Five weeks after the LA Clippers suffered an embarrassing playoff collapse, Tyronn Lue addressed the team’s chemistry and leadership issues on his first official day as the franchise’s new head coach.
Lue, who won a championship and went 128-83 in less than three full seasons as head coach in Cleveland, will try to do what Doc Rivers could not by improving the team’s chemistry and leadership. Those two season-long issues were key factors in derailing the Clippers’ title hopes as they blew a 3-1 lead in the second round against the Denver Nuggets.
Lue, who was Rivers’ top assistant this past season, says the Clippers’ chemistry issue is not because his players do not get along off the floor, but rather due to injuries and unforeseen circumstances that kept the team from gaining valuable time together on the court.
“I think when you talk about chemistry and continuity, it is not off the court, the guys not liking each other,” Lue said in his virtual introductory news conference with reporters Wednesday. “When you talk about chemistry, it is more so [Paul George] came in and he had shoulder surgery, so he was out, he missed the whole training camp and was out the first 11 games of the season. Kawhi [Leonard] came in and couldn’t participate in the whole training camp, and then we lost Pat Beverley, in and out of the lineup a few times.”
Beverley, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell all left the NBA’s “bubble” in July because of the death of loved ones before returning and going through mandatory quarantine, which Lue said made it “hard to build continuity and chemistry.”
With limitations on improving the roster due to a lack of first-round picks and other tradable assets, team owner Steve Ballmer decided the biggest improvement he could make to the team was at head coach. Ballmer is handing the keys to Lue, 43, who will look to help the team’s two reserved and quiet stars, Leonard and George, with leadership.
Lue — who played alongside Kobe Bryant and coached LeBron James, two superstars who led and demanded a lot from teammates — said leadership doesn’t necessarily have to come solely from the best players on the team.
“Leadership is different,” Lue said. “You can talk about our two players, Kawhi and PG, they lead by example. … And you are not going to have the best players be the natural leaders at all times. It doesn’t happen like that. I think a lot of leadership has to come from me, has to come from Kawhi, PG, Lou and Pat Beverley. It’s going to be collective.”
“I got to show them different ways of leadership and they got to show me different ways of leadership,” Lue added. “I don’t know everything. They don’t know everything. … The biggest thing about leadership is just communication.”
The Clippers (49-23) became a title favorite after signing Leonard and trading five first-round picks to Oklahoma City for George in July 2019.
Lue welcomes the pressure that not only comes with taking over a team built to win it all, but the possibility that both Leonard and George can opt out of their contracts and become free agents after next season. Lue told ESPN’s Rachel Nichols that he thinks his two stars will remain Clippers as long as the team wins.
“Anytime you have a chance to win a championship, it’s pressure,” Lue said in an interview that will air on The Jump on Thursday. “And, I think Kawhi, PG are here to stay for a long time. We just gotta make it a great environment and we have to win.”
With Leonard subject to load management and George eased into the season before suffering a hamstring injury, the Clippers had a hard time meshing the core of overachievers — who helped the team surprisingly make the playoffs the season before — with the team’s two new stars.
Even though Rivers had plenty of things working against him that were out of his control, like an unprecedented season pause due to the coronavirus pandemic and players losing loved ones and leaving the bubble during the restart, Ballmer felt he could not risk another disappointing finish next season by keeping the same group intact.
“You could say it was extra painful to be up 3-1 and have Denver come back on us,” said Ballmer, who attended all but one playoff game in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. “… After a period to breathe, to decompress for all of us, we did ask the question: What do we need to do? What can we do to be better, to improve? One of the areas where we decided, just because of where we were … we brought in the best coach possible. I think the best coach in the NBA, frankly.”
The Clippers will likely not be able to make significant improvements to the roster with Harrell, Marcus Morris and JaMychal Green among their own free agents. So they made a coaching change hoping to improve in-game strategy, player development and get the best out of Leonard, George and the supporting cast.
The Clippers are banking on Lue to again do something that had never been done before and bring a title to the Clippers franchise, after he coached the Cavaliers to their first championship.
“I want to be one of the greatest coaches,” Lue said of immediately facing pressure to win it all with the Clippers. “In order to be great, you have to win.”
“[Leonard and George] are going to have to adjust to my system and my program,” Lue added about his two stars. “But also I also have to be able to adjust to their comfort zone and what makes them better. Also setting the tone defensively of being the two best two-way players in the league. I think it starts on the defensive end with those two guys with setting a tone defensively. I think health is the biggest thing moving forward.”