Tyronn Lue's delicate balancing act showed he was up for Cavs challenge

Lue ready to lead Cavaliers (1:17)

New Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue discusses getting his first chance at leading a team and how he will coach LeBron James. (1:17)

CLEVELAND -- The first words David Griffin heard on the other end of the line when he made an outgoing call to Los Angeles during his coaching search in the summer of 2014 caught him off-guard.

"Thank god," said Doc Rivers, the Clippers' coach, upon fielding the call from the Cleveland Cavaliers' general manager.

What a strange greeting, Griffin thought. Then Rivers continued on in his gravelly voice.

"Because I had a strong opinion of you," Rivers said, "and if you didn't call me about Ty, it'd be clear that you have no clue what you're doing."

"Ty," of course, was Tyronn Lue, one of Rivers' assistants who was on the Cavs' radar. Griffin, as part of an exhaustive mission to replace Mike Brown, included Lue in his pool of candidates that was a diverse group. There were assistants like Lue and Adrian Griffin; a Cleveland favorite in Mark Price; former head coaches Alvin Gentry, Vinny Del Negro, Mark Jackson and Lionel Hollins; college coaches John Calipari, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan and Kevin Ollie; and the man who eventually got the job, David Blatt, a legend overseas.

Lue joined Blatt on the Cavs' staff as the highest-paid assistant in league history, a record four-year, $6.5 million deal. Not only was Lue well compensated, but he was empowered by Blatt to take charge of the team's defense and encouraged by the organization to help Blatt with the nuances of the NBA game that are different from basketball in Europe (i.e. when to use a timeout versus when to wait for a scheduled break in the action for a television commercial).

As it became apparent to Cavs management over the past month that the team was not responding to Blatt with the coach-player dynamic expected in what was supposed to be a championship culture, Lue was the clear choice as a replacement. Had the team made a coaching change last summer, a league source told ESPN.com, there would have been heavy consideration for Tom Thibodeau. But 41 games into the season, after witnessing Lue continue to straddle the nearly impossible line of being a loyal assistant to Blatt while growing organic connections to the team's stars, management felt there was no one else more qualified to take the team where it wanted to go.

A 'gamer' who can relate to stars

"Man, he's a gamer," said James Jones. "Ty lives and breathes this game."

Jones is one of six players on the Cavs' roster with more than 10 years of NBA experience. Lue carved out an 11-year NBA career himself as a journeyman point guard, averaging 8.5 points and 3.1 assists while playing for seven teams.

Jones was the player charged with gathering the players on their off day to the Cavs' practice facility on Friday to inform them of the coaching decision. Rather than make 14 phone calls to spread the news, Griffin told Jones and knew he would take care of it. "He's a magician like that," Griffin said. Within 45 minutes, 13 players reported to Independence, Ohio, to hear about the franchise's change of fate (one unidentified player did not make it, as he left his phone in his car while he was inside his house).

Lue retired from playing in 2009, so those half dozen Cavs veterans had all competed against him at one time or another. He and Richard Jefferson, in fact, were teammates for a season in Milwaukee.

"He's extremely detail-oriented," Jones said. "He can tell you anything and everything about every player he played against. He's perceptive. And I think that's why he was able to be successful in all the various situations he was in. Good teams, bad teams, leadership role, major minutes, support [role], as an assistant coach and as an associate head coach. So, I just know that, even when you talk about his personal life, nothing is more important than the game. And that's what's so respected about him."

While Lue was far from a star, never averaging more than 13.5 points in a season, his path was star-crossed. He was teammates with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal with the Los Angeles Lakers and was coached by Phil Jackson. He played alongside Michael Jordan for His Airness' final two seasons in Washington. He later teamed with the likes of Tracy McGrady, Dirk Nowitzki and Dwight Howard.

He always had an ability to relate to the marquee guys, even when they were on the other side. Maybe it was because they saw Lue across from them -- listed generously at 6-foot, 175 pounds -- with his passion being really the only thing fueling his place in the league, and it made them want to work harder to get the most out of the physical attributes and skills bestowed upon them.

LeBron James was one of those opponents who couldn't help but gravitate to Lue. "We've been friends since I was 17 years old," James said.

And Lue's Forrest Gump-like path through the league the past two decades has given the Cavs faith he'll be equipped to handle his current challenge in Cleveland.

"There's nothing that he hasn't seen," James said. "He's played for Phil Jackson, he's coached with Doc [Rivers], he's been all over, so he has experience. We put our trust in him now."

'They're going to fight for this guy'

Jackson, Rivers and former Lakers general manager (and current Golden State executive) Jerry West became Lue's trusted mentors. But he has tried to glean tactics from every coach he has been around.

After the Cavs soundly lost his debut on Saturday, 96-83 to the Chicago Bulls, Lue borrowed a page out of Scott Skiles' coaching manual, opting against addressing his team in too much depth after what he described as an "emotional" loss. He would review the tape first and then deliver his message at their film session Sunday.

"I don't want to come in and say something that didn't happen because the game is so fast," Lue said. "We just brought it in and said what time we're meeting tomorrow."

But he did offer a critique to the media, saying his team isn't "in good enough shape" to run the way he wants the Cavs to on offense. It was a classic Jackson move, using reporters to plant an idea in his players' ears and apply pressure to see that directive achieved.

While Lue dubbed a quickened pace his "vision" for the team, he did not enact too much change right off the bat otherwise. He promised to expand the rotation to 10 players and include Mo Williams, but that plan went awry when several players -- James included -- asked to be subbed out quicker than he was expecting because the up-tempo style tired them out early. Lue's intended sub patterns were thrown out of whack. Williams played just three minutes.

