June 23, 2024

Clippers finally put their money where their mouth is by extending Tyronn Lue

The first time I thought a contract extension was possible for LA Clippers head coach Tyronn Lue was after the 2021-22 NBA season.

The Clippers finished 42-40 that season but didn’t survive the Play-In Tournament. However, It was the first time in Lue’s career, even despite a 2016 NBA championship with the Cleveland Cavaliers and three-straight NBA Finals appearances, that he received NBA Coach of the Year votes. It wasn’t hard to understand why.

That Clippers team did not have Kawhi Leonard available, as he underwent surgery to repair a partially torn ACL in his right knee after the Clippers made the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. Paul George was supposed to lead the team in Leonard’s stead, and he did until a torn ligament in his right elbow sidelined him starting that December.

Nine Clippers played more minutes than George did that season, including Eric Bledsoe, who was traded a week before the February trade deadline in a deal that brought back Norman Powell, who suffered a broken bone in his foot the following weekend.

That Clippers team consistently played above their talent level on a game-to-game and week-to-week basis, overcame significant deficits and found ways to stay relevant in the Western Conference despite 26 starting lineups.

While it took a year longer than expected, the Clippers and Lue finally reached an agreement on Wednesday that keeps him under contract with the franchise through 2029 and makes him one of the highest-paid coaches in the NBA.

While the expectation was always there that Lue would be extended, the past two seasons were frustrating for all involved. Most of the frustration stemmed from Lue not being able to coach Leonard at the end of any of his four seasons as the head coach. Other franchises such as the Phoenix Suns and the Los Angeles Lakers hoped that there were enough seeds of discontent that Lue would be available.

But Lue and Clippers president of basketball operations Lawrence Frank go back to when Lue was on Doc Rivers’ staff together in Boston for the 2010-11 season. Lue has been with general manager Trent Redden in Cleveland, while senior vice president Mark Hughes was an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic when Lue played there in 2003-04. Chairman Steve Ballmer and Lue have a relationship that shows a strong level of investment in each other. And for all of the times that Ballmer has been disappointed by the premature ends of Clippers’ seasons, he has only changed head coaches once in a decade of ownership.

“This is where I want to be,” Lue said in a statement. “I’ve loved coaching this team for the past four years, and I’m excited to head into a new era at Intuit Dome. I’m grateful to Steve, Lawrence and the entire organization for the opportunity. With our ownership, front office, roster, staff and arena, we have all the advantages we need to win in the present and the future, and I’m confident we will.”

Investment was a keyword Lue began using once he showed what kind of weight his voice carried. When he called his team, which was laden with future Hall of Famers, “soft” in late March, it was a demarcation point. Poor relationships among the most influential players are a major reason why head coaching changes were made in Los Angeles (Darvin Ham), Phoenix (Frank Vogel) and Cleveland (J.B. Bickerstaff) this offseason.

The Clippers have a different situation. They have a head coach who is both tactically viable as well as nimble enough to navigate the oldest locker room in the league. As a result, the Clippers reeled off seven wins in the eight games after Lue called out his team.

“We always talk about sacrifice, but I just told the guys, I’m getting rid of that word,” Lue said after an embarrassing March loss to the Indiana Pacers. “Like you guys say effort. I’m getting rid of the sacrifice and call it investment. Like investing in the team, investing in what we need to do to win games. And so it’s not going to be about you, it’s not going to be about how you do, it’s about what the team does. And so instead of saying sacrifice, investing.”

It’s good that the Clippers have a head coach with the right strategy to keep teams prepared, the flexibility to make adjustments and the experience to manage games effectively. The Clippers have declared that they are comfortable with Lue and what he can do. That means they believe he can maximize rosters, develop young and/or new players, motivate veterans and elevate prime talent. So now that the Clippers have invested in Lue, the focus in June shifts toward the most important part of any basketball team: the personnel.

What the Clippers do with George drives this offseason. Lue coached George hard, not only this season but in all of his seasons with the Clippers. George was asked to do different things every season with the Clippers, whether it was serve as primary ballhandler, top scorer, top defender or be off the ball and be the team’s best shooting threat. George has a player option this offseason and is eligible to sign a max-level four-year, $221 million deal.

When I asked George after the Clippers were eliminated by the Dallas Mavericks from the postseason what areas of improvement there are for LA, he said, “obviously, we are getting older. So still relying on our young talent is first and foremost. But from a big picture, not really sure yet.”

Lue did receive a key endorsement from James Harden, the other major free agent the Clippers hope to retain this offseason. Lue was the first head coach in 10 years to play Harden 40 minutes a game in the playoffs.

Harden scored his most points per game in a postseason since leaving the Houston Rockets in 2020 and also averaged his fewest turnovers per game in a postseason since leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2012. Harden will be an unrestricted free agent and isn’t extension eligible, but he made it clear Lue is a coach he wants to play for — no small feat given Harden’s previous experiences.

“He’s great,” Harden said of Lue. “He gets it. He’s won a championship before, so he’s the ultimate player’s coach.”

Before the Clippers resolve what they need to with George and Harden, they are likely going to be able to extend center Ivica Zubac. Frank has already said that an extension makes sense with Zubac entering the last year of his contract.

In the short term, Lue has some work to do. Multiple spots on his coaching staff need to be replaced. Lue will be on USA Basketball’s coaching staff under Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, who is entrusting Lue with coordinating the defense.

On the Clippers, it’s the defense that has slipped the last two seasons. The lack of rebounding is an issue, but a lack of ball pressure is a more consistent bugaboo. That will be even more of a problem if Russell Westbrook, who can be a free agent this offseason, does not return.

Leonard is expected to join Lue in Paris this summer, assuming his inflamed right knee allows him to play. If there is one player that Lue has always stayed in touch with in the offseasons, it has been Leonard. The two are still waiting for Leonard to make it through the last game of the season for the Clippers. Lue’s deal takes him past every Clippers player’s current contract, including Leonard’s, who signed an extension in January that goes through 2027.

I said that the Clippers window to win a championship in this era is closed, but the team does not believe that to be the case. Retaining and empowering Lue is a reflection of that.

(Photo of Lue: Tim Heitman / NBAE via Getty Images)