CLEVELAND, Ohio — The reasons for the Cleveland Cavaliers’ dismissal of Tyronn Lue are numerous.
Near the top of the list: general manager Koby Altman believing this group — an unusual mixture of veterans and young players — needed a new voice.
In the short term, that’s Larry Drew. He’s literally the “voice.”
At least, that’s how he referred to himself since he’s not yet ready to take the interim coach title without a new contract and some added security. That power play added a stunning wrinkle to Cleveland’s post-Lue plan. But he doesn’t really have much leverage in this scenario.
The two sides still need to work out the finer points of Drew’s role and have been talking since Lue was fired on Sunday.
But for now, it’s up to Drew to turn around a winless team that has underachieved in the first six games of the season.
Drew led the team through practice on Monday afternoon. He used an unusual tactic — a 3 on 0 drill that turns into full-court 13 on 0 that demands organization, communication and attention to detail — to stimulate the team. It’s no coincidence those areas are considered weak points during the horrific start.
Then, when it was time to break for the day, Drew capped the session with a specific message.
“Let’s turn the chapter. Let’s start with kind of a new slate and let’s not really concern ourselves with those first six losses. Let’s see if we can come out tomorrow night and let’s be different,” he said. “I think they understood exactly what I was saying. With all that has happened within the last 48 hours, it really is a new chapter.
“Whether things do work out with me or not, still enough has taken place for this team to say, ‘OK, let’s sweep those first six under the rug and let’s start a whole new slate.'”
That’s the approach the Cavs are now taking. It’s their only choice.
Just like they couldn’t dwell on LeBron James’ departure, they can’t get caught up in their feelings over Lue’s exile — no matter how much it stung when first receiving the news.
“Guys play for coaches that are (expletive) and (expletive) and hope they get fired and they don’t care, but T Lue is a guy that everyone loved,” Tristan Thompson said. “From the medical staff to the front office to the security guards and everything. T Lue, he was very a respectful man, polite, he was happy to be here, especially with his health condition and being able to fight those battles. Everyone loved him and it was definitely sad that he was gone and we had to let him go. At the same time, just have to keep pushing forward.”
The fresh start began Monday. But, really, it’s about Tuesday night against the Hawks — a two-win team that embarrassed the Cavaliers a little more than a week ago in the home opener.
Drew inherits a team that has yet to lead in the second half. A team that has trailed by at least 16 points in every game. That ranks 29th in defensive efficiency after entering the season with a perplexing plan to switch everything despite lacking the personnel to execute that scheme effectively. That has maddeningly fallen in love with the mid-range jumper while abandoning the 3-ball. That will be without leading scorer Kevin Love for the foreseeable future because of soreness in his left foot that has been characterized as “significant pain.” That has talked repeatedly about playing fast, only to rank 27th in PACE.
A team that’s been an abject failure in the season’s first two weeks.
“I wish I could demand wins. That would be awesome if I could demand wins,” Altman said. “But I think we need to have chances to win and I think that with this team and this talent, we have a chance to win every night. And notwithstanding Kevin’s injury. Kevin is a big part of that and I understand that. But I think this team has enough talent, enough veteran leadership that we can compete for wins. Demanding wins is a tough thing to do. This is a hard business, this is a really tough league. We’re demanding being better night in and night out in terms of competing and having a chance to win.”
Drew also said the first thing he wants to see from the players is competitiveness every night. The acting coach also said he has some specific changes in mind even though he won’t get into specifics.
He plans to make changes on the defensive side of the ball, adding a few wrinkles and taking some away. He hinted that the team will go away from switching, challenging the guys to be tougher on the ball. The same goes on the offensive end.
“I’m always preaching about making sure to keep the opposition guessing,” Drew said. “I don’t like being a predictable team with what I do. I think if you can take out the predictability on both ends of the floor, I think you become a tougher team to defend and I think you become a better defensive team. I’ve just been contemplating, thinking about some things I want to do a little bit differently.”
He also pointed to the need for younger players to learn in game situations as opposed to practices. Even though there haven’t been any direct conversations about rotations and playing time — Drew wants to hold those chats until his situation is resolved — he compared this setup to the one he dealt with in Atlanta.
“Had some young guys, had some veteran guys,” he said. “Some decisions had to be made as far as who is going to play, who isn’t going to play. Do you put them all out there together? Do you sprinkle them in? But no real dialogue I would say about exactly how we want to do it.”
Numerous challenges still lie ahead. Firing Lue doesn’t fix all of Cleveland’s problems.
The next question that requires an honest evaluation from Altman is whether the Cavs are sticking with their preseason approach of fighting for a playoff spot. He couldn’t answer it Monday.
“That’s evolving and that’s probably a week-to-week evaluation as I look at this team and as I see us moving forward,” Altman said. “We haven’t played our best basketball yet. I wanted to give ourselves a chance to actually play our best basketball and see what that looks like, but my job is to evaluate our talent level and make decisions and that’s going to evolve as the year goes on.”
The decision may come sooner than anyone anticipates. The Cavs are the only team without a win. They may not have Love, their best player and leading scorer, for what could be about a month. They look to be playing a game from the wrong era, getting destroyed by opponents in 3-point margin. It’s hard to see the defense getting better with a dearth of quality defenders. They weren’t competitive with two teams — Atlanta and Brooklyn — which were supposed to be a realistic barometer.
If the wins don’t come soon, it would be hard to justify keeping this group together. It would be hard to believe the playoffs are a realistic goal.
The Cavs are adamant they aren’t ready to make that call just yet. Thompson said they have shown “a lot of flashes” and stretches where they put together quality basketball. Those moments allow them to think they are better than this mess of an 0-6 team.
Altman agreed with that assessment, pointing to players in the locker room as his reason for belief.
“My talent level, seeing these guys compete not only for our team but for teams in the past,” he said. “We had a pretty good preseason that I thought I saw some good things. But I think we have a talent level that has underachieved this year.”
Drew will get the first chance to change that.
“He’s been through a myriad of different situations as a head coach and as an assistant,” Altman said. “Winning programs, losing programs, he’s done a lot of different things for us and in this league and we’re relying on him right now and his experience right now to push this thing forward.”
When Drew was at Lue’s house in Bay Village to watch the Browns game on Sunday afternoon, the two didn’t talk much hoops. They reminisced about Finals runs and the 2016 championship. Drew reflected on all the teams they’ve been on together, the coaching staffs they’ve been a part of. He found himself getting emotional a few times. That’s how close they are.
When Drew was blindsided by the Bucks, fired after a 15-win season in 2014, the first call he received was from Lue. Drew wanted to take a year off to recharge. But Lue insisted that Drew join him in Cleveland.
The two have been joined at the hip ever since.
When Lue left the arena late Saturday night for what turned out to be his final stroll down that long hallway leading to the exit, Drew was right next to him.
In the hours after Lue learned his fate, Drew was there again.
Now, with the Cavaliers at a crossroads, he will need to be there more than ever. Only this time, without Lue by his side, as Drew tries to rewrite the story of the 2018-19 Cavaliers.