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Reuniting David Griffin with Tyronn Lue on the New Orleans Pelicans

A search has begun to fill what David Griffin coins “the most attractive job in the NBA.” Here is part one of our spotlight series in trying to unearth the best coaching candidate.

Indiana Pacers v Cleveland Cavaliers Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.

“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.

So, let’s take a closer look at potential candidates who may be the right long-term fit to lead Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and the rest of the roster to the next level.

Tyronn Lue

This name has quickly become the most obvious and likely requires the least explanation.

Tyronn Lue was one of the hottest coaching candidates in 2014 after serving five seasons as both assistant coach and Director of Basketball Development in Boston and in Los Angeles (Clippers).

After giving serious consideration to him for the head coaching position along with Alvin Gentry and David Blatt, Griffin made the decision to add Lue as the associate head coach in LeBron James’ first season back with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Lue’s value to the organization was clear as he was made the richest assistant in NBA history at the time (four years, $6.5 million).

“Over the past several weeks, it became clear that Ty could play a key role in our team’s future success,” David Griffin said in 2014. “Ty fits our culture and vision for the franchise. His successful experience as both a player and coach is going to help us tremendously. The leadership and knowledge of Ty is going to be critically important as we move into a new era of competitive Cavaliers basketball.”

You may remember the decision to hire Blatt came before James’ decision to return home and Lue quickly became a favorite of James to fill the position permanently.

“I saw it from close range in my role as sideline reporter through the Finals for ESPN Radio,” Marc Stein of the New York Times reported. “James essentially called timeouts and made substitutions. He openly barked at Blatt after decisions he didn’t like. He huddled frequently with Lue, often looking at anyone other than Blatt.”

After a 30-11 team start and midway through his second NBA season, Blatt was removed and Lue was immediately promoted, receiving a three-year extension. Lue would go on to become the first head coach in NBA history to win his first ten consecutive playoff games and his Cavaliers ultimately defeated the 73-win Golden State Warriors after falling behind 3-1 in the series.

Prior to the 2017-18 season, Griffin quit shortly after Kyrie Irving demanded a trade out of Cleveland. Though the Cavaliers’ championship aspirations would end at the hands of the Warriors, Lue may have done his best coaching job that season, leading a depleted Cavaliers’ roster that no longer included Kyrie and went without Kevin Love for 23 games.

It was a challenging season for Lue both on the court and off as severe bouts with anxiety led to frightening medical scares that ultimately removed him from the sidelines for nine games. Diet changes and medication seemed to alleviate the stress, allowing him to return in time for the playoffs.

“Just anxiety, and the medication I’m on is great. No more chest pains, so everything’s been great.”

Never one to waver in his support of Lue, James made sure that his head coach knew the Cavaliers would fly steady in his absence.

“Having LeBron’s validation, just being like, ‘I got it. Take some time off, get yourself ready for the playoffs. I’ll take care of the team. I’ll make sure everything is good.’”

This is the type of ‘buy-in’ Griffin referenced in his press conference with media on Saturday afternoon. The Pelicans need leaders in the huddle who do more than execute a thoughtful and strategic game plan, though that too is an important area and one in which Lue excels as evidenced by his 2016 postseason run.

“He’s our championship head coach, so he knows everything about our team,” James said in 2018. “He knows how to get the best out of our players, even though we’ve got a lot of new guys. But just his command, having him back out there, it’s going to be good for us.”

The Competitors

While the Pelicans will not reveal their list of candidates, it’s been reported that Lue will be among them. However, the Pelicans aren’t the only team awaiting his finish alongside Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers. Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated identified the Brooklyn Nets, Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets as other leading candidates to land the champion head coach.

Griffin remains adamant in his confidence to land whomever the Pelicans ultimately target, calling the Pelicans ‘the most attractive job in the NBA.’ Long term, he may be correct. Short term, a coach with championship aspirations would be hard-pressed to find a more definitive contender than one armed with Kevin Durant and Irving, James Harden and Russell Westbrook or even Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.

The Pelicans make the easiest choice for a coach seeking what Griffin calls “sustainable success.” However, if Lue is searching for an immediate contender, the Pelicans may come up short in their ploy to land him if he does become their target.

