Dave Joerger has been the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies for almost half a season, but he hasn’t been under the microscope yet. That’s about to change.
Joerger began the season as most coaches do — with a bit of a Cinderella effect. The team started slow, but with the roster moves and new style of play, people didn’t jump on Joerger too much to begin with. You have to let the coach find out what players can, and more importantly can’t, do. There was a lot of confusion on the court early in the season while Joerger experimented with different lineups and combinations.
Joerger seemed to be settling on a lineup and style, somewhat similar to the previous coach’s lineups and style actually, on the West Coast road trip — and then the injuries started. First Gasol, and then Randolph, Allen, Conley, Quincy, Prince, Davis and Allen (again) went down to various ailments. No one could hold the coach accountable for the team’s struggles with so many players injured.
I know a few misguided fans did blame the loss of Hollins for what they saw on the court, but that isn’t fair to either coach. A lot of days, the Grizzlies couldn’t even field enough players to practice after all. For a new coach with a lot of new faces on the roster, you have to give the man a bit of leeway.
That’s all about to change.
Outside of Quincy Pondexter, who is out for the season, the Grizzlies are about to be fully healthy for the first time all season. Over the next two weeks, both Marc Gasol and Tony Allen should be returning to play and suddenly the Grizzlies have 12 players needing minutes every night.
That isn’t going to happen that often either. Most teams only play 9-10 players in a game during the regular season, and 2-3 of those players saw only spot duty. Former Memphis Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown was known for his 10-man balanced rotations not because they were the norm, but rather the exception.
Now, Dave Joerger has a team with 12 men who have earned playing time. How is he going to keep all of the players happy, not to mention the fans that have grown attached to the players filling in for the injured players?
Outside of Conley’s backup Nick Calathes, every one of the players have made contributions that warrant them seeing the court. Calathes is getting playing time because the Grizzlies have no one else to play PG at this time, and Conley can’t run the point for 48 minutes a night, after all.
Newly acquired Courtney Lee has shown the ability to not only play, but possibly start ahead of Tony Allen. A similar argument could be made for James Johnson starting over Tayshaun Prince. Allen and Prince are both over 30 and will likely be professional about both not starting and playing fewer minutes. Allen has shown the ability to be equally productive starting or coming off the bench in both Memphis and Boston.
However, Prince has always been a starter in both the pros and college. No one knows how he will act and perform coming off the bench. If he remains the starter, and all signs point to him doing so, how will he accept losing minutes to James Johnson, especially at the end of close games? Prince has always appeared to be level-headed and a calming influence in the locker room. Will that continue to be the case if his minutes are curtailed dramatically?
Then, there is the question about Mike Miller? How is the sharp-shooter with 2 championship rings going to get playing time with everyone healthy? Miller has been in this position before and likely will accept some DNP-Coach’s Decisions without complaint. He’s 33 and has fought a bad back for years and accepted the DNPs in Miami behind Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Will he be as accommodating sitting behind James Johnson and Courtney Lee?
What about promising rookie Jamaal Franklin? Will the Grindson be relegated to D-League activity for the rest of the season? He’s already been sent down to the D-League twice.
The interior positions are a (pardon the pun) larger problem.
Zach Randolph has never taken well to sitting on the bench and frankly, with the way he’s been producing, it makes little sense to keep him off the court for long stretches of time. He’s averaging 19.3 PPG on 46.7% FG shooting and 12.8 in January and added 3.0 APG as well. Clearly, Z-Bo has earned his minutes.
Ed Davis, the “gem” of the Rudy Gay trade, has been impressive behind Z-Bo, averaging 10.0 PPG, 8.3 RPG and shooting 57.8%. Davis is 24 and approaching restricted free agency this summer. Any drop in playing time will likely cost him money this summer and could be a problem with attitude and team chemistry if Davis starts to feel he has to do more in limited minutes to impress potential suitors this summer.
Then, there is the center rotation of Marc Gasol and Kosta Koufos. Gasol has been out for a long time and won’t likely be logging major minutes right when he initially returns, but clearly, once he gets his legs back he needs to be on the court for 70% of the game. That leaves Koufos with only 14-15 minutes a night, at best. Will the 24-year-old Greek center accept that role after starting 80 games for the Nuggets last year who won 57 games and finished 3rd in the Western Conference?
Finally, there is Jon Leuer. The Jonny Badger excited the fans with his play early in the season, but has apparently hit a wall recently. He’s already beginning to see his minutes dwindle as Z-Bo and Davis return to full health. Throw in Gasol’s return, and one has to wonder where the 24-year-old fits into the Grizzlies’ plans — both for the rest of the year and moving forward. Leuer can fill the role of Stretch-4 at times, but he’s not a great defender and that makes it difficult to see him getting consistent minutes ahead of Davis or Koufos. It doesn’t help that Leuer is 2-11 in his last two games in just 24 minutes. A gunner who doesn’t make shots isn’t likely to earn a lot more playing time.
So, now it begins. Joerger is past the Cinderella phase and the injured players are returning. The first real test for Joerger won’t be how to substitute players or develop a roster. He inherited a good roster and it has been improved since he took over. The real test will be how to get the players who have contributed so far to buy into contributing off the court moving forward, to give 100% in practice, and then watch the games from the best seat in the building while cheering for teammates, knowing they won’t likely be cheered for themselves.
Of course, some more roster moves by the front office would ease some of Joerger’s problems by shipping the depth at the wings and interior for some much-needed help behind Conley, but that isn’t always as easily done as it is said. Teams will be looking to take advantage of the Grizzlies’ search for a back-up PG to unload a bad player or a bad contract. Everyone can see what fans see on the Grizzlies’ roster, after all. Too many players with too few minutes to play and one glaring hole in the lineup is not exactly negotiating from a position of strength.
In the meantime, Joerger has to still fully integrate Johnson and Lee into the Grizzlies’ system, balance the practice time between moving forward with the healthy players while retraining the players returning from injury, and keep everyone focused on the team goals instead of individual accomplishments. This is the moment people will look at when deciding how well or how poorly Joerger did in his first season in Memphis.