MIAMI -- Two months ago, Tyronn Lue was handed a fantastic opportunity and a brutally difficult job when he was given the Cleveland Cavaliers head-coaching position.
Every NBA job has its complexities -- that's the reason all the coaches are millionaires -- but the window Lue was afforded to be deemed a success was narrow. He was expected to execute without any appreciable practice time, without real experience in the job and with a group of players who seem to have a penchant for harboring drama, LeBron James being a leader in that pack recently.
Lue was also given a honeymoon period that deposed coach David Blatt never came close to enjoying. The Cavs have shown themselves to be a wildly inconsistent team for months, something Lue hasn't been able to stem. That has made it hard to judge anything, including Lue's performance, with certainty.
Lue's lineups and strategies have been in constant flux, and his attempts to enact meaningful change have been inconclusive. But it's hard to know if that is a function of his ability to lead, ability to execute a vision or ability to motivate because this Cavs team doesn't seem to do him any favors when it comes to continuity of focus.
What is perhaps fair is to look at some concrete numbers. Since Lue became coach, the Cavaliers' defense has fallen off a cliff. After getting smoked by the Miami Heat and giving up 122 points Saturday, the Cavs are 14th in defensive rating since Lue took control. In the same span, they rank a stunning 20th in defensive field goal percentage, as their effort and fundamentals have suffered a clear erosion.
What makes it more interesting is the Cavs were fifth in defensive rating and ninth in field goal defense when Lue was in charge of the defense before Blatt was fired. Lue has since hired assistant coach Mike Longabardi to be the defensive coordinator, and he has turned his focus to offense.
Was Lue's taking his primary focus off the defense a mistake or a function of moving to the head job, in which he doesn't have time to focus on defensive calls as much as he did when he was coordinator? Again, this is hard to say because it's still so early, but the results have not been favorable.
"When I was a player for Doc [Rivers], I never used to understand why he got mad at the little things," Lue said. "Now I see why coaches get mad about little, small things. It happens a lot. Things I want to do, things I want [to] implement, it's been tough to do it midway through the season."
Lue's focus on the Cavs' playing faster on offense and with more effective small lineups, notably with increased time for James at power forward, has seen Cleveland increase its scoring by five points per 100 possessions. That's good midseason improvement. But the Cavs were already the No. 5 offense before Lue took over, and the defense's collapse has erased any gains the improved offense created. This has come amid endless lineup changes as Lue searches for something that works consistently.
"The game moves so fast. There's a lot of decisions you have to make being in that lead chair, and you have to make them right now," Lue said. "Sometimes when you're down and out, you've got to change your lineups, depending on how the game goes."
This is a reasonable answer and a reasonable position to take. As is frequently the case in the NBA, there's a chicken-and-egg scenario when it comes to consistency. Players like to know exactly what their roles and minute loads will be, but to establish them, the coach has to know what he will get night in and night out.
James has yo-yoed among point guard, small forward, power forward and, on Saturday, center. Kyrie Irving has gone from primary ball handler to playing off the ball. Kevin Love has been declared a priority but was benched in the fourth quarter Friday in Orlando. Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov have traded places in the starting lineup.
This is the modern NBA of flexible position basketball. But this is a team that looks way more variable than contenders typically do at this point of the season, based on what history tells us.
"As a player, you feel [a loss is] everybody's fault. As a coach, you lose a game, you feel it's your fault. That's been the toughest thing for me."Tyronn Lue
Is this Lue not getting it done? Or is he making the best by fighting to steady a rollicking ship? It's not fair to make a judgment, but there isn't much time left to form one.
"Consistency is a part of life," James said Saturday. "You would like to be playing extremely well in late February going into March."
The Cavaliers are not. They are 9-6 in their past 15 games, a run that has allowed the Toronto Raptors to get within a game of the Cavs for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
One thing that can be said with confidence is if the past two months had played out with Blatt as head coach, the outside evaluation of the coach's performance would probably be different. Popular in the locker room, more under control with the media and with capital from years in the league, Lue is getting some breathing room.
But the calendar says that's about to end, and Lue is quite aware of that.
"There's been many ups and downs. When you lose a game, you feel like the world is ending," he said. "As a player, you feel it's everybody's fault. As a coach, you lose a game, you feel it's your fault. That's been the toughest thing for me."