It was easy to be optimistic about this season for the Memphis Grizzlies. The team had a solid core, returning veterans to man the bench and a new ownership group that looked smart and excited to be involved in the community. It was going to be David slaying Goliath in Memphis this season.
Those good feelings seem so long ago today.
Today Memphis’s situation resembles a different story. Instead of David and Goliath, the fans of Memphis face Pandora and her mythical box of ills.
For those who don’t remember the story it goes like this. Pandora, the first woman on earth, was given a box that contained all the evils of the world. She was told not to open it under any circumstance. Pandora couldn’t control her curiosity and opened the box releasing the evils to spread around the world.
In so many ways that analogy relates to the Memphis Grizzlies.
The new ownership took control of the Grizzlies franchise on Oct. 31. The owners didn’t mess with the box despite the team lost their game that night. The Grizzlies went on a glorious run winning 12 of their next 13 games to hold the best record in the NBA after November. All was well in the world of the NBA and Memphis. The Grizzlies record went to 14-3 on December 7th (Pearl Harbor Day coincidently).
But the box looked so pretty and it was so nerve-racking not to open it. How bad could it be after all? So, Jason Levien and Robert Pera decided to open it up and out poured all the evils that previously existed but had been boxed up behind closed doors. Not all at once but agonizingly slowly news dripped out that things were about to change in Grizz Nation.
Dec. 14th: First Major Change Announced Since Ownership Change
The Grizzlies leadership decided to bring in someone new and John Hollinger was added to the front office.
The timing was a little strange despite the team being on their first 3 game losing streak of the season. However it looked like an intelligent decision. Hollinger was a well-respected analyst who, despite no formal experience with an NBA team, had long discussed ways to improve NBA rosters at ESPN. Hollinger was the person who came up with the Player Efficiency Rating (PER). He was widely respected around the league.
Stu Lash, a close personal friend of Levien, also joined the front office.
With the hiring of John Hollinger and Stu Lash the Grizzlies released the scouting department including Tony Barone, Jr. and Sr., the two men credited or blamed for most of the draft mistakes the Grizzlies had over the previous years.
It was widely assumed this meant more shakeups in the front office were coming. The hiring appeared to degrade Chris Wallace’s authority on the team. Wallace, extremely popular in Memphis, was part of the old administration and most people already assumed a change with him would be made.
Little did anyone realize just how much was about to be changed.
Dec. 18th: Press Gets a Whiff of Internal Problems
Peter Vescey tweets that “Clearly Chris Wallace days numbered. Got 2 think Lionel Hollins also approaching exit ramp. Top aide spotted in parking lot talking up CEO.”
Now what would make it a story instead of just a tweet would have been if Vescey reported that the top aide (rumored to be Dave Joerger) refused to talk to the CEO in the parking lot of course. Still the idea clearly surfaced that things were about to be shook up at least in the front office. Despite still being one among the best records in the league, cracks were starting to show both on and off the court.
Dec. 20th: Lionel Starts Pointing Fingers
Lionel Hollins tells the local paper that “I didn’t like the stuff that Hubie [Brown] ran and that Mike [Fratello] ran. It’s just preference. I have all of their (former coaches he worked with) playbooks, too. But for our team, I thought the stuff (the Bucks under Scott Skiles) ran would work. And it did. But we’ve gotten away from a lot of it since we’ve had Zach (Randolph). “
What? It sounded like Hollins was blaming Zach Randolph for the team’s declining offensive production.
Dec 22nd: First Major on Court Breakdown
The Grizzlies lose their 7th game of the season in Houston by a score of 121-96. It was the 2nd game of a back to back series and the Grizzlies had defeated the Mavs and the return of O J Mayo the night before. It was only a let-down game albeit a particularly ugly one.
The night after Christmas the Grizzlies lost at home to Philadelphia, a team struggling to remain in the playoff hunt in the easy Eastern Conference. The Grizzlies finished the month losing in Indianapolis with another 4th quarter collapse. The team ended 2012 losing three of their last four games and half of their games in the month of December. It was a disturbing turn of events for the team that entered December 12-2.
January 11th: Hollins Addresses Trade Rumors
The Grizzlies appeared to get back on top of things to start the New Year. A win in Boston triggered a 5 wins in 6 game stretch with only a 2 point loss to Portland keeping the Grizzlies from being perfect to start the season. The OT win against San Antonio capping the streak.
The press had been feeding on leaks for weeks suggesting that the Grizzlies were trying desperately to trade Rudy Gay so they wouldn’t end the season above the luxury tax line. As incredible as it sounds, the coach of the team with the 4th best record in the NBA at the time would have to go public to dispel trade rumors about his leading scorer and others.
