There are only 30 head-coaching jobs in the NBA, and Tyronn Lue has one again. That ought to be a happy occasion—especially because his last job ended unceremoniously. Now, not even a year later, he has another opportunity—though what kind of opportunity is another matter entirely.
According to Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne, the Lakers have all but landed on Lue as their new head coach. That probably shouldn’t be surprising. There was back-channel signaling that LeBron James would be “at his happiest and most engaged” with Lue on the bench. James played for Lue in Cleveland. Or, rather, Lue coached James when LeBron let him. They won a championship together. Then LeBron made his way west to Los Angeles and left Lue behind in Cleveland. Lue started the 2018-19 season 0-6 and was promptly fired. The timing was weird. The explanation was weirder. Cleveland general manager Koby Altman said he expected the Cavs—without LeBron, and with an opening season starting lineup that included George Hill, Rodney Hood, and Cedi Osman—to “overachieve.” Without Lue, they overachieved their way to a whopping 19 wins. It was a bad spot for Lue and he was lucky to get out of it—though maybe he should have just gone and put his feet in the sand and read a book on a beach somewhere rather than diving back into murky waters.
Lue will become the Lakers’ sixth head coach in the past eight years. The club has had a losing record in each of the past six seasons, and they haven’t made the playoffs since 2012-13, when they got swept in the first round by the Spurs. By any measure, this is the worst extended stretch in the organization’s otherwise storied history. Juwan Howard and Jason Kidd reportedly interviewed for the job, as did former Sixers assistant Monty Williams, who was hired on Friday to take over the Phoenix Suns. For a while there, it looked like the Lakers job would be a two-man race between Williams and Lue. But Williams took the Suns job, and league sources told me it’s because Williams preferred Phoenix over Los Angeles. That might be spin, but the fact that people were even talking about it said quite a bit about how far the Lakers have fallen in terms of perception and prestige. The Lakers are an iconic franchise; the Suns are dysfunctional and working there means possibly encountering goat shit in your office. Call it a toss-up on which gig is better these days.
Predictably, the Lakers leaked that Lue was their first choice and the best choice and they love him so very much. How much Lue will actually love working there is a more complicated question. These are, finally and officially, LeBron’s Lakers now. Lue knows full well what that means. He went 128-83 with James in Cleveland and helped end the city’s interminable, five-decade-plus championship drought. There were unquestionably good times. There were also times, lots of them, when James took over in-game huddles and Lue was marginalized, or the two were seen screaming at each other on the sideline. At one point a couple of years ago, Lue got so frustrated that he told LeBron to “shut the fuck up.” Good for him. He shouldn’t let anyone walk all over him except Allen Iverson.
In fairness, friends and coworkers argue. It happens. Sometimes it’s good to just get it out. The bigger issue here for Lue is what, exactly, he’s getting himself into by getting back into business with LeBron and the Lakers. Lue won two championships with the organization as a player back in 2000 and 2001, but this is not your Kobe-stan older brother’s Lakers. For starters, LeBron will turn 35 next December. He is still the King, but he plainly does not command the court the same way he did even as recently as his final days in Cleveland. James played just 55 games this season, by far the fewest of his career. In his absence, the Lakers looked like they’ve generally looked during the past several seasons: young and lost. Which brings us to the most pressing question facing the Lakers these days: How do they fix that problem, and who exactly is in charge of the fixing?
When Magic Johnson quit his job as president of basketball operations in an unexpected and bizarre impromptu press conference that lasted nearly 45 minutes, it was a pretty strong signal that the Lakers were not quite functioning properly. Johnson didn’t tell owner Jeanie Buss he was resigning even though he has often described her as his sister and his friend. Instead, he told the TV cameras first, and then urged reporters to break the bad news to Buss on his behalf.
In the chaotic aftermath, we learned that there was tension between Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka. Johnson reportedly wanted to fire Pelinka, and Pelinka reportedly saw Magic as an “absentee executive” who was rarely around to do his job. When he was in the office, Johnson was fingered as the failed architect of a botched trade designed to send, oh, everyone and everything to New Orleans in exchange for Anthony Davis. When that didn’t work out, Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and other would-be Pelicans realized they were being dangled as trade bait, at which point Magic told everyone to stop treating the players “like babies”—a line that Buss passive-aggressively rebuked him for at the Sloan Analytics Conference in March. We also found out that Buss accidentally CC’d Johnson on Pelinka’s emails that were critical of Magic. Given all that, you’d expect Johnson and Buss to give each other some space for a long while. Maybe forever. Instead, they recently went to dinner and mugged for a picture like nothing ever happened.
I wonder whether Pelinka got an accidental CC on the dinner invite.
With Johnson gone, there’s been some confusion about who, exactly, is really and truly in charge of the Lakers. During the search process, there was a report that Phil Jackson got involved—because of course he did—and told Buss that Lue would “be a really good coach for the Lakers.” Meanwhile, when the Lakers flew to Philly to interview Williams, they brought a lot of people along for the ride. Those who were reportedly in attendance included Pelinka, Jeanie Buss, Joey Buss, Jesse Buss, Tim Harris, and Kurt and Linda Rambis. Joey runs the Lakers G League affiliate while Jesse is the assistant general manager and director of scouting. Harris is the chief operating officer. Kurt Rambis is a senior adviser. Linda Rambis is the director of special projects and Jeanie’s best friend. It’s amazing they all fit on the same plane. No wonder Williams wound up in Phoenix. Maybe goat shit in your office is preferable compared to whatever it is the Lakers think they’re doing right now.
Among Jeanie Buss’s many consiglieres, Linda Rambis has long been rumored to be her top adviser. On ESPN, Amin Elhassan recently said that agents and general managers around the league consider Rambis so powerful within the organization that they see her as a “shadow owner.” That tracks with Bill Oram’s reporting in The Athletic earlier this season. According to Oram, who does excellent work, the “brain trust” that Buss relied on was basically just Magic and Linda—and now Johnson is gone. Even with Johnson around, Rambis’s title as director of special projects did not “accurately reflect her influence” within the organization, according to Oram. To review, the Lakers have three Busses, two Rambises (Rambi?), a Harris, and a general manager of unknown authority in on the decision-making these days. Oh, and a James. Definitely can’t forget him. That is an interesting but unconventional command structure.
That’s where Lue works now. At least the money is good and the weather is nice. Plus, the perks. Lue is supposedly set to take in the Canelo-Jacobs fight with LeBron this weekend. Even if playing the old hits probably won’t be as easy for them as it used to be, we should have known they’d want to get the band back together. After Lue was fired, James tweeted at him.
T Lue thanks for the memories and more importantly our partnership bringing a to that deserved city/fan base. U know how to find me— LeBron James (@KingJames) October 28, 2018
Lue found him, alright. But I think he might regret looking in the end.