Lichtenstein: Tyronn Lue is the Best Fit for Nets Head Coach

Steve Lichtenstein
April 29, 2020 - 9:08 am

Among the many general public fallacies about the NBA is that the players don’t need to be coached. Just roll out the balls for Michael Jordan, LeBron James or Kawhi Leonard and then sit back and watch them win championships.

In reality, while elite players are necessities for teams with such lofty aspirations, those players need to be coached well. Furthermore, they want to be led into battle by a coach they respect.

Though NBA games have been suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Nets are on the clock to find such a coach. The organization fired Kenny Atkinson on March 7 and then played two games with assistant coach Jacque Vaughn in charge in the interim. (Side note: I know the Nets press release called the parting “mutual,” but I don’t believe for a second that Atkinson, after three-plus seasons of building up a program from the abyss, passed on the opportunity to finally head into battle with superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on his side next season. Maybe it was mutual as to the timing, as in Atkinson acquiescing to, “You’re not our coach next season, so you might as well leave now to get a head start on your next job.”)   

Since Atkinson wasn’t deemed the coach to lead the Nets to the next level, who, then, is?

In my view, it has to be Lue --Tyronn Lue, who took Cleveland to the 2016 title with James and Irving.

Lue is likely to be the only available coach who combines the basketball IQ to go toe-to-toe with the league’s best in big games AND possesses a strong history of relationship-building with top players, giving him the gravitas to command the respect of reportedly sensitive superstars like KD and Kyrie. Tom Thibodeau comes close, but his history of overburdening his players and harder edge make him less of a fit here.

Richard Jefferson, who won a ring with Lue before joining the Nets’ YES Network broadcast team, concurred that Lue is more than a strong manager of egos, calling anyone who mocked Lue’s basketball acumen “stupid.”

And, contrary to popular opinion, insiders have whispered that the Lue/Irving relationship isn’t so frayed that they couldn’t work together again.

There were reasons why James and Irving lobbied Cleveland management in January 2016 to replace coach David Blatt with Lue even though the Cavs were sitting at 30-11 and coming off a Finals trip. They knew that Lue was superior in the X’s-and-O’s department, which in turn allowed him to come down harder on his stars when warranted than Blatt reportedly ever did.

In the NBA Finals versus the Steve Kerr-coached Warriors, Lue’s tactical and motivational tweaks helped the Cavs escape 0-2 and 1-3 holes. Remember, it was Irving, not James, who had the ball in his hands with the title on the line in the final minute of the epic Game 7 in Oakland.

That Cleveland fell to the Durant-infused Warriors in the next two Finals shouldn’t be held against Lue. Neither should his 0-6 start to the 2018-19 season with a tanking team transitioning from the LeBron/Kyrie era. I find it amazing that Lue hasn’t since been given a second head coaching job—he reportedly was negotiating a deal with LeBron’s Lakers for this season but the two parties couldn’t come to terms.

Currently serving as Doc Rivers’ assistant with the Clippers, Lue will surely be a hot commodity whenever the league decides to commence this offseason.

And therein lies the Nets’ biggest hurdle. Though the shutdown has altered teams’ financial landscapes, certain other organizations could have the wherewithal to entice Lue. I’d keep an eye on Houston, where it is assumed that Mike D’Antoni is living through a Last Dance a la Phil Jackson in 1998 Chicago. Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta did not give D’Antoni the contract extension he was seeking before this season. Interpretations were that the Rockets wanted to move on from D’Antoni’s creative but ultimately unsuccessful visions of how the game should be played after last season, but Fertitta, who often comes across as a skinflint, didn’t want to pay for two coaches. Might Fertitta open his wallet in the hope Lue can get his team over the hump in the crowded West?

The complexities of the times might also impact what Philadelphia is thinking. Coach Brett Brown, whose contract runs through the 2021-22 season, has been under fire for perceived underachievements. I personally think Thibodeau would be perfect there.

As for other coaching candidates, there are few who would be blessed by the Nets’ stars. Mark Jackson can’t be a serious contender, despite the musings of Rich Kleiman, KD’s agent and a huge Jackson advocate in the press. Durant doesn’t always follow his agent’s advice on basketball matters. Otherwise he’d be a Knick.

In this search, the Nets have to balance conflicting agendas within the organization. Irving and Durant see a two-year window (they each can opt out after the 2021-2022 season), which might preclude another up-and-comer like Atkinson once was from consideration. Meanwhile, general manager Sean Marks typically keeps his focus on longer-term sustainability.

In the end, what matters is what owner Joseph Tsai wants—and what Lue wants. 

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1