NBA — Tyronn Lue handles Dwyane Wade lineup change with deft touch
CLEVELAND — Four games into the season, JR Smith is going back to the starting lineup in place of Dwyane Wade. The move should make Cleveland Cavaliers fans start to understand the deft touch that coach Tyronn Lue brings to the unique collection of talent the Cavs have.
When Wade and Lue told the media about the move Monday, one thing became abundantly clear: Lue always felt like this was the right move; he just didn’t want to force his viewpoint on Wade.
Said Lue: “We talked about it before he got here; it’d be a better fit with him coming off the bench.”
Said Wade: “When me and coach talked before I decided to come here … we both talked about the opportunity for me to kind of lead the second group, but we also both talked about what I’ve always done my whole career is I’ve always started and that’s what I know so our goal was to see how it was.”
For a guy who only averaged 8.5 points per game for his career, Lue sure does know what it’s like to be a superstar in the league. From playing with Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Tracy McGrady, Yao Ming, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard (before you scoff, it was Orlando Dwight Howard), to coaching Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love, Lue understands the pressure applied in two directions on those types of players — the internal pressure to be great and the external pressure of expectations to be the performer they are known for being.
Lue knew full well that Smith hit 299 3-pointers the past two seasons compared to just 52 for Wade in that time frame. He knew that Smith needing to be targeted by a defender out on the perimeter at all times would mean one less person who could sag on James or Derrick Rose and try to double when they drive. He knew that Smith is younger (32 vs. 35) and bigger (6-foot-6, 225 vs. 6-foot-4, 220) and can consistently provide better defense at this point of his career (Wade’s innate timing on blocked shots not withstanding).
He also knew if he told a future Hall of Famer in Wade that he just sacrificed $8 million in a buyout from the Chicago Bulls just to come off the bench without even having a chance to start, he could lose his respect before Wade even slipped on that new No. 9 jersey for the first time.
So here’s what Lue did. He gave Wade reps with the second unit at point guard in practice, to give the 15-year veteran a feel for the players that Lue pictured Wade thriving alongside. When James got hurt on the second day of training camp, he elevated Wade to the starting lineup alongside Smith because, again, he valued Wade feeling welcome and wanted from the very start considering that he picked the Cavs over other appealing situations in Oklahoma City and San Antonio.
About a week before the regular season opened, Lue said Wade would continue to start, a decision that was met with confusion in the news corps that regularly follows the Cavs.
“I just wanted to do it,” Lue offered as a vague explanation, while still owning it.
At the time of Lue’s decision, Smith admitted he was “hurt.” A prominent agent even suggested to ESPN that it was sending a bad message about what the team culture was in Cleveland following three straight trips to the NBA Finals, adding, “You don’t see Vince Carter starting in Sacramento.” The Kings, of course, are coming off 11 straight seasons of missing the playoffs.
But Lue also allowed for the possibility it would only be temporary. “Just something we’re going to do to start the season and see how it works,” he said.
Of course, on the court, it didn’t work well. Yes, Wade and James got their true reunion moment being announced in the starting lineup together on opening night, so that had value — on some level — when you consider the Cavaliers franchise knows it should be doing everything in its power this season to make James want to sign a contract extension to stay this summer. But the Cavs started the season 2-1 through their first three games and both Wade (5.7 points on 28 percent shooting) and Smith (6.3 points on 33.3 percent shooting) struggled in their roles. After an embarrassing blowout loss to the Orlando Magic in their third game, Wade came to Lue and asked to come off the bench — accepting Lue’s original plan, just a couple of weeks later. Rather than say, “I told you so,” Lue praised Wade for coming around on his own.
Dwyane Wade responds to his transition from a starting role to coming off the bench.
“He came to me and said, ‘You know what Coach? What you said was right. I’d be able to be featured more in the second unit and be able to handle the ball more, so let’s make that move and make that adjustment,'” Lue said. “That’s what professionals do. No ego. He saw it was best for the team for him to come off the bench. It was his call and here we are.”
Where “here” is is a common ground between Lue and Wade — a mutual respect, it would appear — that the two can only build on as the year unfolds. While Lue can be criticized for testing Smith’s patience like that, one could argue that he already had a mutual respect established with Smith that allowed him to handle the situation the way he did without losing him.
It was the first test of many that Lue will face in 2017-18. And he aced it.