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Section 109: “Luke” Says the Force Wasn’t With Him

January 14, 2010

Not that anyone in Cleveland was asking John Lucas for his opinion, but he claims the organization wanted to “tank” to get LeBron James. Where there other factors involved? Like maybe the roster wasn’t that good? Maybe the coach wasn’t that good? Let’s check the records, shall we?

John Lucas coached six seasons in the NBA and several winning seasons in the minors in which he was lauded for taking hopeless project players and making them win. In his first year coaching in San Antonio, here are some of the players he had, none of whom would be considered “projects:”

David Robinson
J.R. Reid
Avery Johnson
Dale Ellis
Sean Elliott
Antoine Carr
Terry Cummings
Sidney Green
Vinnie Del Negro

A great mix of young talent and experienced veterans, they finished 49-33. Lucas doesn’t even get credit for all the wins, because former UNLV coach Jerry “The Shark” Tarkanian started the season as the head coach. That was a failed experiment that lasted 20 games, and although Tarkanian didn’t seem to have a clue how to coach the pros, he still managed to win nine games.

The next year the Spurs front office added a couple of guys you might have heard of, veteran guard Sleepy Floyd and some guy named Dennis Rodman. There were six players on the roster with six years or more in the league. They had Robinson and Rodman, who grabbed about 2,200 rebounds between them. The Spurs won 55 games. Excuse me, “Luke,” but Randy Wittman could have won 55 games with this team.

So you win 55 games, you keep your great, winning coach, right? Hmm, for some reason the Spurs let Luke slip away to Philadelphia. Ahh, time for him to work another miracle.

The biggest name on the Sixers ’94 roster was — Shawn Bradley. Just to make sure the force was powerful with him, Lucas brought problem child Lloyd Daniels along from the Spurs. He liked his “project” players. Without The Admiral and Rodman, though, Lucas coached the Sixers to a 24-58 finish. Clearly, someone was sabotaging Lucas.

Oh, yeah, remember the 2,200 rebounds that Rod and Robinson alone got the year before? Lucas managed to coach his team and its 7-6 center so well the whole roster only grabbed an average 3,335 rebounds.

The next year the Sixers went through 24 players — yes, 24 — trying to get some mojo for Luke. Even with high-flying rookie Jerry Stackhouse, the team got worse: an 18-64 record. Clearly, Philly had its radar on LeBron, who was 12 years old.

For some reason the Sixers weren’t impressed with John Lucas that year. That freed him up to sign with the Cavs a few years later, beginning with the 2001-02 season. At this point, he inherited two future all-stars, Andre Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a bunch of NBA journeymen and a couple rooks who would quickly disappear from the league (bye Trajan Langdon, Jeff Trepagnier). Z would miss 20 games this season.The backups in the post were second-year man Chris Mihm, rookie DeSagana Diop and Mike Doleac. A 29-53 record wasn’t an unbelieveable finish.

In 2002-03, Lucas did not get a great team to work with — I will give him that. But Z played in 81 games, and he had good fours in rookie Carlos Boozer and ageless veteran Ty Hill. He had Darius Miles and Ricky Davis to run the break. They still had Diop, who Lucas insisted he could mold into an NBA player (he still isn’t). The main thing was this team didn’t have was a point guard. You don’t win in the NBA without a point guard. But at that time, there were a lot of teams that couldn’t come up with a point. This was several years before Rondo, Deron, Derrick Rose, CP3 and more raised the overall talent level at the position.

But after Lucas got canned mid-season, Keith Smart — a guy who had no head coaching experience — got the same roster to win one more game than Lucas had.

So there it is in a nutshell — three teams, two years a piece, four losing seasons. Was it the Cavs or could it be Lucas? Speaking of nutshells, keep in mind that when Lucas was hired he was considered, uh, unconventional. Does anyone else remember the game where Lucas was standing on the sidelines next to one of the Cavs (I think it was Smush Parker), waiting for the ref to signal the inbound — and he leaned over and kissed his player right on top of his head?

Sometimes coaches lose the attention of their players. Even good coaches, they just realize they’re not getting through to guys. Either they adapt and find a different way to reach them, or they get canned. If your coaching style is a little, uh, uncoventional, that might happen a little quicker. Like in about two years.

© 2010 Dan Goldberg

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