Excerpts from this interview appear in the print edition of this week's Flyer. Note: This interview was conducted last Thursday, before Marc Gasol suffered a sprained ankle on Sunday.
Lionel Hollins: I would say that. That's where we hung our hat last year and where we made our improvement. We were 30th in rebounding the year before Zach came and last year we were fourth. We were first in offensive rebounding and first in points in the paint and first in second-chance points. So I think that's definitely our identity. We want to play hard-nosed defense, rebound the ball, and run. But get it inside to our post people in our halfcourt offense, and even in early offense.
Obviously that frontcourt duo is surrounded by some talented and high-profile perimeter players. Do you think they've bought into the notion that emphasizing the inside game is what this team needs to do to win?
Well, obviously they did [last year]. But we posted Rudy a lot and other guys have the opportunity to do their thing. That's the balance we have. If we have to slow it down, we go inside. But if we have the opportunity, we'll run — and I hope we have more opportunities to run this year because we'll be a better defensive team.
We've talked before about Randolph coming in slimmer and how you thought his conditioning could help to ward off fatigue and potential injuries. But what about Gasol? He finished last season with the shoulder injury and then played this summer with the Spanish National Team. Any concern about his ability to hold up over the course of the season?
No. I think if Hasheem's improvement is significant, as it has been in the preseason, then we'll have options. We didn't have many options last season and all the starters played way too many minutes. I think that Rudy Gay will probably still play a lot of minutes. He's young and athletic, and those kinds of guys tend to play more. I'd like to rest Zach more, and I think Darrell Arthur has come along. Hasheem has come along. Sam Young has come along. So, hopefully we'll have the opportunity to use more people. We've added Xavier and Tony Allen. That added depth gives us options. If guys aren't playing well or get in foul trouble, you don't have to leave them in the game. If there's a bad mismatch, you don't have to leave them in the game. Last year, we just had so many young guys who weren't ready to play, so we did what we had to do.
It sounds like you're pretty comfortable with where the team is in terms of building up the bench.
No question. It's not that the young guys [last year] couldn't play, it's that they weren't ready to play. Hopefully Xavier Henry is further ahead then the guys from last year and will be able to contribute more, but if he's not, then other guys will be ahead of him, and that's just the way it goes. So far, the bench has done a yeoman's job out there. They've bonded together. They share the ball. Acie Law's done a nice job.
You mentioned Law. Do you think the team's back-up point guard situation is stronger than at any time since Kyle Lowry was traded?
No question. Acie is a strong guy and he's got some leadership qualities. He's done a good job leading that second unit and getting us into what we want to do, which has been a problem in the past. We needed somebody at the point guard in the second unit who was a little more of a leader.
At the press conference this summer after Rudy Gay was re-signed, someone asked you what Rudy needed to do the take his game to another level and the first thing out of your mouth was defense, that that's where the big improvement for him needed to come from. Do you feel like that message has taken hold and you're seeing that so far in training camp and preseason?
Well, I saw Rudy at USA Basketball in Las Vegas and he made that team with his ability to defend and it's shown also in preseason. The last game he had 4 blocks. He has the athleticism to do it all, and I think playing with those guys and playing in the World Championships helped him go to a different level and see how you have to play to be successful. It's not just about offense. He had to play a role and saw how role players still have to be effective when they're not asked to score. That showed him that [he can play that way] — that it isn't a bad thing and can be necessary. So I think that he's had a growth spurt. He's more mature. I think we get in a hurry for guys to be who we want them to be.
You look at that starting lineup and you have some guys with physical limitations that are going to hurt them defensively in some match-ups. Conley's going to struggle with some bigger point guards. Mayo's going to struggle with some bigger scoring guards. Randolph doesn't really have the length to guard the rim. But Rudy seems like the one player, because of his length and athleticism, who doesn't have any limitations physically.
Well, that's why he was a max player.
No. The onus is on everyone. That just lets you know why Rudy was considered a max player by most of the teams in the league that had money. Because he has all the tools to be one of those players that fills the stat sheet, and he's learning how to be that player and he's embracing it. But everybody has to improve [defensively]. We have to have better effort. We need to rotate and be where we're supposed to be in help situations. And we have to do a better job on our own man. And there will be nights where we need to help people because they are mismatched with the match-up they have.
In terms of the guard situation, I think O.J. is usually mismatched from the start, and it's just a question of whether his offense outweighs the liabilities he has on defense. With Mike Conley, not a lot of point guards are posting as much as they used to. It's his job to guard these guys out on the perimeter and then go create havoc on the offensive end. He's learning how to do that and how to be aggressive. And if you have to score 25 points, you have to score 25 points. You don't have to feel guilty, like you're taking away from the team. You're helping the team win.
The team has certainly looked better defensively in the preseason. Do you feel like you're pretty far along in addressing that problem?
Well, we're as far along as we can be without changing personnel. So, yes, I do think we've made some progress in that area. I think they've embraced it. The effort has been consistent. We've scrambled. We're trying to take charges. We're doing things that haven't been done around here. But we've still got a ways to go.
Presumably getting Tony Allen into the regular rotation will help you in that area?
Well, Tony Allen is going to be a utility player. I think he's a 15-minute player on most nights. There will be some nights when I need him in there to cool off a player at the two and there will be times when I need him to play at the point. Our rotation will be, if [Xavier Henry] is able to handle the load, he'll back up O.J., and if he's not, we'll look to Sam in that role. And Tony will be the wild card we'll play in certain situations where we need energy. That's the kind of player I see Tony as. He's a very dynamic personality on the court, so we're looking for that — and looking forward to it.
So with more options this year, you're not necessarily looking for a set rotation, but something more situational?
We'll have somewhat of a set rotation, but as the game goes on, things change. That's why you have 14 or 15 players, and they all have to be ready to go.
Last year, this team exceeded what most thought they could achieve. But when the team was cresting, sort of midway through the season, you seemed very conscious of trying to keep expectations in check. But this summer Michael Heisley has said repeatedly that he's expecting the team to make the playoffs. Are you comfortable with that expectation?
It doesn't matter what he says. All I can do is go out and do my job to the best of my ability and handle my team. Get them to play the game as hard as they can and to the best of their abilities. And if we're good enough, we'll make the playoffs. If we're not, we won't. There are expectations from fans. There are expectations from media. We can't be concerned with external stuff. We just want to go out and be better than we were last year.