Devising a strategy to defeat the Golden State Warriors four times in a seven-game span would be a tall task for any coach. For Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue, 39, an NBA Finals victory over the defending champions would also put him in a select club of coaches to win a title in their first season as an NBA coach.
Steve Kerr did it last year with Golden State, but prior to that, the last person to accomplish this feat was the legendary Pat Riley. Riley coached the Showtime Lakers to a championship in the 1981-82 season after replacing Paul Westhead, who also won a title with the Lakers in his first season as an NBA head coach in 1979-80. The last rookie head coach to do it before that came 24 years earlier, when George Senesky won it all for the 1955-1956 Philadelphia Warriors.
According to Basketball-Reference records dating back to the first official NBA season in 1950 (the league was called the BAA from 1947 to 1949), rookie head coaches are 4-10 in the NBA Finals.
How rare was it for two first-year coaches, Kerr and Cleveland’s David Blatt, to appear in last year’s NBA Finals? The last rookie head coach to reach the finals before that was Phoenix’s Paul Westphal, whose Phoenix Suns lost to the Chicago Bulls in six games to end the 1992-93 season. Two years prior, first-year coach Mike Dunleavy took over for Riley and led the Lakers to the Finals, only to fall to the Bulls in five games for Michael Jordan’s first championship.
To finish up this quick history lesson of first-year coaches who made the NBA Finals and lost, Lenny Wilkins did it with the Seattle Sonics in 1977-78, preceded by Joe Mullaney for the 1969-70 Lakers, Butch Van Breda Kolff for the 1967-68 Lakers, Bill Sharman for the 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors, Alex Hannum for the 1956-57 St. Louis Hawks, Charles Eckman of the 1954-55 Fort Wayne Pistons and Al Cervi for the 1949-50 Syracuse Nationals.
Returning to the present day, Lue will look to buck a historical trend in more ways than one, for first-year head coaches and the entire city of Cleveland. There will be some amount of coverage devoted to the “tale of the tape” between the two coaches in this year’s Finals, Lue and Kerr, but one former NBA Finals head coach is not very fond of coaching matchups or comparisons.
“When they say coaching matchups, I couldn’t disagree more. You’re not coaching against the other coach, you’re coaching your team to try to put that team in the best possible position to win,” ESPN/ABC analyst Jeff Van Gundy — who coached the New York Knicks in the 1998-99 Finals and is an analyst for a record-setting 10th NBA Finals— told The Comeback in a media conference call. “And so when I see the inevitable comparisons, I don’t get it.”
So far, Lue has done a pretty good job in putting Cleveland in position to succeed. The Cavs have gone from very good to elite in terms of 3-point shooting this postseason, up from 36.2 percent as a team during the regular season to a blistering, pavement-melting 43.4 percent during the playoffs. That’s the best postseason percentage in the league, better than even the vaunted Warriors.
Lue’s helped the Cavs improve defensively as well. Cleveland’s 94.3 points per game allowed during the postseason ranked first among the four teams that reached the conference finals.
“I don’t think there’s one thing Ty Lue is unprepared for,” Van Gundy said.
Lue is certainly not foreign to championship-level basketball, having played under Phil Jackson and coached under Doc Rivers. But ultimately, Van Gundy said, it’s not about him or up to him whether he’s able to win the series.
“It’s gonna come down to whether his players can play well enough,” Van Gundy said. “But I don’t think it comes down to him, in any way, at any type of disadvantage.”
Despite all the analysis, punditry and Twitter hot takes that will engulf this year’s NBA Finals, for Lue to become the fifth rookie head coach to win an NBA title, success or failure will ultimately be all about how LeBron James and the Cavs execute on the court.