In the month or so since Brett Brown was relieved of his duty as Philadelphia 76ers head coach, Tyronn Lue, a Los Angeles Clippers assistant and former Cleveland Cavaliers head coach, has been linked to the Sixers as Brown’s potential successor. Keith Pompey of The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Lue met with the organization Tuesday.
Fans and media are certainly entitled to discuss Lue’s merits and drawbacks. But I wanted to connect with some people who understand Lue’s coaching track record best and give everyone the available information to form an opinion about what he might bring or if he’s the best man for the gig. So, I reached out to three people who covered Lue during his Cavaliers tenure to provide insight.
Chris Manning writes for SB Nation’s Fear The Sword and is a co-host of the Locked on Cavs podcast. Ashley Bastock is a former colleague of Manning’s at Fear The Sword who now covers University of Michigan sports at The Blade in Toledo, Ohio. Mike O’Connor is a writer for Rights To Ricky Sanchez who previously covered the Cavs and Sixers for The Athletic. All three are well-equipped to paint an informative, descriptive picture of Lue as a coach.
What are Lue’s strengths as a coach?
Manning: First and foremost, Ty Lue is elite at working with players and holding them accountable. So much of his success with LeBron and those Cavs was being able to call those guys out and be real with them when it absolutely had to happen. Not every coach has that clout. But he’s also an underrated tactician who can get the most out of teams.
Bastock: He is a players’ coach who does not have a problem getting after his guys when he needs to. The prime example? Halftime of Game 7 during the 2016 Finals, when [he] called out LeBron James for being “passive,” and, obviously, we all know the end result of that.
O’Connor: For starters, Lue has a very good offensive playbook with lots of quality sets for pick-and-roll ball handlers and off-movement shooters. He also has a strong reputation as a locker room/big personality manager, as he commands the respect of his star players. Lastly, I generally found him quick to adjust schematically, particularly in the playoffs.
What are Lue’s weaknesses as a coach?
Manning: I don’t think he has the flair that a Nick Nurse or Erik Spoelstra do in terms of designing an offense. He will adapt and find what works, but at least with the Cavs, he also doesn’t do things that are overly modern or flashy. For example: when Kyrie [Irving] left, he didn’t try and get more out of Kevin Love as an offensive hub and passer, and instead, leaned more on LeBron.
Bastock: Sometimes giving too much leeway to his vets (see: defensive declines during his last two years). Also, just given the personnel he had in Cleveland, an overall air of uncertainty surrounding his offensive philosophies in particular.
O’Connor: I always found myself frustrated with how Lue handles lineups and rotations. Lue is a Doc Rivers disciple, so that means that his lineup decisions are based largely on gut feel and who he feels are hot. In other words: if a lineup with three bench players makes a 10-point comeback midway through the fourth quarter, that’s the group that will likely close out the game. He’ll ride out some truly bizarre lineups for far too long, after it’s clear that it’s time to make a sub. Also, Lue’s late game management was questionable at times (clock management, designing sets for role players in key spots, etc.).
What impressed you most during Lue’s tenure in Cleveland?
Manning: Just his ability to get a lot out of those Cavs and handle all that came with that job. A lesser coach would have succumbed to all the chaos of that job, and he just handled it. His struggles late in his tenure were well documented and something he is seemingly better equipped to handle next time out. But I also think he’s as unflappable to outside pressure as anyone in the league.
Bastock: Simple: Taking over in the middle of the 2015-16 season, and helping the Cavs win their first ever championship after falling behind 3-1 in the series. The lore of Lue’s motivational tactics during that series — like hiding money that he collected from players in the ceiling of their locker room at Oracle Arena after Game 5 so that they would have to make the trip back for Game 7 in order to retrieve it — will forever be a part of coaching biography.
O’Connor: In terms of what impressed me most, I’d say it was Lue’s ability to balance going to his playbook while also simply getting out of the way and letting his best players operate in a freelance manner. Also, I generally came away impressed by his ability to adjust quickly and effectively in the playoffs.
What disappointed you most during Lue’s tenure in Cleveland?
Manning: As stated, I think he could seek out more creative options on offense. Some of that might have been personnel-based post-Kyrie, but I think more could have been done to find ways to make that offense work. He’s also likely to lean on a veteran vs. a young guy who might be able to offer more. That’s not entirely fair to present as fact-based because of who the Cavs had, but it’d be worth watching in his next job.
Bastock: Watching the Cavs’ defensive decline during the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. At their worst point, the Cavs were ranked 29th in the league during both of those years. To be fair, I think at that point the veterans on the Cavs’ roster were simply willing to coast — and of course they still made the Finals — but at the time, it was nevertheless frustrating that Lue wasn’t taking more of a hands-on approach.
O’Connor: I was disappointed at times that Lue was so steadfast in his insistence on running a blitz coverage in the pick-and-roll. I understood the logic behind it and, ultimately, I grew to support it — they knew that they had to blitz Golden State in the finals every year, so why not practice it in the regular season. But boy, did they pay the price each regular season.
