One could argue Tyronn Lue’s run as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers truly ended around 8 p.m. Eastern time on July 1, when LeBron James — via tweet — announced he would be leaving Northeast Ohio to join the Los Angeles Lakers. In truth, though, it ended after the Cavaliers were routed at home by the Atlanta Hawks a week ago.
In that game, both Kyle Korver and J.R. Smith — two stalwart members of Cleveland’s glory days with James in town — sat all 48 minutes as the Cavaliers were run off the court by a Hawks team in full tank mode. Afterward, Lue reversed course on an organizational mandate to stick with the team’s younger players, and gave Korver and Smith minutes in each of Cleveland’s next three games.
Sunday, the Cavaliers decided enough was enough.
The decision to replace Lue with his top assistant, Larry Drew, came as a surprise only in that Cleveland didn’t do this over the summer. That’s not to say Lue is a bad coach — he took on the task of running a team led by James and adeptly dealt with all kinds of drama, to the detriment of his health, in leading the Cavaliers to the city’s first championship in 50 years, amid three straight appearances in the NBA Finals. He will now get paid for at least this season and next, and will get another crack at a job in the future — and likely a pretty good one.
But with James out of the picture, this became a far different job — one that Lue wasn’t hired to do, and with the man who hired him, former general manager David Griffin, long ago dismissed. The questions the Cavaliers have to answer now are why this decision was made at this point, and what is the plan moving forward?
Parting ways with Lue in the summer, or after the season, would have made sense. After four stressful seasons, both sides seemed ready for a breakup. But once the decision was made to bring Lue back, why fire him so early in the season? It won’t help anything other than, perhaps, Drew being more willing to take instruction from Cleveland’s front office about how much to play the team’s young players.
The far more interesting question, though, is about what will Cleveland do now. Kevin Love has struggled as the team’s main option early on, and is now out indefinitely with foot soreness. Older veterans including Korver, Smith and George Hill all could potentially be used as pieces to bring back future draft assets, but it’s unclear if owner Dan Gilbert will be willing to take on future money to do so. Cleveland needs to finish in the top 10 in this year’s draft order to keep its first-round pick; all indications now are certainly that the Cavaliers will have no trouble doing so.
Beyond that, who is going to be lining up to work for Cleveland? Yes, there are only 30 of these jobs. But the Cavaliers have now fired seven coaches — including Mike Brown twice — since Gilbert bought the team in 2005. General Manager Koby Altman, meanwhile, is the fifth person to lead the front office under Gilbert — none of whom have received a second contract.
Cleveland’s roster is largely devoid of young talent. Second-year forward Cedi Osman is intriguing, and has shown flashes early on this season, but he is seen as more of a complementary talent than a leading one. Rookie point guard Collin Sexton, meanwhile, is thought by several scouts to have a lower ceiling than prospects such as Kevin Knox and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, both of whom were taken after him in June’s draft.
All of this leaves the Cavaliers as one of the league’s least desirable destinations these days, which isn’t likely to change soon, barring some serious lottery luck in the coming years.
Lue’s firing also could mark the beginning of a series of coaching changes around the league. The Chicago Bulls look dreadful, which has led to speculation about Fred Hoiberg. But the combination of several Bulls injuries, and Hoiberg having an additional year left on his contract, should keep him employed until April 15 — though not likely beyond that.
Others may not be so lucky. As the Wizards have gotten off to an awful start, some have speculated Scott Brooks could be in trouble, though a move like that would be very out of character in Washington. The same goes on all fronts for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Billy Donovan, as the Thunder remained winless heading into Sunday night’s game against the Phoenix Suns. The Sacramento Kings are off to a hot start under Dave Joerger, including wins over the Wizards and Thunder, but that isn’t expected to continue, and Joerger’s seat will get warmer when it doesn’t.
Throw in Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota, where the Timberwolves were annihilated by Milwaukee Bucks Friday night and the Jimmy Butler saga continues to swirl around the franchise, and there is no shortage of coaches feeling uncomfortable less than two weeks into the regular season.
Sunday morning, though, Lue became the first one to take the fall for his team’s struggles. Chances are, he won’t be the last.
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