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War Time Coach

“[Cleveland] offered and I graciously accepted because they presented it to me in a way that was very respectful, The Cavaliers wanted to give me a ring because the organization felt that I contributed to the championship. It’s not my championship, I recognize that, but I also feel that I did something there.”

Former Cavaliers Head Coach David Blatt


Despite skepticism from NBA media (including at Almightyballer.com), Tyronn Lue led the Cavaliers to a 3-1 upset of the best regular season team in NBA history and the first championship in Cleveland sports since the Cleveland Browns won the NFL title in 1964.  Perhaps the most notable aspect of Lue’s success as a Head Coach with less than a full season of experience is that it came the season after a different rookie head coach led a 67 win Warriors team to their first NBA title since 1975.

That 1974-1975 Warriors championship team was coached by Al Attles who, when he took the reigns midway through the ’69-’70 season, was initially a player-coach.  In the following year, he retired as a player to focus on coaching:

I don’t think you can be a player-coach. You can only be one or the other. I said that if I decide to do this, I won’t be a player, I’ll just be a coach.”

Marc J. Spears, Al Attles, an NBA Pioneer

Under the leadership of a rookie head coach, Believeland became Achieveland, and disorder was returned to a landscape in which 73 win teams were now expected to conclude historic seasons with NBA titles. Now, after two consecutive NBA championships won by two different rookie coaches, can one reasonably equate coaching with success?

When Lue became head coach, many interpreted the change as a power move by LeBron to wrest control of the team’s strategic responsibility from Blatt, and consequently, from the management that made the decision to hire him.  In light of his ever-apparent hand in manipulating the Cavaliers’ roster construction, this was a reasonable conclusion at the time, and one that was validated early in Lue’s tenure through instances like the clip below, appropriately titled ‘Coach LeBron’:

This dynamic ostensibly changed throughout the course of the season, but one has to wonder the degree to which Coach Lue’s presence was felt in terms of on court strategy.  In a pivotal game 5 in the Finals this year, Kyrie and LeBron both scored 41 points, most of which were scored simply by creating and exploiting mismatches rather than through any recognizable system.  The ‘strategy’ that ultimately won the championship this year could be described as ‘throwback’ if one wanted to be generous; ‘out-dated’ if one wasn’t so inclined.

In retrospect, it’s difficult to argue the efficacy of the Cavaliers’ strategic simplicity.  However, such a strategy significantly tips the scales in favor of the effect of dominant superstar talent over the effect of well orchestrated Xs and Os.  One wonders if the outcome would have been much different if the NBA Finals had been a series of particularly high stakes pick-up games in which two overwhelmingly talented Cavs players took matters into their own hands and repeatedly abused the weak defensive links in the opposing team’s chain (sorry, Steph).

One wonders if the outcome would have been much different if Coach LeBron had been the man behind the clipboard – in fact, one could argue that he, in effect, had been.

This doesn’t necessarily imply that Lue was not the right man for the job, nor does it imply that Lue’s impact on the Cavs locker room was any less significant than the $35 million extension Lue received this offseason clearly implies.  Rather, Lue’s success in the NBA Finals is a crystallized argument in favor of the ‘War Time Coach’, a concept which I’ve discussed on my podcast, but not written about until now.

In short, a “War Time Coach” is a coach whose emotional impact on the team’s dedication and morale outweighs the strategic brilliance (or lack thereof) of his Xs and Os and on-court decisions.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill may have not been the best political strategist, but as German bombs fell on London, he represented British resiliency and inspired hope in the people.  Similar criticisms could be made about FDR, but the effect of his voice over the radio when Americans tuned in to his fireside chats kept morale high during times of uncertainty.

lue-blattThere’s more to being a “good coach” than the ability to speak motivationally, just as there’s more to coaching than drawing up plays and allocating minutes.  The Cavaliers’ 2016 Finals victory prompts reflection on the value of coaches like Tyronn Lue, whose positive effect on the psychological tenor of a team defines their success in a way that their strategy might not.  Lue’s acumen with a clipboard remains to be seen – his body of work is too small to pass meaningful judgement; however, though Tyronn Lue and David Blatt both received championship rings after the Cavaliers’ Game 7 victory in Golden State, I expect that the more established strategist of the two will wear his with a bit less pride than his successor.

By Chris Axmann