“I like our team,” Hollins said during an appearance on local radio in Memphis. “I like the way we’ve grown the last few years, our maturity, and I would certainly as a coach like to keep our team together and see where we go this year. If management decides after the season is over that they want to move somebody for whatever reason, we’ll deal with that. But in the middle of a season, as successful as we are, it would be a big letdown.”
Hollins was putting his foot down and he didn’t stop there. In what has come to be believed a direct attack on John Hollinger, formerly of ESPN, and his statistical analytic approach.
“We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that’s a bad trait all over the league that’s taken place. And the media has done it because it’s easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. Just the analyzing, I see it every time listening to talk show radio. You’ve got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat. The bottom line is going out and contributing to your team for winning.“
January 22nd: Grizzlies Trade 3 Bench Players in Salary Dump
11 days after Lionel Hollins came out in the media pleading with the Front Office to not tear apart the team in mid-season, the Grizzlies front office announced that Mo Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby plus a future 1st round draft pick were sent to Cleveland for Jon Leuer.
For a coach working on a 1 year contract and who had gone to the media to say he was against any mid-season trade, that was a slap in the face. There could no longer be any doubt that Hollins and the Grizzlies front office weren’t on the same page. No more denials that the lack of new contract negotiations was simply a timing issue. No more denials of the numerous rumors swirling that the front office wasn’t actually making a trade.
The good news was that three players will limited impact on the bigger picture with the team were all that were leaving. The “Core Four” players of Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley were remaining. The potential for playoff success still existed. The immediate financial difficulties were behind the team. They could now focus on the season, the playoffs and all the other issues could wait until the off-season.
January 31st: Champagne Taste on a Beer Budget
The long rumored end to Rudy Gay’s career in Memphis didn’t go so easily as the previous trade. Gone were Rudy and fan favorite Hamed Haddadi and in their place were Ed Davis, Austin Daye and veteran Tayshaun Prince.
Rumors almost immediately surfaced that the Grizzlies never intended to stop simply with Speights, Ellington and Selby and were frankly upset that they didn’t immediately get better offers for Gay after the first deal. Stories of Gay wanting if not insisting on a trade surfaced. Stories of an unhappy locker room run with bullying players (Zach Randolph and Tony Allen) who made life miserable for not only Rudy but O J Mayo last season before him.
The trade occurred the day of a nationally televised game in Oklahoma City no less. Lionel Hollins didn’t attempt to mask his displeasure.
“When you have champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget. It’s a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market. I’ve been with the Grizzlies for 11 years in Memphis.”
Hollins feared that moving so important a piece as Rudy Gay would have farther reaching issues with the team than just figuring out how to replace his 17.5 PPG. The emotional letdown from the remaining players was what truly concerned Hollins. In the three games played with the new team the Grizzlies beat a short-handed Washington Wizards team and lost to the Phoenix Suns and Atlanta Hawks. The effort has been less than the Grizzlies Grit and Grind mantra suggests is normal. It’s been sub-par for any team much less a team that was considered back in early December to be the best team in the league at that time and a serious contender for an NBA Finals appearance.
Fans of Memphis have heard the reasons why the box had to be opened. New owners and new management means new people in high places. Financial penalties have altered the landscape for small market teams with the penalty for over-paying for teams too severe to justify economically. The moves needed to be made now to give the team the best opportunity to regroup and compete in the playoffs.
While not one of these individual events has been catastrophic, the cumulative effect of all the moves, rumors and changes has weakened the franchise in the fans eyes.
The Future: At Least One More Ill to Come?
It is most likely that Pandora’s Box has not finished spreading its disease upon the Grizzlies franchise. Almost assuredly Lionel Hollins will be shown the door in the near future. Possibly before the All-Star break but almost assuredly by June 30th when all present contracts expire.
That will end the tenure of the most successful coach in franchise history. It is possible that Tony Allen (an unrestricted free agent), Zach Randolph (the last truly expensive contract on the roster) or other players will be moved as well but Hollins is a walking dead man today. His on-court success can’t cover the missteps he’s made this season.
Hollins is a popular coach in Memphis but you can’t insult your front office in the media and not expect repercussions. Hollins airing of his dirty laundry appears to have strained the relationship between the front office and the team. More importantly, Hollins has refused to play rookie Tony Wroten and the jewel of the Rudy Gay trade Ed Davis.
6-11 Ed Davis scores extremely high in Hollinger’s PER system and not playing him, especially in the Phoenix game, shows a total disrespect for Hollinger’s’ work. To go out after the game and complain about not having a back-up center to put into the game just magnifies the lack of trust between the two groups.
It appears it is only a matter of time until Hollins is gone as well.