There is an enthusiasm in Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue that has replaced the exhaustion from last season. Of course, his job will be far more difficult without the best player on earth, LeBron James, but with the challenge of pushing the Cavaliers into playoff contention.
How talented is Lue as a coach? The answer to that question was always cloudy with James present. How many Lue mistakes did James compensate for with his dominance? How many times did James save Lue with a last-second shot or game-winning block?
The perception is that these occurrences were often — that Lue was a flawed coach that benefited from the most dominant player of this generation. Without James, Lue will get an opportunity to coach the remaining veterans with some youngsters blended in.
Expectations have been dramatically lowered. The Cavaliers could be headed for the draft lottery or, if Lue has his way, they will push toward the playoffs with rookie point guard Collin Sexton leading the way and the re-signed Kevin Love returning to form.
“Of course I would love to have LeBron James, but now that he’s gone it’s going to be a new challenge,” Lue said. “I think me and my coaching staff, we’re up for it. It’s going to be different, a lot of young guys that we can try to teach and mold them how you want them to be.
“I think when LeBron came back [from Miami] and we traded for Kevin Love, we didn’t have any draft picks — all veteran guys who could play now and understand how to play and how to win and what it took. Now, having made the trades we made during the season and acquiring some young talent through the draft, it will be a different challenge for us. I’m already excited about it.”
The Cavaliers will have the three young players they acquired in midseason trades that were part of the team that reached the NBA Finals — Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson, and Rodney Hood. Cleveland also acquired former Clippers swingman Sam Dekker, signed ex-Bulls guard David Nwaba, and drafted Alabama’s Sexton, who could be the central figure in their rebuilding plan.
“I don’t know [how to mix young and old] because we’ve never had that challenge before,” Lue said. “I think it will be good because we have some good vets and we’ve always been surrounded by good vets. I know what we will continue to do is continue to build the culture. I think since LeBron came back, [owner] Dan Gilbert has surrounded him with great players, great veterans who are good for the culture. Our main focus this summer is continuing to keep building these guys up but also continuing to build the culture we had the last four years [four NBA Finals appearances].”
With James leaving the Eastern Conference, the playoff race is wide open. The Celtics are the prohibitive favorites, along with the 76ers. The Raptors, Pacers, and Bucks will make major pushes, leaving three playoff spots for teams such as the Heat, Pistons, Wizards, and perhaps Cavaliers.
“We’re going to have a young team and there’s going to be growing pains, but I think we have enough talent to make the playoffs,” Lue said. “But not knowing what’s going to happen during the course of the season, the most important thing is to keep building that culture, playing the right way.”
James leaves quite a shadow on the Cavaliers’ franchise. He is the best player by far in the team’s history, he brought the team its first championship, and eventually his jersey will hang in the rafters. Life after LeBron will be difficult because the LeBron imprint is permanent.
“We want to continue to be exciting, continue to be competitive for our fan base,” Lue said. “But it’s hard to replace LeBron James. Don’t say we’re going to replace LeBron. He’s an irreplaceable player. It’s not replacing LeBron James, the best player in the game for so long, and he’s meant so much to the franchise and every franchise he’s played for — Miami, Cleveland, the city of Cleveland, his family, his friends, coaches, players. Everybody he’s been around he’s made better and you can’t replace that. So we’ve got to understand that and continue to keep growing and working collectively and be the best we can be.”
Lue said he did not consider stepping down after this past season, one in which he missed nine games to be treated for exhaustion and other health-related issues. Lue sounds like a coach who has been recharged by the challenge of bringing a franchise back to prosperity from essentially scratch.
“I’ve grown to love it and it’s been fun,” he said. “Now is a different challenge. I’m up for it. I think our coaching staff is up for it. [General manager] Koby Altman is up for it as well. I’m doing well, I feel good, doing the right thing, continuing to eat better, continuing to work out and I feel good. And as long as that continues I’ll be fine.”
KEY TO THE FUTURE
Clippers thrilled to have Robinson
As he walked past Jerry West after his summer league debut for the Clippers, Jerome Robinson heard West’s voice through all of the ongoing conversations as players came out of the locker room.
Robinson recognized West’s voice and looked directly into his eyes.
