CLEVELAND, Ohio — On the first day the Cleveland Cavaliers convened, before the basketballs started bouncing and new sets were implemented, head coach Tyronn Lue wanted to deliver a sharp message: no egos.
Lue had already gone on record proclaiming he had the toughest job in the NBA. Given all the summer movement, he knew this season would be even more demanding.
He could see a deeper roster, one with a bounty of lineup combinations, but also plenty of challenges. It’s littered with accomplished players, ones with All-Star appearances, MVPs and loads of starting experience. Unlike last season when it was easy to tighten the rotation because of a dearth of depth, there are realistically 12 or 13 players who deserve playing time.
So how is he supposed to get them all minutes when he’s most comfortable using a 10-man rotation? How was he supposed to tell Tristan Thompson, the defensive linchpin and core member of a team that had gone to three straight Finals, he wasn’t going to start any more because the offense was changing? What happens with Channing Frye and Richard Jefferson, two key members of the bench and important voices behind the scenes, now that others have been brought in to take their places?
“Being direct, telling the guys the truth,” Lue said. “They respect it a lot. Even if they don’t want to hear it or listen to it, the next day they be like, ‘You know what, you was right. I can respect that.’ So you tell guys the truth, they might be upset about it initially but they’ll get over it.
“You can’t play 12 or 13 people, we understand that. They have to be ready, ready to step up because things happen throughout the course of the season and be ready to play when their name is called.”
Yes, once again, the Cavaliers are leaning on their culture, one built on togetherness and sacrifice, to smooth any potential issues.
As Lue said, anyone agreeing to a deal with the Cavs this off-season knew what they were signing up for — a great chance at an NBA Finals appearance.
But the other side of that: cracking a title-contending team’s rotation isn’t always easy and the shot opportunities, ball-handling chances and minutes may be sporadic. Knowing it beforehand and handling it when it happens are two different things.
Lue already had to apologize to Frye, who has been dropped from the rotation. To Frye’s credit, he handled it like a pro.
“He said, ‘Listen, I’m very excited about our team, not too many opportunities to get to play on a team like this. He said if I have to wear a suit all season for us to win, that’s what I’ll do. Don’t worry about me, I’m going to continue to keep working. If you need me I’ll be ready.'”
Thompson took his move to the second unit in stride, establishing a new goal of being named NBA Sixth Man of the Year while providing his usual spark when called upon.
“Give me a parade in June I’m cool,” Thompson told cleveland.com recently. “That’s all I f—— care about. Not the other s—.”
The coach needed a sit-down chat with J.R. Smith — the starting shooting guard for Cleveland’s last two postseason runs — who had his starting job snatched away by veteran Dwyane Wade.
“It’s tough, you’ve been in position where you went to three straight Finals and you’ve been the starting two guard,” Lue said of Smith. “But like I said it’s about sacrifice if you want to win. J.R. was great about it. Just knows he has to have a different role right now so we’ll see how it works.”
Since that Day One message, the players seem to be preaching the same thing, using the same phrase Lue did in late September.
But that no ego mantra is already being tested. Smith is embracing his new role with the second unit, a chance to be more of a playmaker as opposed to a standstill shooter. But he admitted to our Joe Vardon that he’s ‘absolutely’ frustrated by the benching.
That’s a natural reaction when it comes to prideful players who have been at the center of the Cavaliers’ greatest three-year stretch. It could be the first of many more tests still to come.
How will Shumpert, who needed a clear-the-air chat with Lue earlier this summer, react if the team starts losing confidence in his jumper and he gets pushed out of the rotation by Isaiah Thomas or a midseason addition — always a possibility with an aggressive front office in win-now mode?
That’s another test on the horizon. At the end of this calendar year, Thomas, an All-NBA performer, is expected to return. That could mean two months of potential quality play by Derrick Rose get put to the side to make room, leading Rose’s minutes to be trimmed or the possibility of a different role. Maybe Lue will opt to bring Thomas off the bench, not wanting to alter his starting group significantly.
On Wednesday Lue spent the early portion of practice adding four new offensive sets, ones that better fit his new starting personnel.
Those X’s and O’s and play calls are always important when it comes to coaching. He’s in charge of making the new pieces fit together. But the Cavs’ success may actually hinge on whether Lue can manage the deep, talented and personality-filled roster, finding a way to keep everyone happy and connected.
“It doesn’t always work,” Lue said. “You deliver that (no egos) message, but we’ll see how it goes.”