LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — When Tyronn Lue turned down the Los Angeles Lakers coaching job a year ago, there were those telling him he had made the mistake of a lifetime. LeBron James was on board, Anthony Davis on the way and walking on an offer seemed shortsighted.
To Lue, it was a stand on principal: He believed three consecutive Eastern Conference championships and an NBA title with Cleveland earned him more than three guaranteed years on a contract.
If the Lakers wanted less financial exposure on a longer-term deal, the LA Clippers considered the hiring of Lue to Doc Rivers‘ coaching staff to be a short-term boon to their championship hopes. Clippers president Lawrence Frank and Rivers had Boston Celtics history with Lue, and believed he offered the Clippers one more measurable asset in the arms race with the Lakers. The Clippers created a spot, treating Lue as a talent acquisition in area unpoliced by a salary cap.
Once again, there are star-powered job openings in the NBA — including Brooklyn — and younger, talented rosters in New Orleans and Chicago. Based upon the playoffs, there are potential vacancies in Philadelphia and Houston. In all except for Chicago, Lue looms as a candidate.
In most instances, NBA coaching hires are shaped by the formation of rosters and the complicated dynamics of the stars driving them. Lue resonates with the uber-talented franchises whose major talent require a commanding, pedigreed presence to register respect.
Here’s something else that makes Lue’s candidacy even more intriguing to contenders: Teams are aware that Lue has been talking with Chauncey Billups about joining his potential staff as an associate head coach, sources tell ESPN. Billups had been grooming himself for a top front office role, but turned down the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2017, and his interest in leaving television for the team-side has evolved from the front office to coaching, sources said.
Owners and executives had courted Billups because of his innate ability to lead men in the NBA, and a belief that his intelligence, instincts and work ethic would translate into front office or coaching — however he decided to proceed. For Billups, an apprenticeship under Lue on a contender likely fast-tracks him into a head coaching job.
Billups and Lue are longtime friends who shared the same player agent, Andy Miller. This year, they joined the Clippers: Lue as assistant, Billups as a broadcaster. In the end, they could both become one-and-dones for the organization.
Much of that rides on Lue’s decision, which is rapidly turning into not if he’ll leave, but where he chooses to go. Under Rivers with the Clippers and Celtics, Lue learned the value of a top assistant who’ll challenge the head coach’s ideas when it’s needed — and fall into line once a decision’s made. He’s shown an ability to coach the Clippers stars hard too, something everyone isn’t able to do from the assistant’s seat.
Before contract talks a year ago, Lue tried to recruit Tom Thibodeau to be on a potential Lakers staff. Jason Kidd needed that rehabilitation year on the Lakers bench. Owners and executives wanted to see that he could be a good partner, loyal to the cause, and he’s excelled with Frank Vogel. He made a strong impression on the Knicks in that interview process, showing humility and a humbled acceptance of some of his political missteps in Brooklyn and Milwaukee, sources said.
In a league where owners and executives are desperate to find coaches who can balance tactical acumen and locker room gravitas, Lue’s re-emergence with the Clippers has reframed him in that light. For all the acrimonious departures in Cleveland, it says something of Lue’s staying power that neither James in Los Angeles nor Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn expressed any reservations about reuniting with Lue as head coach.
The NBA is still facing a bleak financial year, especially with the prospect of next season starting without fans in arenas. Teams will be limited in spending, except for those bigger market teams in the championship chase — something that benefits Lue’s pursuit of the kind of long-term, $7-8 million annual contract that the Lakers weren’t willing to do.
As much as any year in NBA history, nothing’s for certain. Jacque Vaughn has made a strong case to stay as Nets coach, the Orlando restart buoying his candidacy. Philadelphia and Houston could go on playoff runs that keep those coaches on the job. There are no sure things in the marketplace, but make no mistake: In a league where the likes of Harden and Westbrook, Embiid and Simmons, and Irving and Durant could need a coach to command the room, the NBA’s back in the Tyronn Lue business.