Tyronn Lue said, when informed by the Cavaliers they were firing David Blatt in 2016, Lue responded: “This is f—– up.”
So, at least Lue is no stranger to the absurdity of a coach getting fired with an impressive record.
Blatt is one of the few fired coaches with a better win percentage than Lue, who succeeded Blatt in Cleveland then got fired yesterday. In his prior three seasons, Lue coached the Cavs to a championship, helped them return to the NBA Finals then – after Kyrie Irving got traded for pieces that whittled down to nearly nothing – guided them back to the Finals again.
Lue won 61% of his games with the Cavaliers (128-83), making him one of just 33 coaches to get fired despite winning at least 60% of his games during his tenure.
Determining who was fired can be tricky, but I included cases where it seems the coach was forced out, even if his contract expired. Consider Phil Jackson with the Bulls in 1998 the minimum bar, give or take, for a coach to be considered fired. Though he seemed ready to leave Chicago, Jackson definitely wasn’t welcome back.
Here’s every coach to win at least 60% of his games on a job and get fired (seasons coached, including partials, listed by the year they ended):
That list is littered with coaches who piled up good regular seasons then flamed out in the playoffs. After a while (or sometimes very quickly), that usually wears thin.
But that didn’t apply to Lue, who reached the Finals in all three of his prior seasons and finished with a playoff record of 41-20 (67%). Only Jackson (with both the Bulls and his first Lakers stint), Blatt and Paul Westhead got fired from jobs despite their teams performing so well in the postseason.
Here’s every coach to win at least 60% of his playoff games on a job and get fired (seasons coached, including partials, listed by the year they ended):
Most coach’s with Lue’s résumé buy themselves time to work through down seasons. The Cavs fired him after losing just six regular-season games this year.
Maybe that was the right move. The team was clearly misaligned. Cleveland’s 0-6 record only begins to describe the problems.
But most general managers would’ve given a coach like Lue more benefit of the doubt after all that he accomplished. It’s unlikely the Cavaliers were suddenly going to start winning. Let more of these losses accumulate on his record, and articles like this probably don’t get written.
The big difference is Lue – and Blatt and Mike Brown, who made the regular-season chart above and barely missed the playoff chart by winning 59% of his playoff games – coached LeBron James. Fairly or not, LeBron is a black hole who consumes nearly all credit or blame for his team’s performance. So, while Lue, Blatt and Brown built elite coaching records, that was largely seen as a product of LeBron.
Coaching win percentage is only a moderately accurate way to measure coaching ability. I doubt Lue suddenly became a far worse coach when LeBron left for the Lakers. But if LeBron remained in Cleveland and the Cavs were winning accordingly, Lue probably wouldn’t have gotten fired.
Perhaps, that’s just because Lue was the right coach for a LeBron-led team and the wrong coach for this group. Fit matters with coaching.
But I suspect it’s mostly about record, and 0-6 was too much for management to bear. As imperfect a measure as coaching win percentage is, it’s one that usually determines job status.
Except in a rare case like this, when it doesn’t.