Tyronn Lue’s biggest challenge not Xs and Os with Clippers, it’s uniting locker room

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Tyronn Lue’s mantra as the new head coach of the Los Angeles Clippers probably should be something his boss, Steve Ballmer, ignored:

Don’t overreact to the bubble.

It was embarrassing for the Clippers to blow a 3-1 series lead to the Denver Nuggets in the second round — the Los Angeles Lakers were laughing at them — but it was in large part about the unique setting of the one-off bubble. Injuries, family issues, and strip club wings kept the Clippers from getting in proper shape and building on-the-court chemistry that Denver had done over years. Paul George talked about the isolation and emotional wear of the bubble and admitted he struggled in that series because of it. Plus, a look at the Second Spectrum data from those three Clippers losses shows Los Angeles generated good looks and just missed them while Denver hit difficult shots. Yes, Rivers could have tweaked things — more Ivica Zubac is the obvious one — but in the end, the Clippers strategy was not the biggest problem.

What Tyronn Lue needs to fix with the Clippers is not Xs and Os. It’s chemistry. It’s getting locker room factions all pulling the rope in the same direction. It’s creating unity where none exists right now.

Those factions were evident during the Nuggets’ series when George and Montrezl Harrell got in a heated argument. Or when George’s end-of-season preaching of togetherness was met with eye rolls.

The Clippers had made the playoffs in 2018-19 behind a gritty, hard-working, in-your-face defensive mindset — it was what the Clippers promoted on billboards around Los Angeles before last season started:  “L.A. Our Way,” “Street Lights Over Spotlights,” “Driven Over Given.” Patrick Beverley, Harrell, and Lou Williams were the heart of that philosophy. It was thought that with the additions of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — lunchpail superstars who were not top draft picks but worked hard to reach elite status — would fit right into that ethos.

Instead, there was resentment in the locker room at the special treatment Leonard and George got, something Jovan Buha and Joe Vardon do a fantastic job detailing at The Athletic. Leonard got load management time off, lived in San Diego, and there was a sense he was not held accountable to the same standards as everyone else in the locker room. It was similar with George, where the old guard thought words and actions did not match up.

Lue has been here before — he was the coach LeBron James wanted in Cleveland, and he got the job mid-season in 2016 when David Blatt was shown the door. Where Lue earned his respect was quickly holding the stars accountable, something the Athletic detailed.

Upon Lue’s promotion, the first thing he did was to demand that the Cavs’ supporting stars — in this case, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — sacrifice their individual brands and defer to LeBron. Lue also stripped LeBron of some of the power he’d stolen from Blatt inside the Cavs’ locker room, and demanded the league’s best player get in better shape, which got the attention of the entire team.

It’s not going to be exactly the same for Tyronn Lue with the Clippers — Leonard needs those load management days off or his knees get sore and he loses half a step. Even in these playoffs with games every other day, Leonard seemed to lose some explosiveness as the Denver series went on. But there are ways to take some of his power in the organization away, and better ways to use Leonard and George — staggering their minutes more — that help the team.

Stylistically, the Clippers are who they are — Leonard and George are isolation-heavy players with some pick-and-roll mixed in. Lou Williams is a known quantity. The Clippers could play faster, add another ball handler, and make other adjustments, but the Clippers had the second-best offense in the NBA last regular season. Scoring and the offense was not the issue. They also had the fifth-best defense.

All of that didn’t come together as the Clippers wanted in the bubble, but that was a unique experience. Los Angeles should not overreact to what happened there.

However, the locker room issues with the Clippers were around long before the bubble or the coronavirus-forced break in the season. That is where Lue needs to focus. He has the advantage of having been around the players last season, seeing the issues first hand, and developing relationships with Leonard, George, Beverley, Jeff Green, and everyone else. Lue would not have been hired if Leonard or Geoge opposed it, but expect him to come in and pull them in line with who the Clippers want to be. He will not overly coddle his stars (to a degree, there is always star treatment in the NBA, especially with Leonard and George who can be free agents after next season).

In the bubble, the Clippers lacked grit; they need to get it back. Lue understands that’s his No. 1 job, do that — and that is more about managing personalities than it will be Xs and Os.