Last week, the Utah Jazz took a 2-0 series lead on the Los Angeles Clippers. In the previous series, Luka Dončić put the Dallas Mavericks up 2-0 against Los Angeles. In both series, Los Angeles came back to win the next two games. After defeating the Utah Jazz in six games, this trend has made one thing abundantly clear: Ty Lue can coach.
NBA playoff coaching is an incredibly difficult task. Too often, coaches can rely on regular season strategies, while others might make too many adjustments, pushing their teams way outside of their comfort zones. Finding the happy medium is almost impossible, but the best coaches walk that line. During this playoff season, Lue has shown he is one of those coaches. Yet this is not the first time he’s had the opportunity to do so.
Ty Lue’s first NBA head coaching job came with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, taking over from David Blatt midseason. In his years there, Lebron James was in his prime, and consequently Lue did not have to do much. But reminiscent of this Cleveland team are the strategies Lue uses now with Los Angeles that are leading them to playoff success.
Similarly to this year with the Clippers, Lue embraced experimenting with his rotations in the 2016 NBA Finals against the juggernaut Golden State Warriors. By Game 5, he had it figured out: the only guys worthy of playing outside of his starting five were Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson. This insight proved to be crucial, as Jefferson ended up playing pivotal minutes in the final three games of the series after only logging 12 minutes in Game 1.
The Clippers’ only homegrown player on their roster is Terance Mann, a second-year guard out of Florida State. Secondly, they have a bunch of role players vying for playoff minutes, including decorated veterans like Demarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo. While one may add postseason savvy and leadership (like Rondo), another may be a better defensive fit who gives Kawhi Leonard and Paul George more offensive touches (Mann). This overload of qualified role players means Lue has a bevy of options at Lue’s disposal. It also means that he has to make some tough choices.
How does he go about making those choices, or more importantly the right ones? Thus far in these playoffs, Lue has taken his experimentation from his Cleveland days up a level. The Clippers have lost Games 1 and 2 in both series but only because Lue uses these games to tinker. Some may say this is a certifiably insane way to go about coaching in the playoffs, and if the Clippers had less talent, I would probably agree. Spotting the opposing team two games in a seven-game series is risky, but Lue makes it work.
In the Dallas series, he started Game 1 with Leonard, George, Morris, Zubac, and Beverley; Rondo played significant minutes off the bench. After seeing how Luka Dončić torched Zubac and Beverley every chance he had and how Beverley added nothing on offense, Lue adjusted.
In Game 3, Zubac started but played only 11 minutes, and Beverley came off the bench and barely played at all. Jackson started in Beverley’s place to add more offense and has not given up the spot since; he’s been sensational at times. By Game 4, Zubac was out of the starting lineup and Beverley played only five minutes.
After a Game 5 loss, Lue realized Rondo was taking the ball out of his stars’ hands too much and could not guard Dončić either. In Game 6, Rondo and Mann each played 10 minutes and Leonard went nuclear for 45 points in a victory. In Game 7, Zubac played two minutes, Beverley did not play at all, Jackson had 15 points, and Mann led the Clippers in bench minutes with 26. Los Angeles dominated Game 7, 126-111.
Some may scrutinize this strategy with one simple question: Why not just play your best players all the time? Yet Lue has an advantage in roster flexibility, and he knows it. Unlike some other coaches, Lue knows exactly how to flex his team’s advantages. Just take this Utah series. After finishing the Mavericks series with what looked to be the Clippers’ best possible rotation, Lue changed tack early in Game 1.
After a huge Game 5 win without Kawhi Leonard, the Clippers seem like they are poised to continue their stretch of inspired basketball. Will the formula continue to hold up if Leonard’s absence becomes long term? Who knows. Yet Ty Lue will have an adjustment for it, and he needs to start getting his due as an elite coach.
Tim Brennan is a rising sophomore in the McDonough School of Business. NBA Nerd Corner appears online every other week.