The view from Tyronn Lue’s backyard in suburban Cleveland was Lake Erie, uninterrupted. On his perfectly manicured lawn sat chairs for viewing.
The house itself, which he rented, was built about an acre off of the street, not far from the edge of a cliff, overlooking the lake. It covered 14,000 square feet with five bedrooms and nine bathrooms and sold recently for $3.6 million. When one walked through the front door, to the left hung a life-sized portrait of Lue with former President Barack Obama. Next to it was a glass door to Lue’s private office. A winding, open staircase marked the foyer, which seemed to stretch to the sky.
“My whole career, my longest tenure has been in Cleveland,” said Lue, who played 11 years in the NBA and is now in his ninth season as a coach. “Being there the longest, I thought, well, maybe I’d found a home.”
Lue moved out of that house every summer, and back into it before each of his four seasons as the Cavaliers head coach. He moved out for the final time in November 2019, after the Cavs fired him following an 0-6 start to the 2018-19 season. They’ve been struggling through the rebuild since his dismissal, incurring 85 losses and experiencing messy moments. And yet, Lue, in his first interview since his dismissal, told The Athletic he still wishes he were in Cleveland, still coaching a franchise that he helped win its first and only NBA title, in 2016.
“Yeah, I do,” Lue said, after a full 12-second pause to consider the question. “What I tried to build there, I think the culture I tried to set … I thought we could do it together. Koby (Altman) being a young GM, me being a young coach, having young players. I won a championship there, so you have a chance and an opportunity to do something different, and you should have that leeway to be able to go through a couple challenging years. To win a championship and go to the (NBA) Finals should buy you a little time, you would think.”
Lue, 42, is now an assistant coach under his friend and mentor, Doc Rivers, with the LA Clippers. They host the Cavs on Tuesday in Lue’s first game against his old team.
“I don’t think it should’ve happened,” Lue said. “When it happened, I just kind of … It puts everything in perspective. You’ve got to continue to keep working, it’s a business — you’ve got to understand that. It was tough. To win the first championship ever in Cleveland history, and then make the finals (the next two years) and then get fired six games in, it’s hard to swallow and it’s tough to deal with. You start thinking about things like what you could have done different or if it was going to happen if you did anything different anyway.
“You don’t see that very often where a coach goes to three straight finals and wins a championship, and gets fired (the season immediately after the third finals), six games into (the season). You probably have never seen it.”
At the time of the firing, Altman said in a news release: “This is a different team equation … and one that we felt needed a different voice and approach that required this change.”
A different team equation in that after that third finals trip, in 2018, LeBron James left the organization as a free agent. The team’s stated goal was to continue to compete for the playoffs, with veterans like Kevin Love, Tristan Thompson, JR Smith, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood and George Hill on the roster and Lue as coach. But the organization was already moving toward a rebuild with younger players and asked Lue to give more playing time to the younger players. Lue defied Altman’s wishes and stayed with his veterans, especially Korver and Smith. After six losses to start the season, Lue was fired with an all-time record of 128-83.
The feeling in the front office was, essentially, Lue’s mind and spirit were not in the right place for what was coming — potentially years of losing while young players like Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman were groomed. Lue’s lead assistant and close friend Larry Drew was installed as coach for the remainder of the year and oversaw a 19-57 campaign. Heading into Tuesday’s game, the Cavs are 12-28 this season under new coach John Beilein.
Lue had three years and $19 million left on his contract. He didn’t have to take those losses onto his record, had time to travel and focus on his health, and nearly got another high-profile job as coach of LeBron’s Lakers.
“When it happened, speaking to Koby and speaking to (Cavs owner) Dan (Gilbert), they looked at like, ‘For you to be a championship coach, winning a championship and going to (three) straight finals, and then having to deal with this — it’s not really fair to you,’” Lue said. “You don’t ever want to be fired, no matter how you look at it. Whether the situation was good or not, you still never want to be fired and have that on your resume.”
After Lue coached the Cavs to that NBA championship in 2016, he used to joke that he could “walk around Cleveland forever,” never win another game and be greeted warmly by whomever he met. He had a strong working relationship with the writers who covered the team, and in those seasons after the title, if he were pressed about a loss or a coaching decision, he’d point to the banner high up on the wall of the training facility.
