Neil Armstrong famously took the first step on the moon. Tyronn Lue, by contrast, was for a time just famous for being stepped over. That is, literally stepped over by Allen Iverson after a late Finals shot. But Lue has taken several steps up after that embarrassing moment. Thrust into the head coaching role for the Cavs in 2016, Lue now has the unenviable task of righting the listing ship of a dynasty and managing the egos of several big-name players. Lue is also now a victim of his own success, with fans holding him on a much shorter leash after the Cavs broke the city’s sports jinx his first season. But is Coach Lue actually a player in the NBA power game, or is he, rather, just a card in Lebron’s deck of aces?
No coach wants to be on the wrong end of the dreaded “yeah, BUT…”. Usually a coach with many regular season wins, but no title earns this distinction. It’s even worse to succeed at a sport’s biggest stage, and have someone else take all the credit. Erik Spoelstra reveled in the confetti twice as the coach of the Heat, BUT has never gotten past the second round without LeBron. (Also, few remember the Heat today). Joe Girardi won the World Series BUT he just rode the coattails of the “core four” already on the roster. If LeBron departs and Cleveland’s fortunes sink, coach Lue could be added to the list of accomplished coaches, belittled of their accomplishments. BUT thankfully for Coach Lue, for two reasons I don’t think this will happen.
First, Coach Lue has the charisma that makes him stand out from other coaches, even successful ones. When asked about the Wizards’ odd boast that the Cavs tanked to avoid playing Washington in the playoffs, Coach Lue offered no comment…other than a chuckle worth a hundred words. But it’s not all fun and games-Lue has the rare gall to challenge the King. He goaded LeBron in the 2016 finale by admonishing him with: “Bron, you’ve got to be better than this”. For a superstar, them’s fighting words. BUT this is what LeBron went on to do: fight. And there’s more fighting to do this year, with the team currently sporting a losing record. And that’s where Coach Lue’s other strength comes into play: his tireless work ethic.
In fact, lately it’s literally been tireless work. Lue has reportedly been losing hours of sleep to ponder how to turn the team around. He also has managed to tame the team’s biggest tiger, at least to some degree. LeBron once gave his coach sincere praise, saying that “we both made it out of tough situations growing up. So before we even met each other, you have that sense of that type of feeling”. Having come from an underprivileged upbringing, Lue has a broader perspective on the team’s mild struggles. He argues that the team’s losing “makes us better. I think going through it now early in the season, instead of going through it late when you want to hit your peak and playing great going into the playoffs. Right now, it’s a rough patch, but it’s no excuse. We have to be better and we will”. Of course, it’s not a slam dunk the team will make it to the Finals again. There is trouble in paradise with LeBron’s contract up. And that’s why the crucible of the off-season promises to be Lue’s finest hour.
The bright lights of L.A. and New York are shining like a beacon over LeBron’s throne. If David Blatt were still coach, those lights would have already blinded the nouveau riche city. But Coach Lue, never one to coach with blinders on, will nonetheless filter the hoopla with a healthy dose of common sense. In Cleveland, LeBron has an adoring fanbase, a proven track-record, and a coach who actually has a say in things, rather than just being a rubber stamp. No one knows for sure what LeBron’s next step will be, but I’m willing to bet the next one will be forward with his coach. A step forward with no BUTS clouding the bright horizon ahead.