DETROIT — Tyronn Lue is all smiles these days — or as close as one can be at this point in such an arduous season.
The Los Angeles Clippers coach doesn’t have to shuffle his lineups on a nightly basis; he can count on his headliners to show up and play well. Even on the occasion when it felt the NBA world was crashing down on the franchise, Lue wasn’t just a steady hand. He was borderline giddy in the middle of an early-season, five-game losing streak in the immediate wake of the James Harden trade. While Harden’s reputation was in tatters following the nonsense with the 76ers, Lue saw a star player capable of being a connector.
It was a matter of time before things turned, and time moved fast.
For the man who used to take losses so hard he had to step away from coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers during the end of the LeBron James era — a two-week break in March 2018 — it’s a stark contrast.
“Go back, (listen to) all my press conferences. I've never lost five or six games in a row and I felt good, but I did feel good,” Lue told Yahoo Sports recently. “How we wanted to play, who fits well with who. It was gonna take time, but I felt really good about our team.”
Following the Clippers’ East-coast swing finale, a 149-144 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Monday, they sit a half-game out of first place in the West and are 26-5 since Dec. 1, best in the Association.
“Acquiring James and being healthy, Kawhi (Leonard) being healthy, (Paul George) being healthy, being All-Stars,” Lue said. “We know we can play with the elite teams in this league.”
To understand where Lue is now, you have to go back to last April, when the Clippers were on the verge of playoff elimination as their stars were again failed by health.
“He’s hurt, man,” Lue said walking down a hallway at Staples Center, referring to Leonard’s not-yet-revealed meniscus injury in his right knee — thwarting what could’ve been a thrilling first-round series against Kevin Durant and the Phoenix Suns.
George, meanwhile, was already ruled out following a knee sprain that cost him the last nine games of the regular season, and the Clippers went out meekly in five games, with every principle figure facing an uncertain future.
Nobody would call the Clippers meek now. Leonard is healthy, playing in 45 games and returning to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2021. Quietly, he is climbing up the ladder in terms of MVP consideration — since Dec. 1, he’s putting up 26.1 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists on an almost-unheard of 57-50-94 slash line, a stretch that would rank among the most efficient in league history. George, who has appeared in 46 games, will join him in Indianapolis for the All-Star Game, and Harden had a case to be there as well.
Lue, who was a game away from being the coach of the Western Conference All-Stars before Minnesota’s Chris Finch clinched the honor on Sunday night, is unafraid to talk about the importance and goal of home-court advantage in the playoffs.
“Especially the first two rounds, it’s huge if we can get it,” Lue said.
Home-court advantage? These Clippers?
That hasn’t been the case in this uneven era. Health has been the No. 1, 2 and 3 issue. The goals had been shortened to “the seeding doesn’t matter as long as we’re healthy,” but that’s changed.
When asked if they’ve evolved past the point of talking about health all the time, he confidently replied, “Yes, sir.”
Of course the headliners will still be monitored by the medical staff. George was recently playing through a groin injury, and Leonard has a lengthy medical chart. George will turn 34 during the playoffs and Leonard will be 33 shortly after the Finals end. Harden is already 34 and starter-turned-reserve Russell Westbrook is 35.
Lue has had to manage matters with traditional high-usage players, but even he admits so much of this has been player-led. Following that losing streak in November, Lue said Westbrook approached him, wanting to speak before the next day’s practice.
“Whatever I need to do, to sacrifice for us to win. All I want to do is win,” Westbrook said, according to Lue in an earlier session with reporters that day. “I’ve done everything else in this league. If I gotta come off the bench …”
Even if Lue wholeheartedly agreed with Westbrook, he knew it was important to leave the door open, so he said at the time, “That might not be the answer.”
But it was, and Westbrook, at times, has taken the lead in fourth quarters because he can still get to that extra athletic gear. He played small-ball center during a captivating 22-0 run against Brooklyn in late January, one of their most improbable wins of the season — if not this entire era.
Everyone knew what was at stake this season, their final one before moving to the Intuit Dome in Inglewood next fall. Leonard and George didn’t walk into the season with contract extensions, although Leonard agreed to terms a few weeks ago. Westbrook was playing on a minimum contract, with Harden engaged in a messy divorce with Philadelphia, wanting to get to the Clippers.
The coaching job itself seemed like stress more than opportunity in a crowded Western Conference. The sheen from the 2021 run to the West finals was wearing off.
Lue had the last year of his contract guaranteed (2024-25) shortly after a bevy of attractive jobs opened around the league over the summer.
The massive contracts given to Monty Williams (six years, $78 million), Gregg Popovich (five years, $80 million) and, most recently, Erik Spoelstra (eight years, $120 million) have changed the market for coaches. The circumstances for each were different, but of the three, only Spoelstra compares to Lue’s sideline acumen in recent years. Lue’s the mad scientist, conjuring lineups that exploit his wing depth and often flipping versions of plays during timeouts that catch opposing teams off-guard.
He and Steve Kerr could be next in line to take advantage of the new world order.
“That’s good,” Lue said before correcting himself. “That’s great. It’s great to see. People don’t see how tough it is to be a coach in this league. Yeah, it’s a great job and a lot goes into it. People don’t understand the sleepless nights when you lose two, three games in a row or when you draw up a bad play. You’re always thinking about how you can make the team better, how we can be better, how I can do things differently.”
The Clippers haven’t lost two in a row since before Christmas, but Lue says he handles those tough nights differently. The fire in him remains, but there’s a maturity that goes alongside the urgency.
“Yeah, I do. Seriously, I manage it a lot better,” Lue said. “If you come in and put the work in, especially with a veteran team and they don’t do that, they understand they messed up.
“For me, I’m more a veteran coach now. Once you lose, it’s hard till you win that next game. If you’re a competitor, you want to win every game.”
And Lue has navigated the present with the impending future — already a champion and co-author of the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history, it would be a nice 1-2 combo if he helmed L.A.’s second team to the Finals. Along with it being a nice negotiating point.
“I’m just focusing on this year and trying to get this team to where we’ve never been before, and that's winning the championship,” Lue said. “So I'm not worried about my personal thing.”