What a time to be alive in Cleveland. LeBron came home, mending the hearts he broke four years earlier when he left for Miami. Kyrie Irving, a budding superstar, was already there. The organization traded for Love, an All-Star three times over, and later for the enigmatic Smith. And there was never a dull moment.
Four finals, counting Lue’s first year in Cleveland when he was an assistant to David Blatt. Winning it all in 2016, over the Warriors, becoming the first team in NBA history to win a finals after trailing 3-1 in the series. Game 7. The Shot. The Block. The Indians in the World Series that same fall. Two more finals, but just one more win of a game in those finals, thanks to the Warriors adding Kevin Durant. The David Griffin departure. The Kyrie trade. LeBron’s birthday in Napa. Isaiah Thomas. Trading half the team in 2018. Lue’s own health scare. Winning a Game 7 to get back to the finals. LeBron’s good-bye.
“Me and my cousin Doodle, we talk about it all the time, just the fun we had,” Lue said. “Man, we had some good times. The whole JR, K Love doing the wind up, the chest bumping … like I think we made 3-point shooting fun. Like, every time a guy made a 3, JR and K Love, Channing (Frye), Korver when he got to the team — just running, jumping, enjoying just making the 3-point shot. When I think about Cleveland, we had guys who were on the brink of … you know, (Iman) Shumpert, JR, trading for those two guys. (Timofey) Mozgov and Delly (Matthew Dellavedova), guys like that. We win the championship and everybody gets paid. Everybody gets a chance to kind of make their mark in the league.
“The city was on fire, having LeBron back, and having a chance to win a championship, going to the finals four straight times. It was an unbelievable experience, especially for me.”
Lue was on his way to the dentist on Jan. 22, 2016, when Griffin, the Cavs’ general manager, called him on his cell. Griffin wanted to know whether Lue could come in, it was urgent.
“He said, ‘Well, can you cancel?’ I said, ‘Well, I already canceled twice, and I hate going to the dentist.’ He said, ‘We really need you to cancel this,’” Lue recalled. And when he made it to Cavs headquarters to meet with Griffin, Lue heard Griffin say, “We just fired David.”
“And I was like, ‘Who the fuck is David,’” Lue said. Neither Lue nor most of Blatt’s staff normally called him David. Griffin told him he’d fired Blatt.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Lue said. “He said he was going to hire me as the next head coach. And I didn’t want it. I was scared of — the locker room was a mess. There wasn’t togetherness. I knew it would be a tough task. I knew all the pressure that would come along with it.”
It’s widely known that Lue called Rivers, who told him to take the job. Lue also called Jerry West, who he says screamed into the phone, “Are you fucking crazy?” when Lue told him he was thinking of turning it down.
The Cavs were 30-11 at the time, but they were a broken bunch. LeBron had grown to distrust Blatt so much that he had usurped almost all of Blatt’s power and sway in the locker room — to the point where LeBron was not letting teammates participate in pregame introductions. The players were on LeBron’s side in the rift with Blatt, having lost confidence in him as a coach. They were not enjoying wins and had suffered two losses to the Warriors, including a disastrous blowout at home. Firing Blatt — and hiring Lue — was Griffin’s call, not LeBron’s.
“I didn’t know if I was ready — not on that scale, or on that level, and when I took it, the biggest thing I had to do was clean the locker room up,” Lue said. “Get everybody on the same page. Getting our spirit right. Getting all to be together, getting on the same page, all working for one common goal, to win a championship.”
To do that, Lue had to take power back from LeBron. And to do that, Lue told LeBron he was out of shape. For good measure, Lue told Irving and Love they had to quit worrying about their personal brands and defer to LeBron on the court. He also taught the entire team to enjoy the small stuff, like wins on Wednesday nights in February or personal milestones. Richard Jefferson’s presence in the locker room helped with that, and Griffin traded for Frye at the 2016 trade deadline. Frye brought more levity to the room, but it all started with LeBron.
“Before coach and player, we had a friendship,” Lue said. “I know how to talk to ’Bron, I know how to handle it when it comes to LeBron. He trusts me, he believes in me. You can kind of see that from my time in Cleveland. The first thing I had to do was sit down with him, one on one, talk about the things I wanted to do. My vision. What we needed to do to fix this team and get our spirits right. He said, ‘Man, T. Lue, I’m on board. Whatever you need to do, whatever you need from me, you got it.’”