How would you sum up his offensive and defensive philosophies/schemes? Do they align with the Sixers’ core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons?
Manning: I think if anyone is going to get the most out of that, it’s him. He’s not so tied to one type of scheme on either end, so I suspect he’ll design something around Embiid on defense, try and push the pace a little bit more than Brown did and try to make choices that only empower the talent. That to me is his real philosophy.
Bastock: I think it is most difficult to assess Lue’s offensive philosophy just because for all but six games of his Cleveland tenure, he had James to rely on. The Cavs’ roster was so different than the Sixers in that it was filled with veterans who could shoot to help open up the floor for James to operate. However, I think it’s also fair to look at 2017-18, and while it was certainly a drama-filled year in Cleveland following the Kyrie Irving trade, Lue managed James well enough that he played in all 82 games averaging 27.5 points and 9.1 assists, and got the Cavs back to a fourth-straight Finals even without Irving and with a ton of roster turnover. Broadly, I will say, during his tenure in Cleveland, one of the things he did excel at was his after-timeout sets.
Defensively, Lue was essentially the Cavs’ coordinator when he was an assistant under David Blatt. He has a tendency to blitz on pick-and-roll coverage, but in general, he is not afraid to experiment, especially during the regular season, if it will lead to a playoff advantage down the line.
When it comes to Embiid and Simmons, I am interested to see how he manages younger superstars more than anything. I think that his strength managing egos will come in handy here, and quite honestly, I would be interested in seeing what he can do in developing a different offensive scheme than what he had in Cleveland.
O’Connor: His offensive system revolved around getting ISOs for LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. He supplemented it nicely with creative pick-and-roll sets, as well as sets involving off-ball movement for shooters, but ISOs were the bread and butter. His exact offense might not fit like a glove with Simmons and Embiid — you’d have to replace those ISOs with Embiid post-ups and other reliable half-court creation options — but what his Cleveland tenure showed me, more than anything, was that he understood how to cater an offense to the strengths of his best players.
Sure, we can all acknowledge that those Cavs teams may have over-indulged in isolations, but at the end of the day, it’s what his two best players were best at. He didn’t galaxy-brain himself into thinking that he needed to implement some intricate system for those guys (see: David Blatt’s Princeton offense). It’s less clear how he’d do that in the case of Simmons and Embiid, but I at least trust Lue far more so than Brett Brown to maximize those guys with his offensive schemes. Defensively, as I said above, they blitzed pick-and-rolls heavily. I’d bet that he will run a completely different defensive system with a new team, though, so I can’t say whether or not that would benefit Embiid and Simmons.
Are there any role player archetypes you think he maximizes that the Sixers should target?
Manning: It’s not any different from what they already need, but they’ll want some more 3-and-D players. I also suspect a veteran point guard, even if one doesn’t play a lot, would be on his shopping list, too.
Bastock: In Cleveland, there were no shortage of veteran shooters, but again, that was out of necessity, given the offense the Cavs ran. Given Embiid’s ability in the post, it would be interesting to see how Lue could look to overcome some of the spacing issues the Sixers have faced.
O’Connor: Off-movement shooters. I loved some of the sets that Lue ran for J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver in Cleveland. They run some things out of the Iverson series that opened those guys up with regularity.
Would he be a good hire for the Sixers? Why or why not?
Manning: I think so because he’s not going to put up with the Embiid disinterest that has hurt the 76ers. That kind of malaise will not fly with Lue in any way. He will find something, even if it takes time, that makes the most sense of the roster and he’ll be ready to adapt and thrive in the playoffs. I don’t know if anyone can fix what’s [going] on there, but he has as good of a shot as anyone available.
Bastock: Yes. I think Lue’s coaching style will be a good fit or the current Sixers personnel, going back to question No. 1. While I acknowledge that there are a lot of question marks, especially concerning his broader offensive philosophies, I think he is up for the challenge of coaching a younger team with younger superstars who are still chasing their first title.
O’Connor: I certainly think so. He holds star players accountable, he understands how to build an offense around players’ strengths without making things complicated, and he has a knack for making timely adjustments in the playoffs. I might lean in favor of hiring Mike D’Antoni, given MDA’s pedigree, but I like Lue and I think he’d do a good job in Philly.
The floor is yours for any closing remarks that you think are key for people to know about Lue as a coach and prospective hire.
Manning: I think Ty Lue is a very good coach and it is incredibly silly that he’s not talked about as such. Cleveland doesn’t win in 2016 if he’s not at the helm. If the 76ers go with him, they’ve made a great hire.
Bastock: Personally, I have been eager to see Lue get another opportunity. Especially during his final full season in Cleveland, I thought he got too much flack during the season when I think a lot of the issues arose from veterans knowing they could coast to the Finals.