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
When NBA Coaches Were Players
Jeff Hornacek played 14 seasons between the Suns, Sixers and Jazz and was named an All-Star in 1992. Hornacek was fired midway through his third season as head coach of the Phoenix Suns (14-35) in 2016. The Knicks hired Hornacek, who holds a career record of 101–112 in 213 games as a head coach, on May 18, 2016.
Rick Carlisle has won a title as a player (with the 1985-86 Celtics) and coach (2010-11 Mavericks). He's coached Dallas since 2008 after spending two years with the Pistons and four with the Pacers.
The Hawks picked up a reliable point guard when they selected Doc Rivers with the 31st pick in the 1983 draft. Rivers helped lead the Hawks to six playoff appearances in eight seasons, and he averaged 11 points and six assists in his 13-year career. He received his first crack at coaching with the Magic, in 1999, and won the Coach of the Year Award in his first season. Rivers later moved to Boston, where he won the 2008 title with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. He has been coaching the Clippers since 2013.
Kidd spent 19 years in the league, with the Suns, Mavericks, Nets and Knicks, before becoming Brooklyn coach just days after he retired in 2013. However, the 1994-95 Rookie of the Year, 10-time All-Star and 2011 champion with Dallas wore out his welcome with management and was traded to the Bucks after one season at the helm in which the Nets went 44-38 and lost in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Kerr, a valuable role player who won three titles with Chicago and two with San Antonio, is the NBA's all-time leader in three-point percentage at 45.4. After distinguishing himself as a TNT broadcaster, Kerr became a hot coaching candidate despite lacking experience on the sideline. In May 2014, Kerr spurned the Knicks to become the Warriors' coach, which he led to a championship as a rookie coach.
Drafted in the third round (68th overall) of the 1987 NBA Draft by the Utah Jazz, and later waived, Donovan played just 44 games off the bench with the 1987-88 New York Knicks. After 19 years coaching the Florida Gators, the Oklahoma City Thunder hired Donovan as their next head coach for the 2015-16 season.
Drafted by the Pacers in the second round of the 1995 NBA Draft, shooting guard Fred Hoiberg played four seasons with Indiana, four with Chicago, and two with Minnesota. On June 2, 2015, the Bulls hired Hoiberg as head coach.
The No. 23 overall pick in 1998, Tyronn Lue played for seven teams over 11 seasons in the NBA. The Cleveland Cavaliers made Lue their full-time coach after firing David Blatt on Jan. 22, 2016.
Earl Watson played for seven teams over 13 seasons in the NBA. At age 36, he became the league’s youngest head coach when he replaced the Phoenix Suns' Jeff Hornacek on an interim basis on Feb. 1, 2016. After their season ended, the Suns made Watson their full-time head coach.
The son of former UCLA and NBA standout Bill Walton, Luke was a favorite of Lakers fans during his nine-year stint as a selfless, hard-working reserve player. In his first season as an assistant coach for the Golden State Warriors, the team won the 2015 NBA Finals. On April 29, 2016, the Los Angeles Lakers hired Walton to become their new head coach after the Warriors' season concludes.
Though undersized at 5-foot-11, the scrappy Scott Brooks played 10 seasons for six teams and won a championship with the Rockets in 1994. He took over as head coach of the Oklahoma City Thunder one month into the 2008-09 season and was named NBA Coach of the Year in 2009-10. Brooks was fired by the Thunder following the 2014-15 season, after the team missed the playoffs for the first time in his six full seasons as head coach. On April 26, 2016, Brooks was hired to coach the Washington Wizards.
McMillan, a second-round pick of the SuperSonics in 1986, played 12 years in the NBA before his first head-coaching job with Seattle in 2000. McMillan then coached the Trail Blazers from 2005–12 before serving as a Pacers assistant.
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.