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Ty Lue’s Long, Strange Trip

With the Cavs on the brink of elimination, some may say that Lue has wasted a historic LeBron James Finals performance. But can he really be blamed for not getting the most out of a roster that’s been remade multiple times in the past year?

Tyronn Lue Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s not over yet. Cavs head coach Ty Lue made sure to stress that on Thursday during media availability at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. He didn’t seem shook or worried — but then again he’s usually an emotional flatline (save the occasional semi-testy exchange with the media). When a reporter remarked that Lue was “always even-keeled regardless of the outcome,” he replied that was pretty much by design.

“It’s tough,” Lue said, “but I can’t show the emotion. I think your team looks to you in those situations and you’ve got to stay confident, which I am. I never really overreact and go crazy.”

That doesn’t mean he and the Cavaliers are kidding themselves or ignoring reality. They are down 3–0 to the Golden State Warriors, the best team the NBA has produced in a long while. The offseason might not be upon the Cavs, but it’s close enough that they’ve been forced to consider its ramifications. They get it. They also get what happens when you have LeBron James and you don’t win it all — people start asking questions about perceived failure and who’s responsible.

“When you have LeBron James on your team,” Lue said, “they automatically think you’re going to make it to the Finals. But it’s tough to win, and it’s hard.”

Four straight NBA Finals appearances and the first professional championship that the city of Cleveland got to celebrate in 52 years is a hell of a run, and yet some will say that it wasn’t enough. To paraphrase the Kinks, the more you give people, the more they want. That’s how it goes when you have LeBron. James made a joke about it on Thursday, likening his outsize ability to a video game. People look at him and think he’s “bigger and faster and stronger than everybody,” as though he’s a pixelated player and “you went on the options and you turned down fatigue all the way to zero and injuries all the way down to zero.”

James is the ultimate cheat code, but when a player fails to beat the big boss Warriors and it’s finally game over for Cleveland, it might be more than just a wrap on the Cavs season — it could very well conclude the most successful era in franchise history. James will be a free agent this offseason, and there has been no shortage of speculation about him leaving Cleveland again. If that happens, my guess is there will be some finger-pointing when this is over. Cavs owner Dan Gilbert will catch his share of heat for letting former general manager David Griffin walk during a critical period last summer. Current GM Koby Altman will have a hot interrogation light turned on him for offloading Kyrie Irving and not getting a sufficient return, and then trading a first-round pick at the deadline for Larry Nance Jr. and Jordan Clarkson, who has two more years left on his contract. And then there’s Lue.

On Tuesday, Lue took a bit of friendly fire when James was asked to recall those fateful moments at the end of Game 1 when J.R. Smith inexplicably almost dribbled out the clock with the score tied. James said he was going to call a timeout, but he wasn’t sure if they had one and he didn’t want “another C-Webb incident.” Fair enough. But then James sort of blamed his coaches for not calling a timeout, either. When he got back to the bench, he asked the coaching staff if they had a timeout. “And they told me, yes,” he said. “I guess y’all probably seen the reaction from that point on.”

James was right to be angry. Lue should have called a timeout there — but James was just as befuddled and paralyzed by the bizarre moment as his coach and everyone else.

Lue has also been criticized at various points for his rotations, which amuses me considering the roster. One of my favorite parts of the postseason was Lue getting knocked for continuing to play Rodney Hood — and then getting knocked again for not playing Rodney Hood. If you understand the calculus on how to get LeBron, Kevin Love, and a host of alternately underproductive and inconsistent spare parts to add up to a sum greater than the Warriors, then bully for you, but I could never get the math to work in my head. The equation felt unsolvable all year, and I’m surprised they made it this far. LeBron said as much before the NBA Finals started.