Chauncey Billups

In a conveniently timed release by Adrian Wojnarowski, he also reports that Lue may bring long-time friend Chauncey Billups with him for an associate role. This is important because this is the role currently occupied by Chris Finch, whom Griffin personally lauded and even indicated would be a target for the role.

Billups was formerly offered the Cavaliers head front office position after Griffin’s resignation in 2017, but opted against it. Now Billups looks to be interested in earning his own head coaching position in short order so following Lue makes sense as a means to fast track his rise into those ranks.

If the Pelicans land Lue and Billups together, expect for Finch to go off in search of greener pastures with a different organization.

Five-year contract

If the Pelicans are to land Lue, it will inarguably have to be on a five-year deal. Lue was formerly offered three years to rejoin James in Los Angeles but seemed slightly miffed that Rob Pelinka didn’t put more on the table. This move on Pelinka’s part, though slightly shocking, makes plenty of sense. James signed a four-year deal with the Lakers. with a player option following his third season. Guaranteeing Lue any additional time beyond would have been illogical as L.A. would be interested in switching gears.

After all, we saw how long Lue’s tenure without James lasted in Cleveland. After beginning the 2018-19 season 0-6, management suggested Lue remove veterans from the starting lineup and build toward the future. Lue refused and was relieved of service. This level of stubbornness reportedly also cost Kenny Atkinson his tenure in Brooklyn when he refused to remove Jarrett Allen in favor of DeAndre Jordan.

Being rigid in one’s beliefs is something we did not experience during Gentry’s tenure. Gentry often pointed to the front office or medical team regarding minute restrictions on Anthony Davis or Zion Williamson. During the eight bubble games, media called into question Gentry’s desire to play the youngsters over established veterans like E’Twaun Moore and Nicolo Melli, who could have given the Pelicans a better chance at winning games. Throughout the season, Gentry often employed as many as 11 or 12 players in his rotation despite being quoted on several occasions throughout the season that the Pelicans would be more successful with an eight- or nine-man rotation.

Rest assured, Lue will be adamant in his lineups and how he uses them. That kind of balance between a front office and coaching staff is necessary to instill maximum and lasting success.

Championship aspirations

Though Griffin refused to cite wins and losses as the main culprit behind Gentry’s removal, one can’t help but feel a performance better than 30-42 may have slid the scales toward letting him return for the final season of his deal. After all, why would the Pelicans pick up a team option of $5.4 million if they knew prior to the season they would in all likelihood be moving on without him?

So, if we can assume the Pelicans can expect to be better, and we see governor Gayle Benson’s quote that fans deserve to ‘compete for championships,’ it stands to reason that though the Pelicans are truly seeking sustainable success, they still expect to be better in 2020-21 and may prefer a coach with championship credentials to get them there.

Does Griffin want a fresh start?

We should mention Benson’s previous entanglement with Lue’s agent, Rich Paul of Klutch Sports. Following the bitter attempt to force a midseason trade, which resulted in the decline of Anthony Davis’ popularity throughout New Orleans and the removals of Dell Demps and Magic Johnson, Benson may be wary of dealing with another Klutch client under her roof this soon. However, it must be noted that Griffin has a strong relationship with Rich Paul so Benson’s discomfort could be mitigated.

While Griffin’s relationship with Lue is seemingly strong, we’ve seen Griffin hire two first-time NBA head coaches during his tenure in Cleveland in both Lue and Blatt. Thus, we should expect him to be receptive to giving all coaching candidates an equal opportunity regardless of experience levels.

There may also be some memories indirectly associated with Lue that Griffin would prefer to forget.

“Everything we did was so inorganic and unsustainable and, frankly, not fun. I was miserable,” Griffin said. “Literally the moment we won the championship I knew I was gonna leave. There was no way I was gonna stay for any amount of money.”

So, just how viable is Lue to the Pelicans long term hopes? Is he ready to lead a fast-paced rebuild or would he be better off in Brooklyn, with a team that is in better position to win now?

For more Pelicans talk, subscribe to The Bird Calls podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. You can follow this author on Twitter at @PrestonEllis.