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Ty Lue Picked the One Job With Higher Stakes Than Coaching LeBron

It’s title or bust for Lue, who will have to find a way to reach Kawhi Leonard and the Clippers in a way that Doc Rivers didn’t

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Doc Rivers’s shadow this past season will now become his successor. Ty Lue has reportedly agreed to a five-year deal to replace Rivers as the Clippers’ head coach as they head into a title-or-bust season. Joining him as lead assistant will be another former player, point guard, champion, and coaching candidate: Chauncey Billups.

It was just last year that Lue was in the running for the other job in Los Angeles. The proposition seemed enticing: The former Lakers point guard could return to the team as their head coach to help LeBron James win another title. But Lue eventually turned down the job because the money and contract length weren’t good enough. The Lakers hired Frank Vogel and won the title anyway. Lue took a back seat to Doc for a season instead and watched as the Clippers went from favorites to failures, losing a 3-1 series lead in the second round of the playoffs and splintering for the whole NBA to see.

Steve Ballmer cut bait with Doc soon after their season ended, and Lue was immediately identified as the favorite for the gig. Perhaps Lue saw the long play to the Clippers head-coaching position by starting there as an assistant; perhaps he thought he’d bide his time until a better, more lucrative job opened up elsewhere. Whatever the case, he essentially turned down a chance to coach LeBron and win another ring to now take a job with somehow even bigger stakes. If he thought the pressure the Clippers shouldered this season was a lot, it will be nothing compared to the expectations they’ll have to carry this upcoming year. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George will be free agents in the 2021 offseason, and given that the Lakers and the rest of the West seem likely to only get better, the Clippers’ clock is now ticking even faster.

The hiring of Lue reinforces the notion that the Clippers didn’t quite need an overhaul as much as they just needed a new voice. It appears that Lue is also who Clippers players wanted; the L.A. Times’s Brad Turner reported that the team felt Lue was the “best choice,” which is no surprise. If you’re Ballmer, you don’t make this decision without being sure that your two franchise linchpins want to be coached by Lue. Even though some don’t give LeBron’s coaches any credit for his titles, Lue was able to shepherd the 2015-16 Cavs team to an improbable finish and seemed to be able to balance his duties as a tactician and as a manager of two superstars–LeBron and Kyrie Irving. Given what we know about the relationship between the two former Cleveland stars, it’s safe to say that Lue’s role in keeping things stitched together was not insignificant.

Lue will have to do a similar thing with the Clippers. There’s no apparent animosity between Kawhi and George, but there is a need for more cohesion across the roster. Depending on what the Clippers decide to do with free agent Montrezl Harrell and the rest of the roster, Lue’s job may hinge on how he balances catering to Kawhi and George but not quite kowtowing to them. It seems that that was a point of contention among the Clippers. Their reaction to George’s comments after the Denver series that they needed to stay committed for another run also proved once again that the Clippers never had the right chemistry, something the Clippers themselves didn’t mince words about. The chemistry issues showed in myriad ways, but we ignored them because of their talent; the Nuggets eventually removed the blindfold for us. Ballmer is presumably breaking out the checkbook and hoping that the solution to the team’s problems was sitting right there all along.

Lue’s decision to take the Clippers job will ripple across the NBA. Lue was a top candidate for openings with the Rockets and Pelicans. Now that he’s off the table, it seems Daryl Morey–less Houston will focus on Jeff Van Gundy, as well as a few current assistants. New Orleans is left weighing its options, too, and seems to be interested in the other Van Gundy on the market. In the East, the Pacers were interested in Billups, but now Chris Finch is reportedly the favorite. Instead of holding out for a top job, Billups has chosen to take the same route Lue once did: be an assistant for one season at least. And who knows, maybe if the Lue experiment goes the way Doc’s final season went, Ballmer and the Clippers may keep playing musical chairs and end up giving Billups a shot, too.