“The odds have not been with us all season,” James acknowledged in an interview with Rachel Nichols before the Finals tipped off. “Even if you start back to the summertime when it was just bad for our franchise to be able just to trade away our superstar point guard. Obviously I wasn’t part of the communications and [didn’t] know exactly what went on between the two sides, but I just felt like it was bad timing for our team to get rid of our point guard in Kyrie Irving. I felt like the odds were against us from the summer. We just had so many things going against our team. We shuffled in different lineups. We shuffled in different players. We made a trade at the deadline. I can’t sit here right now and say that the Finals was part of my thinking. It was not.”

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The fact that they reached the Finals has everything to do with LeBron and a lot less to do with everyone else. But it wasn’t an easy season for any of them, Lue included. The early-season drama with Isaiah Thomas. The roster overhaul. The series of post-deadline injuries that handicapped how Lue could incorporate the new players. None of that could have been easy to navigate. I’m not sure where Lue is on the list of guys who deserve credit for the effort. He’s probably not very high. I just don’t think he should be all that prominent when the blame game starts, either.

“He’s had to deal with a lot,” Love said on Thursday. “I mean, incorporating a bunch of new players, a roster overhaul, and being head coach of the Cavaliers. I’ve always said we thrive under chaos. We have some sort of sense of that. But he’s taken everything in stride. I know he had a little bit of his health issues this year, but he’s faced that head on and has been able to overcome all those.”

Lue missed nine games with chest pains that turned out to be related to anxiety and mental health — something we learned about because, as Lue put it, he “messed up” and disclosed it to the media. “I didn’t even really know I said it,” Lue told the media as the Finals got underway. “It just kind of came out during the interview.” He said he’s feeling great now, and his doctors are happy with where he is, and he thanked a lot of people for reaching out to him and understanding. Love was one of them.

“He went through some stuff this year, but I would have never known that he was dealing with anxiety like that,” Love said. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Kelly Oubre Jr., Love has spoken about his own experiences with mental health this year. “He’s taken everything in stride. He’s grown a lot, I think, since he’s been here. It’s not just players that are able to grow and get through certain things and tough parts of their lives, but coaches, too.”

Lue has talked a lot about that journey during the Finals. When the series swung to Cleveland earlier this week, he reflected on what a strange year it’s been for him and the Cavs, but came to the conclusion that the process was “gratifying at the end.” The thing he liked the most, the thing that was different this season than in years past, was working with some new faces after coaching so many of the same veterans. “If you get younger guys,” he said, “you can kind of mold and fit your personality, fit the style you want to play.”

NBA: Finals-Cleveland Cavaliers at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

He mentioned Clarkson, Nance, Hood, and Cedi Osman by name. Cynics will certainly point out that those are some of the very same players who sank the Cavs rather than buoyed them. When the postseason started and the pressure increased, Lue went right back to giving heavy minutes to his veterans. But what choice did he have? When you coach a LeBron team, it’s really not your team. The objective is to do everything you can to reach and win the Finals, Osman’s development be damned.

Maybe Lue was supposed to thread the needle and help the Cavs play for a championship while simultaneously transforming Clarkson into a plus defender overnight and figuring out what Utah couldn’t by getting Hood to play well all the time and not beg out of games. Maybe he should have dreamed up a smart tactical response to counter the Warriors’ in-game brilliance. Maybe that’s the job and high or even unreasonable requests are part of it. The Rockets had a real chance to beat the Warriors before Chris Paul went down, but it was always going to be a tougher proposition for the Cavs, given the personnel. And yet here we are, primed to judge Lue on the results against one superior opponent.

Despite winning 128 regular-season games in his career as a head coach, and 41 more in the playoffs including a championship, I’m still not sure whether Lue is good or something south of replacement level. That’s a tepid defense of the man, especially when his team is in danger of getting swept out of the Finals, but it just feels kind of pointless to look around and wonder why the Cavs aren’t going to win a title and then land on Lue as a significant factor.

But as Lue said, when you have LeBron, there are certain expectations. And when those expectations aren’t met, when you don’t win it all, the conversation can turn pretty quickly from GOAT to scapegoat — whether it makes sense or not.