People have been wondering lately if the Memphis Grizzlies wouldn’t be more successful this season if Lionel Hollins was still the coach. Perhaps now that the season is over it would be a good time to revisit this discussion.
Let me start off by saying I supported Lionel Hollins completely as Head Coach and didn’t understand why he wasn’t being extended during last season’s impressive run. I held that support right up unto the day he went on a local radio show and basically insulted the front office and their vision of the relationship between the FO and Head Coach. Even I had to admit after I heard the interview that Hollins and the Grizzlies Front Office needed to separate for the betterment of the franchise.
So if I sound at times like I am supporting Hollins way of doing things there is a history there to support that belief.
I credit Hollins with changing the culture of the team from a perennial loser to a successful franchise and that isn’t easy to do. It is easy to forget today but when Hollins took over the Grizzlies were the worst team in professional sports. They had NEVER won a playoff game. Forget a series. They hadn’t won a single game. They also were coming off a season where they had the worst record in the league. They had more head coaches than first round draft picks who lasted a full season since arriving in Memphis.
Okay. That is isn’t true.
The Grizzlies only had Sydney Lowe, Hubie Brown, Mike Fratello, Marc Iavaroni, Tony Barone and of course interim Lionel Hollins prior to Lionel getting the full-time gig. That’s 6 head coaches. 1st round picks that lasted over a year were Shane Battier, Hakim Warrick and Mike Conley. Pau Gasol wasn’t a Grizzlies draft pick. Neither were O J Mayo, Dahntay Jones and Troy Bell since they were acquired via draft night trades. The rest were Jamal Tinsley (traded immediately to Indiana), Drew Gooden (traded to Orlando during his rookie year), Kendrick Perkins and Marcus Banks (both draft night trades). So the Grizzlies actually drafted three players that lasted over a year with the team.
Oh my goodness! The Grizzlies DID have more Head Coaches than first round draft picks who played for the team at least one year before Hollins arrived. Twice as many coaches as #1 picks actually. Heck, if you include draft night trades you only add Pau Gasol, O J Mayo, Dahntay Jones and Troy Bell and Bell only played in 6 games for the Grizzlies his one season here.
Clearly Hollins took over a team that didn’t win games or even how to win games and didn’t value building players either. The front office was in disarray due to owner interference as well. Hollins taught the team how to win playing his way and the team became successful doing that. Hollins got the team to buy into a system that could be successful even if it wasn’t popular. That is very difficult to do in a league dominated by player’s egos as much as basketball intelligence. He got them to think team instead of individual.
Joerger inherited a team that was built to win and win in the playoffs right away. That is a luxury few rookie NBA coaches are given. He also inherited a front office that values draft picks and seems to be well organized and efficient.
That isn’t to say he was given a team on a golden platter. Joerger has dealt with numerous issues Hollins didn’t have to deal with (and that isn’t only Front Office interference) and he has done it without upsetting the Front Office or losing the team despite what was being reported from certain media types earlier in the season. People remember the Grizzlies brought back their starting five from last season’s western conference Finals team but they forget that only 5 players were on the team at the start of the 2012-13 season are still on the team now and one, Quincy Pondexter, has missed most of the season due to injury.
Joerger has been judicious in how he has changed the style of the team to be more flexible and therefore more dangerous as a group. He has moved too fast for some of the old school fans and not fast enough to please some who have bought into the efficiency of shot attempts statistics. Still he has been changing the team little by little while not disrupting what has been successful along the way.
In simple terms, he didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater by trying to replace what was worked.
The team still goes inside before looking outside for instance and that is a good thing. However players have a been granted a bit brighter green light under Joerger to take outside shots if the defense is set on stopping the inside game. It’s been a subtle change but a change for the better just the same.
In November the team averaged 4.2 3 pt. makes a game. In April the team has averaged 5.3 makes. What’s more the team is ranked in the middle of the pack in 3 pt. shooting percentage compared to being in the bottom fifth last season in 3 pt. percentage for the season and in April they are in the top 10 in 3 pt. shooting percentage (37.4%). In October and November the Grizzlies were last in the league in 3 pt. percentage (30.9%).
Part of that is because the team is playing better shooters but part of it also could be because the shooters the team has have greater freedom than in the past. Missing a three point shot doesn’t earn you a quick trip to the bench anymore. Last season making a three point shot sometimes earned you bench time.
My view is that Joerger is helping the team to learn to win games outside of the Hollins way but he isn’t rushing them there. It is a process that has allowed the team to keep winning while breaking away from what has led to that success in the past. I am glad the team had Hollins to establish a winning culture. It is now on Joerger’s back to grow that culture outside of the limited style of the past.
The test will be in the playoffs. Will the team continue to be effective on the perimeter and take advantage of team’s inside as well or not? Can they win under Joerger’s coaching style or not?
I don’t know if this season will be a true indicator of Joerger’s ability to coach in the playoffs. Fans expected at least a semi-final conference appearance this season not a matchup in the 1st round against one of the two best teams in the league. However, until Joerger does prove he can coach a team in the NBA playoffs, he’s proven it in the minor leagues already, there will be fans clamoring that Joerger was a mistake and Hollins needs to be brought back.