Friday, April 12, 2013

The Coaching Question: Should and Will Lionel Hollins be Back Next Season?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 12, 2013 at 11:10 AM

While the Grizzlies are on the verge of a third-straight playoff campaign and huge games loom this weekend, the question of Lionel Hollins' future can't be tabled. The resolution — Hollins' contract is up at the end of the season and ownership has been clear that it will negotiate after the season, and not in public — is being tabled. But there's no corralling discussion.

I've been holding back on this issue for a while, but with next week subsumed by playoff preview, and the coaching question highlighted by the Commercial Appeal this morning, this seems like the right time to weigh the issue. So ...


The Case for Lionel Hollins

On some level, fans might wonder why this is even a topic of discussion.

Hollins is — by far — the most successful coach in franchise history. His 10 playoff wins in two postseasons is 10 more than Hubie Brown and Mike Fratello managed in three postseasons. This season he's added a franchise-record regular season to his Grizzlies' resume. Hollins is also, to the degree it matters, a strong positive presence in the local community.

And this success hasn't come without complication. Hollins inherited a mismanaged mess of a team in 2009 when he was brought in mid-season to replace Marc Iavaroni, and he quickly molded it into a unit that played with purpose. In subsequent seasons, Hollins has navigated through upheaval each and every time. First it was the misguided, ownership-imposed disruption of Allen Iverson. Hollins' response to this — standing steadfast for team over individual — burnished his leadership credentials, and his ability to pull his team — which started 1-8 and had an all-time bad bench — into the playoff race before a couple of debilitating late injuries underscored his coaching acumen.

The next season, Hollins lost Rudy Gay to season-ending injury at a moment when his team seemed to be cresting and still went from the 8th seed to within a game of the conference finals. Last season, it was the twin early losses of Darrell Arthur and Zach Randolph that decimated the team's frontcourt and spurred more roster upheaval, with Hollins still guiding the team to a highest-ever playoff seed.

This season, it began with an ownership change that had to be unsettling for Hollins, who had a close relationship with previous owner Michael Heisley. Next came the Rudy Gay trade, which Hollins had publicly campaigned against. (More on this in a bit.) And, still, here the Grizzlies are, with a franchise-record 53 wins and counting and again on the cusp of a top-four seed.

This season, Hollins is one of three NBA coaches to twice win a “Coach of the Month” award, along with Denver's George Karl and Miami's Erik Spoelstra. This makes him a clear “Coach of the Year” candidate. (I anticipate Karl winning, and deservedly.)

Through it all, Hollins has proven resilient and tough. He commands respect from his players. They play hard for him. And he gets results. His teams are routinely among the league's finest defensive units. He's got a winning record in close games (decided by five or fewer points or in overtime) in each of the past three seasons, which is often considered a coaching indicator. He's suffered post-season disappointment, losing a massive fourth-quarter home lead in Game 1 last season and falling on his home floor in Game 7. But he's also guided his team to post-season triumph, beating the game's finest coach (arguably), San Antonio's Gregg Popovich, in a series.

Questions and Concerns

It's a damn good resume. So why wouldn't Hollins be back? I think he will be. But thinking someone is a good coach doesn't mean thinking they're flawless. And it doesn't mean overlooking potential hurdles that derive from issues generally unrelated to coaching quality. Here are four things to consider:

Implementing Organizational Philosophy — With new ownership and front-office changes, the Grizzlies have committed themselves to a progressive, data-driven approach to team building. Hollins, by contrast, is the embodiment of the old-school “coach by feel” steward. I think a little bit too much was made of Hollins' defensive mid-season comments about the use of statistics. (Please, spare us all of any more boilerplate assertions that “stats have a role but aren't the end-all, be-all,” as if anyone in the world disagrees with that.) And I also think that Hollins and the front office have developed a workable relationship on this and other fronts. But it's still a legitimate issue. And there's precedent for coaching changes based primarily on these grounds.

Look at Houston, which parted ways with Rick Adelman not long after current general manager Daryl Morey took over. Adelman is an elite coach with a proven track record who had had success in Houston, pushing the Lakers to seven games in the second round in the second of his four seasons on the job. But when Adelman's contract expired, Morey — at the forefront of the so-called “analytics” movement in NBA management — let him walk, primarily because of philosophical differences. Morey reportedly wanted a certain style of play and wanted to use information in ways that didn't jibe with Adelman's coaching. The Rockets have more fully implemented Morey's philosophy since the change and Adelman got a head coaching job in Minnesota, where his lack of success has primarily been the result of particularly severe injury problems. Looking back, the parting between Adelman and the Rockets has not reflected negatively on either party.

