June 19, 2016. Game 7 of the NBA finals. It is 49-42 Warriors at halftime. LeBron James has been good, but has not the LeBron we know.
And suddenly, Lue has a demand: If we’re gonna win, you gotta be better … your body language is terrible … your legacy is on the line.
The rest is history.
It takes gumption to challenge any superstar, let alone LeBron. Lue did it, and won a title with him.
And Lue won a title and made four finals in Cleveland, with a collection of gigantic egos that required regular maintenance. LeBron and Kyrie, as we now know, was a powder keg waiting to explode. LeBron was aloof during streaks of losing, telling the front office he wanted trades with his lazy play. Kyrie wanted his own team. LeBron said of Kevin Love, “fit in or fit out,” breeding tension there. JR Smith is a wild card.
The Cavs were in a constant state of chaos, and required an ego manager to handle that chaos, channel it into title caliber basketball when needed. A person who knew when to crack the whip, but when to let go of the rope and let the players be.
Lue aced the test. The Cavs won a title under his watch and if Kevin Durant did not join the Warriors he may have won two or three.
The Nets, next year, need exactly this from their head coach. Durant and Irving are sensational players, around whom a dynasty can be built. They are also, like a team built around LeBron and Irving, a powder keg potentially waiting to explode. Both soured on their first two NBA stops, despite both seeming like good situations from afar. Durant felt a lack of outside credit and validation despite two titles and finals MVP’s. Kyrie felt LeBron got too much credit and media attention in Cleveland, and struggled in Boston at his first endeavor leading his own legitimate roster.
The key word with the powder keg here is potentially – this may not explode, or may only explode in the very distant future after championship level success. And that is where ego management comes into play.
Coaching stars is not just about installing a good offense and defense, or being quick on your feet to make tactical adjustments. Stars have egos that a title caliber coach needs to manage, without the star running them over.
It requires a powerful personality – like Lue, who just did this in Cleveland. If you can stand up to LeBron during his Cleveland return, you can stand up to anyone.
At the same time, Lue was not just one with gumption. He knows “what buttons to push,” the saying goes. Sometimes you need to stand firm to a star and lay down the law. Sometimes, Durant and Kyrie are great, and you just sit back and let them be great. Lue is capable of that, too – the 2017 Cavs finished third in offensive efficiency with underrated schemes that shredded defenses, and massacred the eastern conference before running into one of the greatest teams ever assembled.
Lue is the right person for this job. The Nets need their next head coach to do exactly what the coach of the 2016-2018 Cavaliers did. And that man is on the market.
None of this is to say that Lue comes without any risks. LeBron is a superhuman force of nature – what if Lue was not as causative of winning as I think? Still, every reported candidate comes with risk, and the risks as to Lue are most important palatable because I have seen him do what we need our next coach to do, in a highly similar situation.
Gregg Popovich has somewhat quietly become a bit outmoded in very recent years – and what if he is partially a creation of Tim Duncan? Not to mention he is unlikely to leave San Antonio. Jeff Van Gundy has not coached since 2007 – the NBA was a different sport then with how much tactics and positions have changed. Can he be effective in the modern game? Ime Udoka has never coached before. Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson are simply poor candidates – just look at the 2015 Warriors and 2019 Bucks.
And then there is Jacque Vaughn. Since he has been with the Nets for several years and the Nets played well in the bubble, momentum built around him as deserving of a shot. There is a human element to that. Most of us do not work in billion dollar industries; if we work hard and earned the right to stick around, we should stick around. But billion dollar industries are different.
Vaughn’s resume is most strongly bolstered by the Bubble. But the job next year is different. The job next year is to manage star egos, not to get lesser players to play hard. Also. with players rounding into shape and teams resting players to focus more on seeding than standings, the bubble was a somewhat fluky atmosphere before the playoffs. It would not be prudent to make a hiring decision based largely on that.
The Nets have a job that is in incredible demand. The next coach has the chance to coach two superstars, coach in the city, and compete for titles. The job is the best – why not see if you can recruit the best? Why settle for Vaughn? What if his Orlando tenure is more representative of who he is as a coach? Why take the chance, given this is a two year window (your window in this high star movement era is the guaranteed years on the contracts of your stars).
The feel good decision and story is to settle for Vaughn. The ruthless decision is to replace him. But ruthless decisions win titles, and feel good decisions do not feel good when the results do not come. It was ruthless to replace Dwane Casey after 59 wins, Mark Jackson after 51 wins, and David Blatt after losing Kyrie in the finals and having the Cavs at 30-11. Something tells me those three fanbases are ok with it now.
And on the other hand, the feel good decision in Philadelphia was to empower Brett Brown. He saw through the Process. He deserved to coach Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons during their playoff years …
But now that he has failed to help Philly progress, that feel good story is stale.
Sean Marks faces a huge offseason. With a two year window to compete for a championship, he cannot waste the first year seeing what he has. 2019-20 was a time to experiment. In 2020-21, the Nets need an all in, all business approach.
And that starts with Tyronn Lue as head coach.