Now that the decision not to bring Lionel Hollins back as the head coach has been made – or made public – there will be at least two distinct narratives that arise, much as there were when Rudy Gay was traded. The lazy narrative will be that the new ownership wanted to keep cost down and dropped the ball by letting the most successful coach in franchise history leave. The more thoughtful narrative will look at the long-term implications of letting Hollins walk in the interest of trying to realize the new ownership’s vision for the franchise.
Before we get into it, I think it is important to point out that there are some undeniable truths.
1. Lionel Hollins was the most successful coach in franchise history, but the franchise also hadn’t exactly had much success. It isn’t as though Hollins won 5 rings here. This isn’t Phil Jackson that just packed up his office in FedExForum.
2.Lionel is a Memphian and that makes this feel a little harder to swallow. We are not used to hearing people say they want to be in Memphis. Lionel is also crafty and understands this city’s psyche. It is naïve to think that he didn’t know exactly how that would play when he started taking to the radio and TV waves last week. I don’t mean to say that it was not sincere, by the way. I’m just saying that Lionel has been around a long time and knows how to play the game.
3. Nobody is happy to see Lionel go. (Except Chris Vernon, to hear Lionel tell it.) Everybody appreciates what Lionel accomplished here. He took a group of unstructured basketball players and shaped them into a team. He took a job that not many people wanted and was paid peanuts for the privilege. There may not be many coaches in the NBA that could take the team from where it was in 2009 to where it is today. That took a certain kind of coach with a certain “chip-on-his-shoulder” mentality. Lionel fit that mold perfectly.
Personally, as much as I think Lionel was uniquely suited to bring the team from the lows of 2009 to present, there are a good number of coaches who could have the same level of success (or more) with the team as it is constructed today. Apparently, management feels the same way.
The question for the front office was not whether they appreciate what Lionel has done for this team, franchise and city. This is not just about rewarding prior success – it is about pursuing something bigger. The real question was whether they believe that they can work with Lionel to achieve their long-term goals. Undoubtedly, everyone shares the big goal: win an NBA title. There are a lot of different philosophies, however, on how you reach that goal. If management has a vision for reaching that ultimate destination then it is reasonable that they want someone running the show on-court that shares that vision. Even in the best of circumstances, winning is hard (just ask Josh Pastner). If you’re having to pull your head coach along the path like a stubborn mule, you don’t have a prayer.
The truth is that Lionel has known what he needed to do to keep this job for 9+ months. He knew that if he wanted to keep his job as the Grizzlies head coach, he was going to have to show some flexibility about how the roster would be structured, developed and utilized. Instead, he buried the “big prize” of the Rudy Gay trade (Ed Davis) at the end of the bench. I don’t mean to suggest that Davis should have been plugged in to the starting lineup or taken minutes away from Zach Randolph, of course, but management obviously valued Davis and Hollins instead continued to play Darrel Arthur, despite his remarkable ineffectiveness.
At the risk of oversimplifying the complicated dance between Hollins and management, if he had played Davis every minute that he instead played Arthur, he very well may have gotten an extension. Realistically, if Davis failed to produce, Hollins had a get-out-of-jail-free card because the decision rested on management. Instead, Lionel did what Lionel does: he was stubborn. Coach Hollins assumed that the results would be enough to get him the contract he wanted in Memphis. There is nothing wrong with standing behind what you believe, and many of us respect him for sticking to his guns. However, he cannot now be cast as the blameless victim. The reality of employment is that you have to do your job the way your boss wants you to do it. If you don’t, you will be looking for new employment.
Looking forward, a few things are important to keep in mind: (a) it was unlikely that the Grizzlies were going to advance to the WCF (or NBA Finals) next year — with or without Hollins; (b) whether next season is a success will be determined more by the personnel decisions made by management in the coming months than by this decision; (c) what has been built in Memphis the last three years is bigger than any one person, whether that be Lionel Hollins, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph or anyone else; (d) the new ownership group is going to put their own stamp on this franchise and they will be judged for it, for better or worse.
If you disagree with the decision to let Lionel go, you are not being unreasonable. However, I think that we have to give this new group a chance to pursue their vision. Undoubtedly, they’ve taken a huge gamble. If the Grizzlies continue their success over the coming years, they will look great. If the Grizzlies take a step backwards, they will look awful. It is that simple. But it is their decision to make. They know the stakes and aren’t making decisions arbitrarily – something the prior ownership was notorious for doing. And don’t fall victim to the lazy narrative you’re about to encounter. This wasn’t about saving money. This wasn’t about disrespecting what Hollins achieved here. This certainly wasn’t about Hollins and Hollinger not getting along. This was about the front office wanting a partner on the sidelines.
Ultimately, whether you agree or disagree with the decision, the most important thing for #GrizzNation to do now is to hope it was the right decision. Our shirts, bumper stickers and towels are branded with one unifying message: believe. That does not change because you disagree with a decision made by management, a play called by a coach or a shot missed by a player. No matter what, you believe.
Grind on, Memphis