By Lee Eric Smith, firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday night (May 6), Dave Joerger was the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies and the next biggest question was whether or not Mike Conley would return as a free agent.
By Monday, Joerger had been fired by the Grizzlies and announced as head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are shopping for a new head coach to start off a pivotal summer for the local NBA franchise.
“The decision was made because I believe you need a deeply committed leadership team in order to establish the strong culture needed for sustainable long-term success,” said Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace on Grizzlies.com. “(It) was not about Dave’s in-game coaching. Dave did an admirable job managing games. However, being an NBA head coach is about more than just coaching a 48-minute game.”
It’s a little too familiar, isn’t it? Popular head coach clashes with the Grizzlies front office, then leads the team to unexpected success and then unceremoniously let go weeks later? Where have we seen this movie before?
Oh yeah. Lionel Hollins, circa 2013.
And now that the Grizzlies are a team without a coach and Hollins is a coach without a team (fired midseason by the Brooklyn Nets), some Memphians are clamoring for the team to bring him back, correcting the error of letting him go in the first place. Wallace fueled speculation Monday by being photographed having dinner with his former employee at a local Humdingers.
All the team has said is that they are proceeding with the search for another coach. But who should that be? What is this “strong culture” that Joerger couldn’t sustain? Here’s my two cents on each of the top candidates, along with Hollins, who may not be a candidate at all:
Plenty of Memphians were livid when, mere weeks after guiding the team to the Western Conference Finals, Hollins contract was not renewed. He should have kept the job. Even Joerger has said that Hollins deserved to keep the job. But is he the right coach now?
The answer depends on how you feel about how far the “Core Four” – Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol – can take you. That team and the style of ball it played under Hollins is a playoff team. But in the hot-shooting, run-n-fun NBA of today, it likely won’t get you past the second round.
I love and respect Hollins. He would certainly get his team to play hard, no doubt. But unless he (or any coach) have players who can make shots while playing tough, hardnosed defense, bringing him back would be like getting back together with an old flame – fun, familiar, easy … until you remember why you broke up in the first place.
It shouldn’t really surprise anyone that the former Indiana Pacers coach is considered the frontrunner. He and Wallace worked together in Boston, and Vogel’s Pacers teams were often called “Grizzlies East” because of how hard they worked and their slower pace.
If he can duplicate his final season with the Pacers, the Grizzlies will take it. With big men David West and Roy Hibbert’s departures, Vogel maintained a top-rated defense, while speeding up the pace en route to a 45-37 record. But that team’s offensive rating also remained in the bottom third of the league. Vogel is a great coach … but (stop me if it sounds familiar) he’ll still need players.
Cleveland brought Blatt in to gradually build a team around Kyrie Irving. Then LeBron James and Kevin Love joined the squad and the new expectation was a championship. He guided them to the Finals, but was let go early in the 2015-16 season.
If Memphis is indeed looking to transition to a different style of play with significant new faces, Blatt might be the guy. Expectations would be tempered here, and absent a surprise trade for a future Hall-of-Famer, fans wouldn’t expect instant success.
The former Golden State Warriors coach and current ESPN analyst deserves some credit for laying the foundation for the Warrior’s current success. Or does he? How much of it has to do with Steph Curry’s ankles finally healing up?
At any rate, Jackson, also a minister, would be wildly popular with the church crowd here in Memphis. The question I have is whether he (or any “old-school coach”) would be able to adapt his style to how younger players see the world. I know what you’re thinking: “Younger players.” Well, the Grizzlies have to get some eventually, right? RIGHT?
Messina is currently an assistant under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, but he had a substantial coaching resume in Europe before that. And given how Spurs alumni have fared elsewhere (Mike Budenholzer, Tom Thibodeau, Mike Brown, Brett Brown), one could hope for some of that Spurs mojo to carry over.
But for all his pedigree, Messina would still be a rookie NBA head coach. Again, if expectations are reasonable, the team and its fans could grow with him. But my hunch is that the team isn’t looking for a coaching rookie – not while they’re trying to convince Mike Conley to stay.
There are the Grizzlies’ assistants – Elston Turner, Bob Thornton, Shawn Respert. There are the throwback options – Jeff Van Gundy, Mike D’Antoni, George Karl. I’d love if the Grizzlies at least interviewed Becky Hammon, also an assistant in San Antonio.
But the real questions ultimately remain around who will actually suit up on Beale this fall. Will Mike Conley return? Will Marc Gasol be healthy? Will both of them sit still for a rebuild, if that’s what it comes to? Can Wallace find more hidden gems and bargains in the “scratch and dent” bin of the NBA – especially now that teams use advanced stats to recognize a player’s contributions?
Wallace was general manager when he realized that a team built around Pau Gasol had done all it could do at that point, and he blew up the team. There were three difficult years of basketball that followed, but eventually that vision manifested into this “Grit-N-Grind” era.
Here we are again, but it’s different. I hate to say it, but the Grizzlies as currently constructed around “The Core Four” won’t make it past the second round – if they can make the playoffs at all.
But unlike Pau Gasol, whom fans liked but didn’t love, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are sports gods in Memphis. Even if their production declines – and it will – fans want to see those guys retire here. How do you jettison the players your fans show up to see?
One way you shift a team culture is by bringing in a new coach. Whoever the Grizzlies hire to replace Joerger will still need to get his players to play hard for him, particularly on the defensive end. And yes, the players will need to make shots from beyond the arc, and in bunches.
But don’t be fooled – if Wallace can’t manufacture more roster magic, it won’t much matter who the Grizzlies choose as their coach.