Everything You Need To Know About Ty Lue
Besides the stepover and LeBron of course.
Mike O’Connor is the best O’Connor in basketball writing. Previously of The Athletic, you can find Mike on Twitter @MOConnor_NBA.
The Ty Lue to the Sixers rumors just keep on churning. Last Monday, immediately after the Sixers fired Brett Brown, Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the Sixers’ coaching search will “focus” on Lue. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix reported Wednesday that Lue and the Sixers have “strong mutual interest.”
Setting aside the fact the Sixers should be far more focused on changes in other areas of the organization, I believe this to be a wise move, as I outlined on Twitter last week when the rumors started flying.
My thoughts on Lue:
- great offensive playbook and underrated tactician
- unlike Brett, is not afraid to stray from his game plan and make adjustments quickly
- stands up to / commands respect from stars
- designs regular season schemes to match what they’ll run in the playoffs
— Mike O'Connor (@MOConnor_NBA) August 24, 2020
That thread contains the nuts and bolts, but with the hiring of Lue looking increasingly likely, I figured it’d be worthwhile to do a deeper dive on what I expect him to bring to the organization. At risk of overestimating my qualifications here, I did cover the Cavs in 2017-18, so I did get a feel of what it’s like to watch him coach on a nightly basis. I generally came away impressed, and here, I’ll outline why I felt that way.
As far as Lue’s offensive playbook, it was one of the most underrated in the entire league. Yes, the Cavs’ offense during his tenure often boiled down to hunting isolations for James or Irving. But that’s the case to some degree for every team with top-shelf offensive superstars. Nick Nurse runs an excellent offense in Toronto, but their offense late in playoff games last year was “get the ball to Kawhi and get out of the way.” If you think Lue was nothing more than a bystander watching LeBron work in isolations, you weren’t watching the Cavs outside of fourth quarters of close playoff games.
I won’t dive too deep into his playbook for this piece, but the thing I’d like to zero in on is how many sets they ran that allowed LeBron to operate as a passer and playmaker from the high post, because I think these sets could be of major benefit to Ben Simmons.
In Brown’s offense, Simmons’ most common sources of offense aside from transition were handling pick and rolls and posting up, according to Synergy. I’d be interested in seeing how Simmons fares with more playmaking and screening duties around the elbow.
One of the Cavs’ most commonly used sets during his tenure was “Horns Rub.” They infamously tortured the Raptors with this play in multiple playoff matchups. LeBron gets an entry pass from a guard at the elbow, the guard sets a rub screen for a wing at the opposite elbow, and LeBron looks to hit them on the cut. If that isn’t open, they flow it into a dribble hand-off with LeBron as the roll man.
They also ran “Elbow Quick” at least a few times per game, where LeBron receives the ball at the high post, a guard screens for a wing in the corner, and he looks for an opening.
Finally, I’m a huge fan of their “UCLA seal” play, which they stole from the Spurs. It’s easy to imagine Simmons making the same type of pass over the top that LeBron makes in these plays.
The bottom line: Lue has an excellent playbook he can turn to, which should help maximize Simmons. But he also has a healthy understanding of what it takes to win in nut cutting time -- get the ball to your best players and don’t make anything complicated. That should, at least, be an improvement over Brown.
The biggest question in my mind is what type of defense Lue will run. In Cleveland, the Cavs ran an ultra-aggressive defense that involved trapping the majority of pick and rolls. That was the subject of much criticism, and the results often supported that criticism -- the Cavs ranked 29th in defense in 2018.
But here’s what many refused to acknowledge: the Cavs only ever gave a shit about matching up with one team -- the Warriors. Yes, trapping every pick and roll is a recipe for disaster in the regular season. You’ll have plenty of bad nights where a bad team carves you up because you’re a step slow. But that strategy, in Lue’s mind, was the only viable one against the Dubs.
So then, why not treat the regular season as practice for what you’ll need to run when it really counts? If the cost of being in sync when it counts is perfecting it over the course of an entire season, you pay that price.
As Brett Brown learned the hard way, you can’t play a drop coverage 100 percent of the time against elite pick and roll guards. The cost of playing aggressive coverages is that you get torched when your help isn’t perfect, so Lue decided to treat the entire regular season as practice for that sole purpose.
I don’t think Lue will trap every pick and roll if he coaches the Sixers, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see a considerably more aggressive defense than the one Brown ran. He certainly will not shy away from risk taking.
I also believe that Lue will be an improvement over Brown from a culture standpoint. There have been many quotes and rumors over the past year alluding to the fact that Brown simply didn’t hold his players -- especially his star players -- accountable to anywhere near the acceptable degree. Lue, on the other hand, is not at all afraid of challenging and confronting his stars, as you could best tell from the infamous story of him chastising LeBron during Game 7 of the 2016 finals. Lue is a disciple of Doc Rivers, who could not possibly be a better person to teach the art of challenging and commanding respect from star players.
Finally, I’d like to discuss how Lue tends to handle adjustments in the playoffs, as that was one area where I came away particularly impressed by him during the Cavs’ 2018 run to the finals. He continually pushed the right buttons to help get that miserable team back to the finals for a fourth consecutive year.
Following a 7-game first round battle against Indiana in which Cavaliers not named LeBron combined to shoot 38.8 percent from the field, Cleveland faced the No. 1 seeded Toronto Raptors in the second round. That Raptors team was big, with a front line rotation that consisted of Jonas Valanciunas, Jakob Poeltl, and Serge Ibaka. Many expected the Cavs, who despite starting Kevin Love at center for most of the season, had inserted Tristan Thompson into the starting lineup in Game 7 against the Pacers, to continue starting Thompson in order to match the Raptors’ size.
Instead, Lue started Love for the entire series, deciding to beat them with pace and space. Love ended up making Valanciunas and company look like dinosaurs, torturing them in space en route to the Cavs posting a 126.7 offensive rating and earning a 4-0 series sweep.
After the smashing success of playing Love at center versus the Raptors, he began the Conference Finals matchup against the Celtics with the same lineup. And in the first seven minutes of Game 1, Al Horford scored eight points, tossing Love around like a ragdoll. Thompson subbed in immediately thereafter, kept Horford largely in check, and proceeded to start every game for the rest of the series, as well as the second half of Game 1.
The willingness to make a major (and ultimately correct) lineup adjustment after watching seven minutes of play is something I respected about Lue -- and something that I viewed in contrast to Brown, who in the series prior to this one, did not make his lineup adjustment (starting T.J. McConnell over Robert Covington) until Game 4 against those same Celtics.
Lue simply pushed all the right buttons in those playoffs -- playing exactly the right chess pieces against each opponent. He also bested his opposing coaches from a tactical perspective, making Boston pay for their “scram” switch concepts that gave other teams, including the Sixers, fits. Those playoffs proved to me that Lue is willing to adjust lineups or schematics quickly when he needs to, and that he has the cojones to make decisions that often go against the grain.
Again, Lue is not a savior. If the Sixers don’t have playmaking guards and knockdown shooters on next year’s roster, they aren’t going anywhere. But I believe him to be a damn good coach, and an improvement over Brown in many ways. Assuming the Sixers don’t paint the hire of Lue to be enough of a change to justify keeping the front office intact, it’s a strong hire.