The most remarkable thing Lue says he ever saw LeBron do wasn’t The Block, LeBron’s chase down of Andre Iguodala in Game 7 for the 2016 finals to preserve an 89-89 tie. Nor was it the 48 minutes he played in Game 7 of the 2018 conference finals in Boston, or that he appeared in all 104 of the Cavs’ games that season.
Rather, it was what LeBron said before Game 6 of the 2016 finals, at home against the Warriors.
“He told the players in the locker room, ‘Y’all get me this win tonight, get me through tonight. If we win tonight, I got y’all Game 7,’” Lue said. “‘All you gotta do is get me to Game 7.’ Seeing him say that, and galvanize the team, and then go out there and actually do it, it was pretty special.”
LeBron was by far the Cavs’ best player in that game, scoring 41 in an easy win. And in the decisive Game 7, he finished with a triple double of 27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists.
The following story has been immortalized in books written about the Cavs from those years. In that Game 7, in the first half and again at halftime, Lue continually called out LeBron, demanding of him, “You gotta be better,” and LeBron was incensed. Expanding on the story with The Athletic, Lue says what first triggered him to needle LeBron like that was during a timeout, LeBron sat on the bench with his legs extended and crossed, as though there was not a sense of urgency coming from him.
Rather than show film at halftime, Lue went at LeBron. “You gotta guard Draymond Green, stop turning the ball over, be aggressive, shoot the ball, be aggressive,” Lue said. “And I walked into the coach’s office. And this is what everybody told me. He grabbed (Damon Jones) and said, ‘Man, your boy’s trippin.’ And D. Jones said, ‘I’ve been in the G League, I haven’t been here all year, but everything I read in the paper about how much you trust T. Lue, how much you love T. Lue as a coach, why not trust him now?’”
Lue continued, saying LeBron said to Jones, “’Fuck that’” and was ready to storm out. But before LeBron left, he found teammate James Jones and logged the same complaint to him. “Well, ’Bron, is he lying?” James Jones said, according to Lue. “Fuck you, too,” LeBron yelled back.
“And then he went out and dominated the second half,” Lue said. “After the game, ’Bron said to me, ‘You know how to push my buttons, don’t you?’”
“Yeah, motherfucker,” he responded to LeBron.
“That’s like my best story,” Lue says.
That night, June 19, 2016, in Oakland, Calif., turned out to be the only time Lue and LeBron would hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy together. A critic might look back on those years Lue spent with LeBron, especially while Irving was still in Cleveland, and say they “only” won one title. Though, again, Durant and the Warriors had a lot to do with it.
“Every time we went to the finals we were underdogs,” Lue said. “It’s always funny. ‘Well, you had the best player in the world.’ Yeah, LeBron has been the best player in the world for a long time, and he’s only won three championships, and we were a part of one. So Erik Spoelstra has the other two. A lot of people had LeBron and didn’t win.”
What’s it like to lose LeBron? Lue is also like Spoelstra insofar as they are the only coaches to outlast LeBron with an organization.
“When LeBron left. For me, it was like, it’s over,” Lue said. “The team we put together, when Kyrie left it was tough, and then you had ’Bron, so you always have a chance to win and compete for a championship. And then when LeBron left, it was like, OK, we have a chance to be a decent team. But to compete for a championship and get to the finals — being realistic that’s not going to happen. You kinda come to a realization that it’s over. Where do we go from here?
“Our run, it’s over. It was hard to deal with.”
In an interview with The Athletic last season, LeBron said the beginning of the end in Cleveland was when the organization traded Irving to the Celtics.
For Lue, the thing that hurt the most was when Griffin was not retained as general manager.
“Shiiiiiit, it was tough,” Lue said. “You’re put in a situation where someone gives you your first job and has the confidence in you that you can actually get it done. And then seeing him not come back, that was tough on me. Me and Griff had a great relationship. He called me, said I’m not coming back. I think we shed some tears over the phone. I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe that was happening. The first GM to win (the Cavs) a championship in Cleveland. He doesn’t come back. That was probably, that was one where if I was ready to go, that was the time I was ready to go.”
