After opening the season with six consecutive losses, the Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach Tyronn Lue. The winless start was bad, but it wasn’t the only reason why the Cavs decided to move on. Tendencies that have plagued Lue since the beginning of his tenure continued to manifest themselves, and without LeBron James to cover for them, the Cavaliers suffered. The timing may not have been ideal, but there are legitimate factors for why Dan Gilbert felt he had to make a change, for better or for worse.
After a relatively disappointing start to the 2015-2016 season, Cleveland fired head coach David Blatt, and promoted Lue, who was the highest-paid assistant in the NBA, to the top spot. Blatt had been hired to build a team that had a young nucleus of players, including Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Andrew Wiggins, and the best of them all, Anthony Bennett.
However, 0nce LeBron James announced his return to the Cavs, everything changed. Blatt now had immense pressure thrust upon him, as once the Cavaliers landed Timberwolves’ star Kevin Love, it was championship or bust. Note: the dynasty that would be the Golden State Warriors had not yet appeared. That would change shortly.
Blatt had won a total of 16 championships in professional basketball before debuting in the NBA, so he had plenty of experience, which on paper made him the perfect coach to lead Cleveland to its first-ever NBA championship. Things started out well, as the Cavs finished 53-29, and breezed through the Eastern Conference on their way to their first Finals berth since 2006-2007.
There was just one problem; Love’s shoulder was ruthlessly dislocated by Kelly Olynyk, public enemy #1 in Cleveland. To make matters worse, Kyrie Irving fractured his kneecap in overtime during Game 1 of the Finals, and the Cavs lost in six games despite a valiant effort from LeBron James. Blatt’s coaching was another reason why that woefully outmatched and undermanned Cavalier team managed to extend the series.
The Cavs got off to another strong start in 2015-2016, but Blatt was fired when the team’s record stood at 30-11. Lue brought a different perspective to the team, as he had been a player in the NBA and had won championships with major personalities like Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. One of the reasons for Blatt’s firing was that he couldn’t manage the ego of LeBron James well enough. That was the biggest difference between Blatt and Lue, although for much of his tenure, jokes were made about James being the real coach, and Lue acting as a puppet.
Lue was able to cater to James’ needs, but perhaps he went too far in doing this. Arguably the biggest criticism of the job he did was his refusal to adapt his lineups. He almost exclusively played veterans over the few young players the Cavs had, whether they deserved it or not. He also did not remove players from the rotation if they were struggling, with J.R. Smith and Tristan Thompson being the two best examples.
Last season was a whirlwind for the team, and it provides insight into why Dan Gilbert decided to relieve Lue of his duties. Without Kyrie Irving, Lue was forced to change how the team played. He responded primarily by reverting the team back to what Blatt had done during his tenure; focus the offense completely around LeBron James and his ability in isolation.
It’s difficult to blame Lue for this; is a coach not going to build the offense around James? However that doesn’t change the fact that it was ineffective. Sure, James put up stellar numbers and willed the team to victory, but it devastated the rhythm of all other players. This problem was amplified at the trade deadline when a large portion of the roster was churned out for new talent. The team improved after the deals, but not by much, and certainly not enough to put up a fight against Golden State.
Lue’s loyalty to his veteran players was apparent late in the season and in the playoffs, when Tristan Thompson was in a terrible slump, yet still received more playing time than Larry Nance Jr., who was clearly more effective and versatile.
Another major issue was that the Cavs had two rookies, forward Cedi Osman and center Ante Zizic, who had performed well when they had received playing time, yet weren’t given a second look even when veterans were struggling. When both Thompson and Nance were injured, Lue had no choice but to play Zizic, and the Croatian big man responded by matching two of the league’s best centers in Jonas Valanciunas and Andre Drummond. But, it was right back to the bench for Zizic after Thompson returned.
As for Osman, even James himself has said that he was far more prepared for the NBA than a typical rookie. Shooting guard and small forward (aside from James) were the Cavs’ weakest positions last year, and those are the two spots Osman plays. Yet he didn’t see significant playing time.
This refusal to expand his rotation continued into this season, where Zizic is actually playing even less than he did last season despite being an integral part of Cleveland’s future. Osman is now a starter, although by necessity. J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver played heavy minutes, as the Cavaliers were supposed to be pushing for a playoff spot.
In the Cavs’ first game without Lue, Korver played 15 minutes and Smith did not see the floor. Players like Zizic, Osman, and David Nwaba need to play more, if only to speed up their development. Watching from the sidelines can only do so much. At a certain point, in-game experience is needed.
0-6 isn’t good, but NBA coaches are not usually fired this early in the season. Lue’s departure was inevitable, and the warning signs have been visible ever since he joined the team. Not only do the Cavaliers not look like a playoff contender, but they seem like a likely candidate for the first overall pick in 2019. That isn’t Lue’s fault, but he certainly wasn’t doing much to help matters.