CLEVELAND — Six weeks into his head coaching career, how much do we really know about Cleveland Cavaliers head man Tyronn Lue?
NBA fans recognize him from a solid 11-year playing career that later led to a top assistant gig under Doc Rivers with the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Clippers. Lue became the league's highest-paid associate head coach after getting beat out by David Blatt for the Cavs' lead job in 2014.
Well-liked by his players and not afraid to challenge superstars, Lue is now 12-6 at the helm. Despite this brief (and moderate) success, it's still difficult to get a read on Lue and the system he's trying to install.
When asked to sum up the job just before the All-Star break, Lue didn't hesitate for words.
"One word? Hard. Two words? Very hard," Lue said. "But I'm learning. I'm picking it up. We've got to keep getting better. That includes me also."
Lue was promoted 41 games into the season, when training camp is a distant memory and practices are few and far between.
He's mentioned on numerous occasions his role in playing the "bad guy" on the coaching staff, ripping into players when needed and working to hold superstars accountable. Playing alongside and coaching guys like Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Kevin Garnett and Chris Paul has prepared him to now lead LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.
When Bleacher Report asked how he handled benching some of the other veterans (Mo Williams in particular) who were used to big minutes, Lue said he had already had private conversations to address their roles.
Keeping the lines of communication open between coach and player is crucial, and has served Lue well to this point.
On more than one occasion, Lue has said the Cavaliers' need to be in better shape to run at the tempo he wants and increase their number of possessions. He also brought back the pregame player introductions, saying the team needed to start having more fun.
This is no easy task, of course. Changing a team's offensive style in September is ideal. Working a new one in now, just weeks shy of the postseason, is proving to be quite the challenge.
"Right now we’re still running the old stuff and new stuff and trying to combine it, and it’s kind of messing the guys' heads up," Lue said recently. "So, that’s on me, that’s my fault, but we haven't had a lot of practice time to try and figure it out."
While James' scoring has essentially stayed the same under Lue (25.0 to 24.6), his assist numbers have jumped from 6.2 to 7.6 per game.
"With the coaching change, we need a little more time to put in the new system," James said. "It’s not a huge system. It’s not like we scrapped everything.
"It’s still a process, ongoing. He wants us to play with tempo," James continued. "But when we don’t have it, he wants us to execute to our secondary and thirdary. Get the ball moving side to side. It’s something we need to break the habit of, not playing on the strong side so much. If we don’t have anything, just get it moving. We haven’t had much time to practice. Every film session and every game will be able to help us."
The early results were encouraging. Cleveland won five of its first six games under Lue, recording 111 or more points in all of the victories. Players were passing up good shots for great ones, moving the ball more efficiently and pushing the pace in transition.
Unfortunately, we've now begun to see old habits creep back in. While scoring is still up, the rest of the offense hasn't been improved much at all. Ball movement and pace have stalled.
Lue must enforce his vision on offense, or threaten to sit those who don't buy in.
Point Guard Progeny
Being a former point guard, Lue has chosen a style of play that has helped his own floor general. Irving is up to 21.4 points on 48.7 percent shooting after averaging just 16.1 points on 41.9 percent under Blatt. Part of this, of course, is due to Irving's return from knee surgery.
Lue's constant pleading for Irving to stay aggressive and attack the basket are clearly paying dividends, even if the two haven't completely seen eye to eye.
"Just me as a competitor and as the point guard of the team, there’s a mental block sometimes where I want to play in between coming off pick-and-rolls and he wants me to attack every single time," Irving said recently.
"I think finding that in-between game and rhythm in us two as point guard and coach, we’re still getting there and we’re still developing so I just try to come to the sidelines as much as possible during timeouts, coming out of halftime I ask what he wants of me and he keeps saying be aggressive," Irving added. "If I want to get off the ball there’s certain plays I can run for other guys."
While Lue orchestrated the Cavaliers defense before, he's now turned that job over to journeyman assistant Mike Longabardi.
"Coach Lue wants us to defend, but he’s not the voice of our defense," James said. "Coach Longa is our defensive coordinator. Coach Lue definitely makes his inputs throughout the course of the game, but our game plan comes from our defensive coordinator, so it’s whatever he wants us to do. He’s very good and we’re happy to have him."
With the NBA moving to a more three-point-heavy attack, the Cavs know what areas of the court they want to focus on defending more than others.
"In today’s game, threes hurt you," Lue said. "We want to limit guys' threes and live with the twos and use our rim protection with (Timofey Mozgov) and Tristan (Thompson) under the basket."
While this is a great strategy in theory, it does carry some holes. First of all, Mozgov leads the team with a measly 0.8 blocks per game, whereas Thompson excels in pick-and-roll coverage instead.
The other problem? Cleveland is slightly worse in both opponent three-point attempts and percentage since Lue took over.
If this is a point he's truly emphasizing, something must have gotten lost in translation. Going back to the open and honest qualities, Lue's recognized the need for defensive improvement before the playoffs start.
"Defensively we’ve slipped," Lue said. "I don’t know if that’s because of the increase in tempo, we’re not in shape and can’t do it on both ends. It’s going to be a process."
This oft-mentioned "process" is running out of time. We've gotten a taste of the Cavs' potential with Lue, and now need to see his vision come to life.
Greg Swartz is the Cleveland Cavaliers lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @CavsGregBR.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and are accurate as of March 3 unless otherwise noted.
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