“Good job, man,” West told Robinson. “Be more aggressive.”
It was West, a Clippers executive and one of the league’s all-time great talent evaluators, who signed off on the team drafting the former Boston College standout with the 13th overall pick. It completed a meteoric rise for Robinson, who was unsure how he stacked up against his draft competition when he decided to declare following his junior season.
Robinson, a 6-foot-5-inch combo guard, rose precipitously through draft workouts and suddenly became one of the pieces of the Clippers’ youth movement, along with 11th overall pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, a lanky 6-7 point guard.
The Clippers are in the middle of a major transition after ushering the end of Lob City by trading Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, while DeAndre Jordan signed with the Mavericks. With West joining the front office to help Doc Rivers and Lawrence Frank, the Clippers used both of their first-round picks on prospects and brought back Avery Bradley, traded for Marcin Gortat, and added Mike Scott and Luc Mbah a Moute, making for an interesting mix and intriguing squad in the Western Conference.
But Robinson and Gilgeous-Alexander are centerpieces of the next generation, with the Clippers hoping they can form a dynamic backcourt. Robinson averaged 20.7 points per game as a junior with the Eagles, leading his club to the ACC tournament semifinals as he and Ky Bowman finally carried the program to long-awaited respectability.
Yet, despite the potential to make an NCAA Tournament run, Robinson and Bowman decided to enter the draft. Bowman went back to school. Robinson got the feedback he needed and stayed.
“It was a little bit of both [testing the waters and leaving school],” he said. “I kind of knew with the season that I had it would be hard to replicate it, even though that’s my game. I also wanted feedback as well because it’s the NBA and you’ve got to know what they’re looking for, and I got good feedback and went with it.”
But that doesn’t stop Robinson from having thoughts of what-if had he rejoined Bowman for one final run.
“It’s tough. I wanted to see that whole thing out, coming in freshman year having to go through those struggles, making that push this year and know what we could have been,” he said. “I think those guys are still going to do a great job. They’re all getting better and getting older and they’ll be able to carry the team. Being a part of that would have been awesome, but when your time comes you’ve got to take it.”
Robinson has no regrets and the Clippers are ecstatic about their choice. “Well, I think everyone liked him, in particular I think when we had him in to look at him,” West told the Globe. “But the thing about him is he played in a great conference with a team that wasn’t really a super team, and just a really good player that could do almost everything. He can pass the heck out of the ball and out here [in summer league] he just needs to be a lot more aggressive. That’s what somebody like him [faces] who’s such a team player. But he’s a very impressive kid and it looks like he’s going to be a heck of a player in the NBA.”
Robinson cherishes the opportunity to be a building block, especially for a franchise led by such an NBA legend.
“You’ve got to be more aggressive when he tells you that,” Robinson said of West’s encouraging words. “That’s a good feeling. He knows the things I can do. Being aggressive just adds to your flow and being true to yourself is something that comes with being aggressive.”
West said he watched Robinson closely during his junior year and admired his wherewithal throughout his BC career, lifting a downtrodden program to respectability.
“It’s how they handle themselves, how they interact with their teammates — they won games that he and his buddy in the backcourt [Bowman] really carried them,” West said. “He can do everything. He started as a point guard and here he is playing as a two-guard. I think you’ll be able to see him as a combo guard in this league. We’re delighted to have him.”
Robinson is enjoying the early process of being a professional, the first steps to fulfilling his potential. In three games for Clippers in the Las Vegas Summer League, he averaged 13.7 points, shooting 44 percent from the field. It’s been a 12-month climb for Robinson, who considered entering the draft following the 2016-17 season and worked out with NBA players prior to his junior season.
“It’s very exciting just going out there enjoying the summer league. Every pro goes through this kind of process and to be another guy to be able to do that is a great feeling,” he said. “It’s just been a grind, that summer and me going to work and really dedicating to my craft, literally becoming a professional in those six weeks I was training out in California and taking that approach into the college season. It’s gotten me into the position I’ve gotten now.”
The Raleigh, N.C., native, who spent the past three years in Boston, now begins his adult life in Los Angeles.
