Amico: Cavaliers coach Lue a champion all along

(From June 21, 2016)

Imagine being Tyronn Lue. Imagine your first head-coaching job is to take over a team that’s 31-10.

A lot of coaches would kill for a 31-10 record. And you have to do better.

That was Lue when he became coach of the Cavaliers. He didn’t necessarily need to win 31 of the final 41 games. All he needed to do was win a championship.

Otherwise, it would have been tough for Cavs general manager David Griffin to justify firing David Blatt, and replacing Blatt with Lue, who had been Blatt’s top assistant.

At the time, Griffin indicated the change was made because of the culture. The Cavs weren’t happy, “even after wins,” Griffin said.

“I am more than confident that he has the pulse of our team and that he can generate the buy-in required to start to refine the habits and culture that we’ve yet to build,” Griffin said of Lue at the time.

When you have the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, sometimes, 31-10 isn’t enough. There needs to be a sense that you’re on your way to more than just a hit-or-miss regular season and another Finals defeat. It’s championship or bust.

Lue, 39, played in the NBA, mostly as a journeyman backup point guard. But he had never been a head coach — anywhere.

First order of business: Make a 31-10 team better.

LEARNING ON THE JOB

Lue’s basketball background is hardly the type that screams future NBA coach. He’s a product of Mexico, Missouri — population about 11,000. He stands 5-foot-11 on a good day. He might weigh 175 pounds.

He played college ball at Nebraska — hardly a landing spot for NBA scouts. But Lue was a smart, scrappy player. He directed his teams like a coach, finishing his career ranked third on the program’s all-time assist list. He understood the value of moving the ball.

Eventually, Lue became the surprise pick of the 1998 draft. He was selected by the Nuggets with the 23rd overall pick. And they thought so highly of Lue that they immediately traded him to the Lakers.

He went on to bounce around the league and play for eight teams in 11 years.

But during that time, Lue was able to experience a variety of coaching styles. He played for men he admired, and a few others he didn’t. He saw what worked, what he would someday implement should he ever run his own team.

After retiring in 2009, Lue became an assistant under Doc Rivers, first with the Celtics, then the Clippers. Lue was hired by the Cavs as Blatt’s lead assistant in 2014 — the summer of LeBron’s second coming.

LeBron knew Lue, and knew the two could relate.

“Our upbringing; being from a single-parent household, being from an inner-city community, being a statistic that you weren’t supposed to make it out and there’s no way they’re going to make it out,” James said, explaining the similarities.

“You’re going to be one of those African-American kids and we both made it out of tough situations growing up. So before we even met each other, you have a sense of that type of feeling.”

CHAMPION, AT LAST

Lue cried. This is news, because he’s not an emotional man.

He takes great pride in not getting technicals, and how he doesn’t smoke or drink. He takes great pride in conducting himself as a professional — both in his profession, and his personal life.

Lue believes all are principles that make you a winner.

And he never once doubted the Cavaliers, not even when they trailed the Warriors 3-1 in the best-of-seven Finals. After the Cavs won Game 5, Lue told them, “You were born to be champions.”

They believed, and for the first in franchise history, they succeeded. Lue’s ability to bring his X’s and O’s to life, to gain his players’ respect and to have those players buy in to both his system and his approach resulted in a title.

“I’m just so proud, man, of where I’ve come from,” Lue said the series-clinching Game 7. “It’s just crazy that a guy from a small town, Mexico, Missouri, there were more people in the stands tonight, double than there is in my hometown.”

Take over a team that was 31-10 and make it even better?

In the end, that was no problem for Tyronn Lue.