It’s not often that one’s most memorable NBA moment involves getting burned worse than a briquette and subsequently stepped over by Allen Iverson, as was the case for the Los Angeles Lakers’ Tyronn Lue in the 2001 NBA Finals.
Little could Lue know then that, 13 years later, he’d be an NBA household name for an entirely different reason: becoming the highest paid assistant coach in the history of professional sports.
Question is, is he worth it?
First, the facts, courtesy of Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski:
To leave Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers to join coach David Blatt's staff with the Cavaliers, Lue agreed to a four-year, $6.5 million deal, sources said. The contract's final two years will pay Lue $1.75 million and $2 million, league sources said. The fourth year of the deal is a team option, sources said.
Lue will be an important part in helping [David] Blatt transition from a decorated coaching career in Europe to the NBA.
Cavaliers management grew fond of Lue during the interview process for the head-coaching job that ultimately went to Blatt and immediately pursued him for the associate head-coaching job. Rivers didn't want to lose Lue from his Clippers staff, but the Cavaliers' historic financial commitment made it impossible to turn down, sources said.
On June 20, the Cavs officially named David Blatt, a Euroleague legend just one month removed from leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to an unlikely championship win over Real Madrid, to be their next head coach (per Sam Amick and Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today)—a deal purportedly worth $20 million with incentives.
As for Lue, his payday is bound to raise some eyebrows, both within the NBA ranks and beyond.
But should it?
The NBA has experienced something of a coaching revolution in recent years, with first-time skippers being handed the reins at an unprecedented rate. But while such a trend means more opportunities for longtime assistants who’ve cut their teeth beneath the coaching elite, it also means higher turnover and—as a consequence—an added incentive for teams to have a competent, trusted replacement at the ready.
Paying Lue this kind of money isn’t just about rewarding a top-notch assistant; it’s about owner Dan Gilbert cleverly hedging against a very real short-term outcome: that Blatt, for all his basketball gifts, might not pan out.
International success aside, even Blatt couldn’t help but acknowledge, during his introductory press conference, that the overseas transition was bound to be a trying one (via ESPN.com):
Absolutely it's a challenge. But I've got to tell you, the game is not so different as people think it is. It's a little bit longer here. Perhaps the level of athleticism and speed all around the court is different. But it's not like playing baseball and soccer. It's still the same game.
In Lue, Blatt boasts an assistant whose all-facets knowledge of the NBA game will only help accelerate the new head coach's learning process.
That, certainly, is worth something.
Indeed, what’s really the bigger risk: shelling out $20 million to a guy who’s never had so much as run an NBA video room, or giving $6.5 million to a Doc Rivers disciple with 16 years of experience in the league—a guy who very nearly won the job outright, no less?
To suggest paying Lue a little over $1.6 million a year amounts to some kind of ruinous front-office Rubicon is simply absurd. This is a league, after all, where Gilbert Arenas can earn $22 million a year after being cut.
Putting Lue's payday into further perspective, the top-earning assistant coach during the 2012-13 season, Mike Malone—who took over as head coach of the Sacramento Kings prior to this season—earned $750,000, according to Crystal Henderson of TheRichest.com.
Basically, Lue will be making a little more than double than what Malone commanded as an assistant with the Golden State Warriors.
But double what, exactly?
If paying your top assistant one fifth of one percent of the team’s total value is a risky endeavor, what does that say about how the league values its assistant coaches, many of whom have pulled much longer tenures than even Lue?
Clearly the Cavaliers see Blatt as well worth the risk. To hedge against the potential pitfalls, they’ve chosen to pay an experienced assistant big bucks to help bring his boss along what promises to be a steep learning curve.
Could Cleveland have handpicked another, more seasoned assistant to do the same job, possibly on the cheap? Probably. But then they wouldn’t be getting the one quality that Lue brings to the table, something with which we in the NBA fanosphere are all to familiar: youth and upside.
If the NBA isn’t going to tolerate superstar contracts that run 30 times higher than that of a reasonable replacement or facsimile, why should they do so within the coaching ranks?
That, in the end, is what this is about: Paying assistants now just for what they could be, but for what they’ve been all along—indispensable cogs in a greater basketball machine.
Lue’s contract may be unprecedented. But if ever there was a coaching record meant to be broken—stepped over, even—this is it.
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