When I spoke to Levien last month about his organizational plans, he indicated a desire to bolster the team's use of statistics and also spoke of seeking out “black belts” to add to the mix.
Along both of those lines, the Grizzlies threw the NBA community into a tizzy with the eye-popping announcement that they'd hired ESPN.com writer and “advanced stats” pioneer John Hollinger to an executive position.
Hollinger achieved NBA-media fame through his work at ESPN, which began in 2005, and is most often associated with his self-invented “total stat” PER (which stands for Player Efficiency Rating), but his work was highly regarded in NBA circles well before his ESPN platform and extends far beyond the oft-misunderstood PER.
Making the hire even more momentous is that Hollinger isn't merely being brought in to run the team's now automatically enhanced analytics component but will apparently, as reported by Hollinger's ESPN colleague Marc Stein, have “a prominent front office voice” beyond merely providing data. Hollinger will take the title of Vice President of Basketball Operations and, per a Grizzlies press release, will work in conjunction with General Manager Chris Wallace.
Hollinger had been in town last month for the ESPN televised game against the New York Knicks and spent much of the game meeting with Levien in one of the arena's luxury boxes, but Hollinger gave no hint at the time that the duo were discussing a job. Hollinger's presence at the game wasn't unusual; he had made several previous trips to FedExForum as a reporter, including covering the Grizzlies' second-round playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the spring of 2011.
"It is clear to me that this is an organization that is focused on building thoughtful decision-making processes and establishing a forward-thinking culture of sustained success,” Hollinger said in a statement released by the team. “Working in Memphis and being part of the new vision and leadership was an opportunity I just could not pass up."
In addition to Hollinger, the Grizzlies announced the hire of former agent and Denver Nuggets employee Stu Lash in the position of Director of Player Personnel and Basketball Development. Longtime Grizzlies employee Chantal Hassard has also been given an expanded role of Director of Team Operations.
Hollinger's position with the team is essentially a new one. Hassard will ostensibly inherit the duties of the late Dana Davis, while Lash takes over the position that's been manned by organizational stalwart Tony Barone Sr. for the majority of the franchise's existence in Memphis.
With these new hires, the Grizzlies also announced the departure of Barone Sr., Director of Scouting Tony Barone Jr., and scout Ray Jones.
It's tough to see the Barones go, both of whom have been important members of the team's front office and visible parts of the Memphis community throughout their tenure with the Grizzlies and whose scouting work has probably been too harshly judged in many quarters given the erratic ownership they and the rest of the basketball staff often contended with and given how many former Grizzlies are currently thriving in other locales. (I know, to cite one example, that Barone Jr. was a very strong proponent in drafting Greivis Vasquez; a great pick on which the Grizzlies didn't fully capitalize.) That said, it was naïve to think that new ownership wouldn't make some significant changes and I wrote in the immediate aftermath of Pera's takeover that I wouldn't play the game of calling for any individual to either keep or lose a job.
My hope was then and is now for a smarter, more coherent, more progressive organization, and though there are certainly legitimate questions about how well Hollinger will function in what will be, for him, a brand new environment, the addition of a thinker of his caliber is a hopeful and compelling step.
I'm pretty well acquainted with Hollinger, with him personally to a degree, but moreso with his work, which I've read since well before his elevation at ESPN. For fans that aren't as well-versed in what Hollinger's written, I'll try to provide a primer on his so-far public thinking sometime before he lands in Memphis on Monday.
On another note: Other work and family duties in concert with this news has sidetracked my attempts to write about what's happening with the Grizzlies on the court. I can't say for certain I'll be able to get back into that before Monday night's home game with the Chicago Bulls, but for anyone interested, I had a nice discussion about the state of the team and Wednesday night's loss in Phoenix on The Chris Vernon Show Thursday. We also talked about the quality of this year's film crop and I gave my list of the Top 5 Overlooked Movies of 2012. You can listen to the podcast of the appearance here.