Griffin’s contract was set to expire at the end of June 2017, and he and Gilbert could not agree on the structure of a new contract. Altman, 34 at the time, was promoted from within to take over. And his first major move in the job was to trade Irving to the Celtics for Thomas, two other players and draft picks. Altman made the deal because Irving demanded to be traded, threatening to sit out the season with elective knee surgery if his demand wasn’t met.
And Irving’s primary reason for wanting out of Cleveland was he wanted to get away from LeBron’s shadow.
“It wasn’t a bad relationship though,” Lue said, of LeBron and Irving. “LeBron really did a good job of taking him under his wing and just, Kyrie was young. A young superstar. LeBron taught him how to be a professional, how to carry yourself, take care of your body, things like that. Because Kyrie always had all the talent. I always said Kyrie never had an offensive weakness. I thought they did a great job together. I think Kyrie winning a championship and us going to three straight finals and now you want to take that chance or opportunity to have your own team and see what it’s like to carry a young team or franchise — and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all want to grow.”
Lue didn’t want the Cavs to trade Irving. And in return they received Thomas, who was seriously injured with a bad hip and couldn’t play until the end of January 2018. When Thomas returned, the experiment to integrate him into the lineup was a disaster. That, and a clashing among Thomas, Love and Dwyane Wade tore the team apart. Altman traded nearly half the roster in a desperate attempt to save the season, and it worked. The Cavs won two Game 7s, in the first round against Indiana and then over Boston to reach the finals.
Before the playoffs, though, Lue missed two weeks. He’d been coughing up blood and experiencing chest pains. The culprit turned out to be anxiety, and Lue missed nine games to sleep, change his diet and take medication to regulate his body.
Between Lue’s health and the prospect of losing LeBron, it was widely speculated after the Cavs were swept from the 2018 finals that Lue might not want to return.
“Nah, that next year I felt at peace and more at ease,” Lue says.
Lue said he did not try to talk Altman out of firing him because it was clear the decision had already been made. Lue moved out of his rented, suburban palace in November. He traveled to the Dominican Republic multiple times, and to London, he said. He rededicated himself to a healthy diet and to working out and lost about 30 pounds.
Lue also was nearly hired by the Lakers as head coach last summer, where he would have reunited with LeBron, but he cut off negotiations because he felt the front office was making too many demands and he objected to the length of the contract and money being offered.
Lue declines to discuss what happened with the Lakers. He wants to keep the focus on what happened in Cleveland.
To that end, Lue says he still has a “good relationship” with Altman, though Lue speaks much more forcefully about Gilbert.
“Dan was great to me,” Lue said. “And you hear people say different things and whatever, but I never had those run-ins. Even as a head coach, he never came and cussed at me or went crazy on me or told me what I should do as a coach. He also gave me the biggest payday of my NBA career. Of course, Griff could request to hire me when coach Blatt got fired or whatever, but he had to sign off on it. And for him to sign off on me meant a lot, and for him to also come back and give me the contract, so that meant a lot.”
Lue is the first coach in NBA history to win his first 10 playoff games. He never lost a second-round game, sweeping the conference semis in all three postseasons. Lue’s teams never lost a playoff series, outside of the finals, and he joined Pat Riley and Paul Westhead as the only coaches to take over a team during the season and win an NBA Finals.
In Lue’s second and third seasons as head coach in Cleveland, he focused less and less on the regular season. The Cavs’ defense and concentration slipped, and in that last finals run the team entered the playoffs as the No. 4 seed. Lue deserves blame for all of that, except, each year the Cavs made it to the finals anyway, where they were simply overmatched by a Warriors team with four All-Stars.
The highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Three finals and a firing. It was the time of Lue’s life.
“The biggest thing about coaching is you’ve got to be able to manage personalities and egos,” Lue said. “We just had, we had a lot of personality. It wasn’t just one, LeBron, or one, Kyrie. You had LeBron, Kyrie, JR, K Love, that’s four people who have strong personalities you have to deal with, and I think being able to put those guys together and have those guys come together, that was probably the biggest thing that people don’t see or understand. That shit was hard. It was hard, and everybody had their right to be who they were, because of the situation they came from and the situation they were in. You had to take it all and put it all together. Let everybody be themselves, let everybody be who they are, within the confines of the team.
“That was probably the hardest thing.”