“I’ll be by myself for the most part,” he said. “I know they’ll come visit a lot. My brothers will come work out with me in August and go to school but they’ll be in and out. It is exciting. I’ve been in a city like Boston, a little cold, but Los Angeles you can’t really complain about anything with the city and the weather and the people. Everything’s amazing in Los Angeles and it’s great to be in a city like that.”
Robinson said he has talked with Rivers often. The Clippers organization has undergone a facelift over the past few seasons.
Rivers, who left the Celtics to become coach and president of basketball operations in Los Angeles, was stripped of his president duties and now is just the head coach. Frank is the general manager, and West is the adviser with the championship management pedigree.
“[Doc has talked to me about] how I would fit in the offense, things that he’s looking for, things with training camp, practice,” Robinson said. “He’s really active with us, communicating with us and the same with Jerry, those are my guys. I want to hear feedback like that and I want to make that relationship genuine. Just talking with those guys and building that relationship has been key.”
Olynyk, Heat eye upward mobility
The Heat took a calculated risk by signing Kelly Olynyk to a four-year, $50 million deal after his rights were renounced by the Celtics to create salary cap space to sign Gordon Hayward. But Olynyk’s game developed under coach Erik Spoelstra and he became a versatile scorer and rebounder off the bench.
Last season, he averaged a career-high 11.5 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in 23.4 minutes, giving the Heat a reliable bench scorer with the ability to stretch the floor. At age 27, Olynyk has finally found comfort in his role after some rocky seasons with the Celtics.
Miami will essentially bring back the same team from last season, but will have a healthy Dion Waiters and a refocused Hassan Whiteside. There is great optimism in Miami that the Heat will take a major step toward contention after being eliminated in the first round by Philadelphia last season.
“The East definitely opens up a little bit [with LeBron James] leaving, but there’s still a lot of great teams,” Olynyk said. “It’s only one player gone. I think we’re still a playoff team in the East, definitely. We’ve got a ways to go, but we’ll keep building on last year and we’ll improve and take our shot at what we can do.”
Olynyk appeared to embrace Spoelstra’s rigorous style and burned his former team on a couple of occasions last season, even calling former teammate Jae Crowder to gush after his career-high 32-point performance at TD Garden in December.
“I’m still working on a lot of stuff,” Olynyk said. “Different ways of getting shots, balance, handling the ball. I’m trying to take my game to the next level and keep improving. It’s nice to be in a secure place and you can focus on getting better.”
Kudos to Minnesota point guard Lindsay Whalen, whose career ended on Tuesday when her Lynx lost to the Los Angeles Sparks in the opening round of the WNBA playoffs. Whalen finishes as the franchise’s all-time assists leader and one of the greatest floor generals in league history. Whalen will become the women’s basketball coach at the University of Minnesota, her alma mater
. . . With Whalen retiring and Sue Bird approaching her 38th birthday, the question for US women’s basketball is who will be the point guard for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. The most likely candidate is Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is more of a combo guard, and possibly Courtney Vandersloot, who led the WNBA in assists this season . . . More kudos to the 76ers for hiring former Duke and WNBA point guard Lindsey Harding as a scout. Harding, who actually played for Belarus at the 2016 Rio Olympics, has been an emerging front office executive as the NBA continues to open doors for women in roles traditionally filled by men. Jenny Boucek has been named an assistant coach with the Mavericks and Becky Hammon is an assistant coach with the Spurs. It’s a safe bet that the NBA will be the first major professional men’s sports league with a female head coach . . . Harvard University men’s coach Tommy Amaker announced that former NBA coach Stan Van Gundy will be speaking at the school’s annual coaches clinic on Oct. 28 at Lavietes Pavilion from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Van Gundy will speak to area high school and college coaches. Van Gundy was just released from his contract by the Pistons after four years and one playoff appearance. He said he’s unsure if he will ever be hired as an NBA coach again, even though he is interested in coaching another team.
After missing the past two years because of a drug suspension, former Bucks guard O.J. Mayo is eligible to apply for reinstatement to the NBA next season. Of course, the league would have to accept Mayo’s application after his drug history. Mayo has been working out in Milwaukee with former teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Mayo, 30, had a brief stint with a team in Puerto Rico last season.
Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.