It’s fitting that one of the best moves the Lakers front office has made was one they basically were forced into after their own stubbornness.
Rewinding back to 2019, the Lakers’ search for a head coach began with Monty Williams, who turned them down for Phoenix, before turning their sights to Ty Lue. At the time, Lue — after spending a year with the Clippers in an informal role — was looking for a head coaching gig after things flamed out post-LeBron James in Cleveland.
In hindsight, the Lakers’ subsequent bungling of the negotiations, turning what seemed to be a sure thing into a blown opportunity, has aged pretty badly. Even in the moment, it felt like the Lakers stumbling over themselves.
Eventually, the team turned to Frank Vogel as their third option and subsequently won a title with him. But that doesn’t change how poorly things went with Lue — now considered one of the best coaches in the NBA, while Vogel sits just a few weeks away from being fired — who talked about his negotiations with the Lakers in a recent profile by Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.
Lue had an opportunity to reunite with James when the Lakers interviewed him for the coaching job in 2019. But the Lakers offered Lue a three-year deal worth $18 million, far below the five-year, $35-million deal he had with the Cavs, and wanted to dictate Lue’s staff. Lue pulled out of negotiations and the Lakers hired Frank Vogel.
“The Lakers [saw it] more so as like [I’m just] coming to coach LeBron,” Lue said. “No, I’m coming to win. I just didn’t think I was treated fairly. And I wasn’t just going to accept any offer just to get a job.
“I just thought I was better than that.”
To start, the distinction of money itself seems a bit silly as the Lakers’ offer, was only $1 million a year less annually than the Clippers. The part he does have a fair argument on, though, is that the Lakers only viewed him as a guy to coach LeBron. At the time, that three-year deal matched James’ current contract — he has since signed an extension — with the Lakers unwilling to commit to Lue for the post-LeBron years.
It’s also a completely fair complaint that the Lakers wanted to dictate his staff. That Vogel eventually agreed to the deal doesn’t mean it was something that was normal. Far from it, actually. It was a wild request that the Lakers got lucky was accepted when Vogel willing to allow Jason Kidd onto his staff.
Now, to offer a brief defense of the Lakers, in 2019, Lue had only coached 211 games, all but six of those with James. And in the six games he coached post-LeBron in Cleveland to start the 2018-19 season, he lost all six before being fired. His stock was much lower in 2019 when the Lakers were negotiating with him than it is now, and considering how incredible LeBron was during Lue’s time in Cleveland, it wasn’t an entirely unreasonable belief that he was made by LeBron.
Lue also addressed that notion or belief in the profile as well.
Lue is quick to call James “the best player in the world” who made him a better coach. But as Miami’s Erik Spoelstra knows, it can take a long time for a coach to emerge from James’ shadow.
“LeBron’s been in the league, what, 18 years?” Lue says. “He won four championships. So that don’t mean you’re automatically going to win because you have LeBron James. So I do coach with a chip on my shoulder because, like people say, ‘Oh, he can’t do it without LeBron. He can’t ...’”
Ultimately, the Lakers screwed up and have been made to look more and more like fools with Lue’s tactical success with various banged-up rosters in the years since. If the Lakers had treated Lue the way they’ve treated Vogel, though, no head coach was going to work. Perhaps Lue’s championship pedigree coming in would have changed the Lakers’ mindset, but Vogel won a title with the franchise and it changed nothing.
But the Lakers could have themselves set up for the present and future if they hadn’t gotten in their own way, a recurring trend in the years since missing out on Lue. We’ll see if this mess of a season is enough to help them learn from their mistakes, but even that won’t necessarily make the thoughts of what this year could have looked like with Lue at the helm easier to stomach.