Other than that, the only tangible changes in Lue's debut were seeing assistant coach Bret Brielmaier join the coaches' huddles for the first time, Lue having to get a new cell phone because of the more than 800 text messages he received since Friday, and the Cavs players taking part in pregame introductions for the first time in a long time.

Participating in the pregame ritual came at the behest of Lue after James had urged his teammates to eschew the practice earlier in the season in order to use that time to settle their minds before tipoff and take center court before the opponents as an intimidation technique.

Not only did Lue want the Cavs to acknowledge the intros to "give our fans what they came to see," but he also directed them to run out from the locker room to the court together for pregame warm-ups together as well.

"In the Brooklyn game, I think we had four guys come out and then we had two guys come out," Lue said. "We had just everybody just stagger out [from the locker room] and that's not 'team.'"

Reminding the players how special it is to have 20,000 fans going crazy for them was part of his overarching message when he addressed the team for the first time Saturday morning before shootaround.

"I don't think they're enjoying it," Lue said. "That was a part of my speech today. The game will pass you by, no matter how great LeBron is and Kyrie and Kevin, the game will pass you by. In 20 years, the only time they'll be recognized or talked about is if there's a record they have or if there's a comparison [to a future player]. I want them just to enjoy the moment now. It's a long journey, I know. And we got a lot of young guys and they don't really understand that. But the game will pass you by. All I know is basketball and I'm sure a lot of guys in the locker room, all they know is basketball. So, they have to enjoy it."

"There's nothing that he hasn't seen. He's played for Phil Jackson, he's coached with Doc [Rivers], he's been all over, so he has experience. We put our trust in him now." LeBron James on Tyronn Lue

There wasn't much that was enjoyable about the Chicago game. The Cavs couldn't buy a bucket, going 35-for-94 from the field overall (37.2 percent) and 4-for-24 from 3 (16.7 percent). Even worse, they were just 9-for-22 on free throws (40.9 percent).

Yet, even after falling down by 17 early in the fourth quarter, they kept playing hard, cutting the lead to eight with a couple of minutes remaining. For a team that Griffin believed tended to choose the path of least resistance under Blatt -- winning on talent if it could, but folding when real adversity hit -- that fight was a modicum of a silver lining.

"I think if we play as hard as we did tonight, then we're going to give ourselves a chance to win every night," James said.

The Cavs' 34-point loss to the Golden State Warriors just five days prior was the final straw that put Blatt's firing in motion. While the Bulls game was disappointing, it was in no way embarrassing. A team source told ESPN.com that management believes that with Lue at the helm, at least the requisite effort will be there every night. "They'll never lie down and take it again," the source said, "they're going to fight for this guy."

Lue likened the game to opening night of the Big Three era, another loss, when the Cavs wanted to win so badly that they underperformed against the New York Knicks.

Much like Lue, who Jones said remembers "anything and everything" about his experiences in the game, James has the same photographic memory. Not only did James agree with Lue's Knicks comparison, he rattled off the moment when the game ultimately got away from the Cavs -- when Carmelo Anthony hit a contested baseline jumper in the fourth quarter and "kind of took the air out of" the building.

"Real tight basketball offensively," James said. "I think Monday [against Minnesota] we'll be much better, a little bit more relaxed and get back to the flow of our game."

Turning the page

There was a minor league hockey game at Quicken Loans Arena on Saturday afternoon before the Cavs played later that night. Sometime during the Lake Erie Monsters' 1-0 loss to the Milwaukee Admirals, Blatt came by The Q to empty out his office in the Cavs' locker room.

A few Cavs staffers were in the building meeting with corporate sponsors and heard of Blatt's arrival, but chose to give the former coach his space rather than go greet him, a source told ESPN.com. A reporter who works for the Monsters actually snapped a poignant photo of Blatt walking down an empty hallway lined by Cavs insignia, bags in tow behind him, after collecting his belongings. The reporter briefly posted the photo to Twitter before taking it down at the Monsters' request, out of respect for Blatt (the Monsters are owned by the same ownership group led by Dan Gilbert which controls the Cavs).

While Blatt exited the arena into the bitter cold of the Cleveland winter, people around the league believe there will be brighter days ahead for him. With an 83-40 record coaching the Cavs and all his international credentials, the thought is, he'll get another chance.

Meanwhile, the Cavs will move on without him, hopefully to brighter days of their own.

"I'm not really worried right now about the games," Lue said. "I'm just worried about our spirit. That's more important than anything. Getting our spirit right, getting our spirit together. I think everything else will take care of itself because we have a lot of great players."

The game of basketball has fed Lue's spirit for years, enriching his life with opportunities most can only dream of. His opportunity in Cleveland -- commanding a team with a $110 million payroll built to win a championship right now -- will go one of two directions. Either the dream becomes even more surreal and Lue leads the Cavs to their first title in franchise history -- breaking a 50-plus-year ringless drought for Cleveland pro sports teams -- or Lue fails and one day in the not-distant future makes the same walk as Blatt down a lonely corridor after packing up his collection of ties that always rest a few too many inches short of his belt buckle.

"It's been one heck of a ride," Lue said. "I came into the league playing with Kobe and Shaq and for Phil Jackson. Playing with Jordan. And so, it just has been a blessing. I can't describe it any other way. Things just always seem to happen and work out for me."

The Cavs hope Lue's charmed run will continue.