LAS VEGAS — He may not have made it as a player, but Tyronn Lue is fine representing his country as a coach.
The head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers is part of Steve Kerr’s staff with USA Basketball which will play in the FIBA Men’s World Cup later this month in the Philippines. None of Lue’s Clippers are on the roster but there’s no lack of familiar faces for him.
“Oh yeah, I know all these guys,” he said with a smile prior to Monday’s USA Basketball Showcase vs. Puerto Rico at T-Mobile Arena. “I’m very excited to be part of this. Being in the room with all these great basketball minds. Seeing different plays, different drills and maybe applying it to what we do (with the Clippers). I expect to come out of this a better coach for having experienced this.”
Lue has already had a successful coaching career. He has an NBA championship ring from guiding the Cleveland Cavaliers to the title in 2016. In his first year with the Clippers in 2021, he got Los Angeles to the Western Conference Finals when the Clippers lost to Phoenix. It remains the furthest the team has advanced in its history.
Last year, despite dealing with injuries to superstars Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Clippers finished 44-38, good for third place in the Pacific Division. They faced the Suns again in the playoffs, this time in the first round and and won Game 1, 115-110. But Phoenix came roaring back and took the next four games and the series.
“Incredibly frustrating,” Lue said of the early playoff exit. “Last year left a bad taste in our mouths the way it ended. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it. We’ll be very motivated.”
The real hope is Lue can have his entire roster available every night. That’s probably an unrealistic wish given Leonard’s and George’s ages and injury history. But as of now, both are on pace to be ready when training camp opens in October. And he’ll also have Russell Westbrook to start the season after L.A. obtained him in late February.
“We’re healthy going into training camp. We want to be healthy for the playoffs,” said Lue, who has taken the Clippers to the postseason two of his three years. “Kawhi is on pace to be ready for camp. PG is healthy. Our roster has more versatility built into it. So we’re good.”
It’s not easy for anyone to coach in the NBA these days. Between divergent personalities, issues such as load management which disrupts continuity, more parity among the teams, any slippage could result in being the recipient of a pink slip.
With the Clippers, it’s magnified somewhat. Steve Ballmer is an aggressive owner and he is not afraid to spend money in order to win. The team is building a magnificent new arena — the $2 billion, 18,000-seat Intuit Dome — where the Clippers will be the primary tenant. It is scheduled to open in time for the 2024-25 season.
“It’s going to be spectacular,” Lue said of the team’s new home, located a long 3-point shot from WiFi Stadium, home to the NFL’s Rams and Chargers. “It is a game-changer for the franchise so we want to have some success this season going into our new home.”
It’s also a big part of the process of changing the franchise’s woebegone culture which was decades in the making. Things are on the upswing in Clipperland. The Donald Stirling days are becoming more and more distant with each passing year. The watchwords are “forward progress.” Now’s not the time to take a backwards step.
“It’s all positive,” Lue said. “Everyone in the organization believes in what we’re trying to do. It started when Doc (Rivers) was here and we’re trying to build on that.”
Lue will be ready when camp starts. For now, he has an important role with Team USA, which is comprised of a lot of young veterans who have made strong contributions to their NBA teams. Along with Kerr and fellow assistants Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat and Mark Few of Gonzaga, Lue has to get this group comfortable playing together, defining roles and get them accustomed to winning. The two top teams from the Americas will qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris, France. So this is an important competition.
Monday, the Americans used a lot of looks and various lineups in easily handling Puerto Rico, 117-74 in front of an announced crowd of 7,260. Team USA used an 8-0 run in the first quarter to build a 20-12 lead and never looked back.
Anthony Edwards of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cameron Johnson of the Brooklyn Nets led seven USA players in double figures with 15 points apiece. Los Angeles Lakers guard Austin Reaves had nine points in just under 20 minutes off the bench. The Americans, who led by as many as 46 points in the fourth quarter, shot 57 percent from the floor and had 10 blocked shots.
From Vegas, the team heads to Spain for pre-tournament tuneups against Slovenia on Saturday and Spain on Aug. 14. From there, it’s off to Abu Dhabi for exhibitions against Greece (Aug. 18) and Germany (Aug. 20). The tournament begins for the Americans in Manila on Aug. 26 against New Zealand.
“It’s a great group,” Lue said. “I have no doubt we’ll be ready.”