It was a week ago Saturday when the Nets made the stunning announcement of Kenny Atkinson’s ouster as head coach and replaced him with assistant Jacque Vaughn as interim coach. The world has shifted off its axis since then as businesses and the federal government began taking dramatic steps to prevent spread of the coronavirus, including the NBA’s decision on Wednesday to suspend the season.
For now, teams are not practicing, and most in the Nets organization are working from home as they await further guidelines from the NBA that are expected to be issued Monday. Whenever normal NBA business resumes, Nets general manager Sean Marks has a decision to make about hiring a new head coach who can establish open communication with superstars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant or who already has such a relationship.
The favorite, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers, is Los Angeles Clippers assistant Tyronn Lue, who coached Irving and LeBron James with the Cavaliers, including their 2016 NBA title season.
Former Net Jared Dudley, who played under Lue when he was an assistant with the 2013-14 Clippers and who now is part of the superstar-driven Lakers after playing for the Nets last season, has a unique vantage point and endorsed Lue’s potential candidacy for the job during an interview with Newsday last week in Los Angeles.
“I would not be surprised,” Dudley told Newsday of a possible Lue hiring. “T. Lue is a phenomenal coach who doesn’t get enough credit for his Xs and Os.”
Recalling his season with the Clippers, Dudley said head coach Doc Rivers had Lue do the advance scouting report for all 82 regular-season games rather than splitting it among all his assistants. It was a crash course that helped Lue prepare for his head-coaching tenure with the Cavaliers from 2016-18.
“By the time he got there (in 2014 as associate head coach), he was prepared,” Dudley said. “What people don’t understand is how he holds the locker room. He could tell LeBron, ‘No, run it this way.’ He’s an ex-player, and T. Lue doesn’t care about having friction. He doesn’t mind telling Kyrie, ‘Go run the . . . play,’ or ‘Kevin (Love), I need you to box out.’
“He holds that accountability because he was a player and he has won a championship. If you look at all the players that have had T. Lue as a coach, they talk highly of him.”
Now that he’s with the Lakers, who feature superstars James and Anthony Davis, Dudley said, “With superstar players, it’s a partnership. When you’re not dealing with superstars, coaches want players to fit their system. But superstars are the system.
“The Warriors, when Kevin Durant came, they played more iso ball than the year before. Kevin Durant made them change who they were because of his talent. Our thing here is that LeBron is the system. The coach might call plays, but LeBron is calling 80 to 90 percent of the plays when he’s in there. Now coach (Frank Vogel) is really great on Xs and Os out of timeouts.”
Dudley doesn’t buy the narrative that Atkinson is a developmental coach who couldn’t handle superstars. Given the chance, Dudley said Atkinson would have adjusted to work things out with Irving and Durant, but that didn’t happen.
“As great as Kyrie is, he struggled with (Celtics coach) Brad Stevens, and Brad Stevens is a phenomenal coach,” Dudley said. “There have been times Kyrie struggled with T. Lue. It doesn’t mean you cannot get over the hump. I just thought Kenny earned the right for that. It’s just unfortunate.”
Irving left the Cavaliers in a 2017 trade to the Celtics, not because of a poor relationship with Lue but because he didn’t want a complementary role to James. Dudley believes Irving could pick up where he left off with Lue in partnership with Durant.
“T. Lue respected Kyrie,” Dudley said. “He loved Kyrie. He wanted the best for him. Every time he talked to him, it might be to calm down a situation and show him what he wanted. I could easily see it. T. Lue can walk into a room and every player is going to ‘dap’ him up because they respect him. Every ex-player who becomes a coach doesn’t always get the respect, but he put the work in.”
For now, the Nets’ business is on hold while coronavirus concerns play out. But as Dudley suggested, it won’t be surprising if Irving is reunited with Lue running the Nets’ bench in the future.