In announcing Tuesday that they hired Tyronn Lue as their head coach, the Los Angeles Clippers referred to the NBA championship he won in his first season at the reins of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
No pressure, but the Clippers are going to need him to go ahead and do that again.
With superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George able to opt out of their respective contracts after this season, and the salary cap-strapped Clippers already without most of their first-round draft picks for the foreseeable future, the team is very much in win-now mode. As in, win it all. Now, please.
There will be even more urgency this upcoming season than there was in the one that recently concluded at the NBA’s bubble near Orlando, where the Clippers flamed out in the Western Conference semifinals under former coach Doc Rivers. That team, with Leonard and George joining a talented, veteran group, was a popular favorite to win the title, only to blow a 3-1 lead to the Denver Nuggets and fail to even reach a much-anticipated showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers in the conference finals.
At least, though, it was only Year 1 of Leonard-George partnership, as the latter insisted unconvincingly just after his squad’s shocking ouster.
“We didn’t live up to that expectation,” George said then. “But I think internally, we’ve always felt this is not a ‘championship or bust’ year for us.”
That assessment came as news to everyone who thought ‘championship or bust’ was exactly what was at stake for those Clippers, but in any event, George will be hard-pressed to downplay the importance of the 2020-21 season. He and Leonard could choose to stay with the team beyond next season, but the rest of the roster will be in flux and other teams will be putting themselves in position to become title favorites.
The only thing clear about the Clippers’ outlook for most of the upcoming decade is that their best and possibly only chance to hoist the franchise’s first Larry O’Brien trophy arrives in 2021. Oh, and the team’s new leader will want to address the reported tensions in the locker room.
So that’s the pressure cooker into which Lue steps. To be more precise, he’s only sliding over a spot or two on the Clippers’ bench, because he served as an assistant last season under Rivers, who was fired last month.
As such, Lue had a front-row seat to the dysfunction that appeared to play a large role in keeping the Clippers from fulfilling their considerable promise. By the same token, the team’s front office got an extended look at the way he was able to build relationships with the players after coming over from Cleveland last year, and the Clippers are counting on the 43-year-old former point guard to use those interpersonal skills to smooth a path to a title.
“Ty has been where we want to go. He is a championship head coach with an extraordinary feel for the game and the people who play it,” Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations, said in a statement Tuesday. “He’s one of the great minds in our league, and he’s able to impart his vision to others, because he connects with everybody he meets. We conducted a thorough search and spoke with fantastic candidates. We found that the best choice for our team was already in our building. As head coach, Ty will put a unique imprint on the organization, and drive us to new heights.”
“The pieces we need are in place — committed ownership, smart management and elite talent, on and off the court, in the NBA’s best market,” Lue said. He added, “We have work to do to become champions, but we have the motivation, the tools, and the support to get there. I’m excited to get started.”
Lue, who won two championships as a player with the Los Angeles Lakers, began his coaching apprenticeship soon after he retired in 2009. When the Cavaliers fired David Blatt in the middle of the 2015-16 season, Lue took over a team that featured strong personalities in LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, and he helped lead the Cavs to their first championship in an upset of the 73-win Golden State Warriors.
Lue went back to the NBA Finals with Cleveland in 2017 and 2018, only to fall quickly to the Warriors both times, and he was fired after Cleveland — which was starting over without James or Irving — went 0-6 to begin the 2018-19 season. By that point, as noted Tuesday by the Clippers, Lue’s legacy with the Cavaliers included becoming the fourth NBA head coach since 1980 to win a championship in his first season; the third NBA head coach to lead his team to Finals appearances in each of his first three seasons; and the 14th person in league history to have won a title as a head coach and as a player.
After the Clippers parted ways with Rivers, Lue quickly emerged as a front-runner for the job, and he was widely reported to have effectively locked it up last week. The team waited until Tuesday to make it official, but it has no time to waste in terms of letting its new coach settle into his position and lay the groundwork for future success.
It’s “championship or bust” this season, and the Clippers can only hope they wind up getting a strong case of deja Lue.