Tyronn Lue faces the biggest challenge of his head-coaching career. Who will he turn to? An old NBA friend has given him advice every step of the way.
A few months into LeBron James’s rookie season, the Orlando Magic fired head coach Doc Rivers amid the team’s sluggish 1–10 start. As Rivers packed up his office in Florida, he called over a 26-year-old point guard fresh into his first starting gig in the NBA. “When you finish playing give me a call. I want to put you on the bench,” Rivers told him. “You’re gonna be a hell of a basketball coach.” Tyronn Lue burst into laughter. “Get out of here,” Rivers remembers Lue responding. “I have no interest in doing that. That’s the last thing on my mind.”
Thirteen years later, LeBron James has led the Cavaliers to their second straight NBA Finals and the only thing on Lue’s mind is finding a way to beat the Golden State Warriors after a midseason promotion from lead assistant to head coach.
En route to a 57–win season (41-27 under Lue) and a 12–2 postseason, Lue unlocked Cleveland’s offense, instituting ample space for James’s bulldozes and Kyrie Irving’s darts to the rim. He encouraged Kevin Love’s dynamic touches at the elbows and on the blocks. Perhaps Lue’s greatest achievement has been his ability to hold the Cavaliers’ Big Three as accountable as their 15th man. Lue has struck a balance between big brother and stern leader.
“Everybody’s known T. Lue around the league and he’s always had that effect on people,” Cavaliers guard J.R. Smith says.
Lue ended up calling Rivers after his 11-year playing career came to a close in 2009. When Lue was a player, Rivers noted his impeccable attention to detail and a yearning to be a part of the coaches’ scouting reports—preparation most players didn’t concern themselves with. Rivers had no idea where to put Lue on his Boston Celtics staff, but he convinced team president Danny Ainge to take a chance on the veteran point guard most commonly known for being on the wrong side of Allen Iverson’s legendary step-over.
What began as somewhat of an internship blossomed into an apprenticeship. Lue sat right behind Rivers during games, a row back from the Celtics’ bench. As television cameras panned to the sidelines during dead ball stoppages, Rivers would constantly be captured leaning backward and whispering to Lue. “I like his brain,” Rivers says. “Every time I drew up an ATO [after timeout] or anything, he would write it down. If it was something in practice we were experimenting, he loved coming in and wanted to know why. What did you see? Why did you run that? What do you think about doing this and this and that?”
By 2013, when Rivers left the Celtics to accept the Clippers’ coaching job, his confidence in Lue had ballooned. Rivers named Lue his de facto defensive coordinator in L.A., contingent on Lue’s completion of an unorthodox summer vetting process. He required Lue, who’d enjoyed coaching the Celtics’ summer league teams, to spend the entire 2013 off-season sequestered in Los Angeles, dissecting hours of film summarized by detailed scouting reports on all 29 of the Clippers’ opponents.
“What I wanted him to understand was the workload,” Rivers says. “As hard as players think coaches work, when they get on the other side, they’re always surprised at the workload, the time and the fact that it never goes away and it’s never off your mind. He accepted it, he did it and he knew, from that point on, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Lue passed Rivers’s test with flying colors. His work in the film room ultimately resulted in Rivers amending his defensive philosophy to be more congruent with the Clippers’ roster than that of the Celtics. “We had more athletic bigs with Blake [Griffin] and D.J. [DeAndre Jordan]. We could switch more things, our bigs could show and get back,” Rivers says. “Ty saw those things in film, brought ‘em up, we talked about ‘em and implemented a lot of them. He was great.”
When Lue left the Clippers to become the Cavaliers’ associate head coach under David Blatt, Rivers knew he was ready. LeBron James would immediately embrace Lue, having harbored a respect for his basketball IQ dating back to James’s many playoff battles against the Celtics. “LeBron was always looking over at our bench. He even told us one day, ‘I always see you guys over there scheming,’” Rivers says. “We kept beating him in Cleveland. And then when he went to Miami, you could see he was always observing what we were doing, especially our play calls, even our defensive play calls. I think when he saw Ty being involved in that, it was something that really piqued his interest.”
During James’s epic performance against the Celtics in the 2012 Eastern Conference finals, he sniffed out a particular double-action set Boston frequently used to free Ray Allen for an open three-pointer. James sprinted over from the weakside to intercept the pass intended for Allen’s historic shooting pocket. “Most of the guys bite,” Rivers says. “He came down and smiled over at our bench, at me and Ty basically, like, ‘I got you guys!’ There are only very few players that are that aware.”
Photos of current head coaches who played in the NBA
Members of the Cavaliers say they’re often left befuddled at the symbiotic basketball minds James and Lue possess. “They both know their X’s and O’s. They both know what’s coming and what’s about to come. Great minds think alike,” Cavaliers assistant coach James Posey says. “Seeing LeBron on a daily basis, seeing his preparation for the game; just his IQ, he still remembers plays from every team in the league. You’re going through walk-through and he’s already calling out plays and you’re like, ‘Damn! You remember that?’”
After the Cavaliers narrowly survived the Detroit Pistons’ Game 1 upset bid in April, they nursed just a two-point lead at halftime of Game 2. The Cavaliers drained six of their 20 total three-pointers in the third quarter, snowballing into a historic outside shooting effort against the Atlanta Hawks in the second round. Lue and James collaborated during that crucial intermission, launching the Cavaliers’ pace-and-space offense that destroyed the Hawks and later the Toronto Raptors. “The way we came out in the second half against Detroit in Game 2, it was totally different from the way we played in Game 1,” Smith says. “We really changed it at halftime and it worked.” Cleveland exploded to a 17-point win.
Despite the Clippers’ early playoff exit, Rivers has relished watching his protégé’s success from afar. He and Lue text regularly, often exchanging thoughts on how to attack certain defensive actions. During the Eastern Conference finals, Lue sought Rivers’s opinion on a particular element of Toronto’s defense Cleveland had struggled with in Games 3 and 4.
“He’ll text me at times, 'What do you see? How would you score against this action?'” Rivers says. “I’ll draw it up on a napkin at a restaurant and take a picture of it and send it.”
Tutelage from Rivers, and playing for greats like Phil Jackson and the Van Gundy brothers, helped Lue become an NBA coach. Facing an 0–2 deficit against the Warriors in the Finals*, the next step of his evolution begins now.
* The Cleveland Cavaliers made history by coming back to defeat the Golden State Warriors, 93–89, in Game 7 on June 19. You can read all of SI’s coverage here.