“His adjustments in-game,” Hartenstein remarks, “I haven’t seen a coach that ever really does that. How he adjusts, how he, really on the fly, just what he thinks is best and how much it works. It’s been crazy to see.”

But those adjustments and tweaks are made possible by his connections with players. His ability to get them to buy into what he’s promoting as if he’s an old school door-to-door vacuum salesman.

“He’s been on me throughout the year,” Jackson professed after the team’s recent home win over Washington.

“We had our ups and downs throughout the year trying to figure it out, but he’s made my job easy. That’s why I call him the best coach in the league. He puts me in positions to be successful. Y’all know I’m a confident guy, but even when I’m having my lows, he’s staying on me, just about staying with my confidence, having fun and really he’s challenged me to be a leader.”

Jackson has had to carry a heavy burden this season without Leonard and George, but he’s answered the daunting challenge. He’s responded better to the little “tasks,” as Jackson calls them, that Lue has also put on his plate.

“I feel like my mind sometimes will wander a lot,” explains Jackson. “He’s just giving me little things to focus on in the game. It allows me to just play free.”

It’s a trick Lue has learned throughout the years to help players not feel like they’re walking on eggshells.

Lue began his playing career back during the 1998-99 season for the Lakers. He was there for two titles, playing under Phil Jackson and alongside Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. He then signed with the Washington Wizards, playing under Doug Collins and alongside Michael Jordan. In 2003-04, Lue spent a few games under Doc Rivers with the Orlando Magic while starting over 60 games next to Tracy McGrady.

The point guard was traded in a package with McGrady to Houston, where he spent six months being coached by Jeff Van Gundy before being shipped off to Atlanta. After a few seasons in Atlanta, Lue found his way to Dallas. He got to play alongside Dirk Nowitzki. Lue’s final season was split between Milwaukee and Orlando. The latter went to the NBA Finals that year and were coached by Stan Van Gundy.

Lue tried to hang on for one more season by latching on with an old coach, Doc Rivers.

Rivers was heading up the Boston Celtics at the time and brought Lue in during the offseason to compete for a spot. Lue fought like hell to make the team, but it was to no avail.

“We were trying to figure out any way we could keep him on the roster,” recalls Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach under Rivers that season.

“And then it just got to the point where we had to make a decision, and he played in the fall about as hard as I’ve ever seen a veteran play. He was trying to do all that he could to make the team, and he had a great relationship with Doc, and I think that played a big part of it. Danny Ainge loved him, all the players, Kevin Garnett, it was natural, and it was great for us and it was great for him.”

“I actually played pretty well,” reminisces Lue. “I thought I was gonna make the team, but I made the team as a coach instead of a player.”

But the most impactful coach Lue had was one that wasn’t mentioned. The half-season he had with the Bucks saw him coached by Scott Skiles, the man who holds the NBA’s single game assist record.

Skiles’ coaching record doesn’t jump off the page. In total, Skiles was 478-480 (.499) at the helm of the Phoenix Suns, Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic. His teams made the playoffs six times in 14 seasons, never advancing to a conference finals or even winning a division title. And yet, it’s Skiles who holds a special place in Lue’s heart.

“One of my favorite guys is Scott Skiles.”

But why?

“Hard on the guys in practice, but when it came to the game, he was even-keeled, unless he got into it with a referee or an official,” Lue expounds. “But for the most part, he was even-keeled, but I just loved how he held all the guys accountable, one to 15. His coaching style, the way he structured practices, the way he demanded his teams to play. And he was really, really a good coach to me.”

Finding a way to connect to each and every player on your roster is a rare thing in this sport, or any sport for that matter. But to do it consistently in the ever-evolving world of basketball where rosters can change at a moment’s notice because of COVID, or free agency, or trades, or superstars wanting to jumble things up, it’s more impressive than it probably gets credit for.

You can empower players by having uncomfortable conversations. You can give them the confidence to go out there and play free by being open and challenging them. And you can get everyone to buy into the endgame by making them understand basketball is a lot more fun playing the “right way” and as a team.

If you think it’s all talk from Lue, you’d be mistaken. He believes in his coaching style and the message he presents to each and every player. He pulls no punches, not even with himself. Lue will often take the blame if something goes awry during a game, citing that he should have done better. He’s always learning, always adapting, always evolving. But never quitting. Neither does his team.

When asked what it is about him and his style and methods that allows him to not only get the best out of the players but also gets them to trust him, Lue is quick to point out the reason.

“I think the communication factor,” he asserts. “I think not being up, yelling and screaming every possession, and just give those guys the freedom to play without having to play on eggshells, and to be who they are — in the confines of the team and the offense, and so those guys have done that.”

Would he like to play under himself?

“I would have loved it,” Lue answers.

The players on the Clippers certainly love it.

And that’s no lie.

You can find Justin Russo’s daily content on the LA Clippers by subscribing to his Patreon feed, and you can also follow him on Twitter at @FlyByKnite.

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