One sub-issue to watch with the Grizzlies is the future of current lead assistant Dave Joerger, who is considered a head coaching candidate league-wide. If the Grizzlies and Hollins can't reach an agreement, Joerger could certainly be a candidate here. But if Hollins is retained — which seems likely — losing Joerger to a potential head-coaching opportunity elsewhere would be bittersweet. Joerger has been a highly effective “defensive coordinator” of sorts for the Grizzlies, but he's also been a conduit between the front office and coaching staff in terms of incorporating statistical information — and that was true even before this season's ownership and front office changes.

A More Modern, Creative Offense — As successful as the Grizzlies have been in recent years, fans may not realize that the team hasn't registered a better than league-average offense since Hubie Brown was the head coach, though they poked their collective heads above that threshold if you isolate only games played this season since the Rudy Gay trade. This season, more than ever, the Grizzlies eschew three-point shooting, a cornerstone of modern NBA offense, ranking a distant last in long-range attempts. Much of this has been personnel-related and it is promising that the team's offense has improved after the Gay trade. But there's a sense that the team needs to freshen up the team's offense going forward and there's reason to question whether Hollins is the right man for that job. On the other hand, it would be unfair given the offensive personnel Hollins has had at his disposal, to fully conclude that he can't manage such a transition.

Player Evaluation and Development — This is the most difficult issue to talk about because a narrative has formed locally that this is somehow one of the greatest strengths of Hollins' tenure. We hear endlessly about his development of Mike Conley. But while Hollins' handling of Conley is undeniably a plus, the real story isn't how good Conley has become but how long it took. As the fourth overall pick in a top-heavy draft, Conley was expected to be what he now is. The reasons for Conley's delayed development seem primarily to have been about his initial need for more physical maturity (i.e., he probably came out too early in that regard), the poor early management of his career by Iavaroni, and, it turns out, the ball-dominant play of Gay. Hollins deserves credit for steering Conley to where he was always supposed to be, but it wasn't a magic trick. And Conley himself — a hard worker and incredibly bright player — deserves the most credit for tapping into this native talents.

I've also heard bizarre, context-flouting assertions that Hollins took Marc Gasol from being “a second-round pick” to being an All-Star. Gasol was indeed a second-round pick, but in the 2007 draft — before his MVP season in Spain's ACB, the world's second-best basketball league. Gasol's dramatic transformation — in part a physical transformation — from “future Jake Tsakalidis” to “potential All-Star” happened in Spain. Had he been in the draft the summer before his rookie season for the Grizzlies, he would have been a likely lottery pick. And he was on his current NBA trajectory before Hollins took over as coach.

And so it goes: Hollins turned Marreese Speights into a player, even though Speights' relative production and battery of strengths and weaknesses remained largely unchanged in his transition from the Sixers to the Grizzlies. He turned Tony Allen into a major figure, even though Allen had guarded Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals before coming to Memphis and sat on the bench behind rookie Xavier Henry to start his tenure with the Grizzlies. There's nothing really wrong with Hollins' developmental track record — everyone has hits and misses — but evidence doesn't suggest it's been particularly notable.

In truth, player evaluation is likely to be one of the biggest issues in, well, evaluating Hollins tenure, with Hollins' tendency toward snap judgements about players in stark contrast to the front office's data-driven evaluation method. Playing Henry over Allen is a past example of this. So was deciding, in training camp, that an unproven Jeremy Pargo was a better option than a rising Greivis Vasquez to handle back-up point guard duties. The subsequent Vasquez trade was a killer twice over: The Grizzlies sold low on a player who is now a prime Most Improved Player candidate and created an open sore at the back-up point guard spot that may well have cost them a playoff series. This season, Hollins' initial, practice-derived impressions of Austin Daye and Ed Davis conflicted with both the intent of their acquisition (where Davis was sought and Daye was a contract throw-in) and the evidence from their actual production and roles in NBA games.

I don't think these issues are particularly unusual with old-school coaches, or maybe coaches generally. It's just that Hollins' alleged strengths in this area have been overhyped.

Contract Negotiations — All of that acknowledged, I suspect that if Hollins is not back next season, the main reason will be because he and the team couldn't reach a deal, not because the team decides — as in the Adelman example — not to retain him. Hollins has a right to expect a raise and would likely be a candidate for other open jobs, which gives him some leverage. Playoff performance — no matter what anyone says on the record — will almost certainly impact Hollins' negotiating leverage as well, unless a deal is suddenly struck before the postseason. And, as in all contract issues the Grizzlies will face this season, I suspect years could also be a factor. The Grizzlies are set up for a maximum two-year remaining window with this core group, and then will be forced to re-route their team in a much different direction. This reality will likely factor into negotiations with Tony Allen, for instance, and it may well be a factor in terms of Hollins.


The Rudy Trade Lesson: Just as the Rudy Gay trade remains something of a Rorschach test for league commentators — revealing, at this late point in the evidentiary display, how fully you follow and how deeply you think about the league — it's also extremely open to interpretation when it comes to evaluating Hollins. On one level, Hollins gets credit for managing the in-season roster flux the deal generated and overcoming his own disapproval to keep his team on track. On the other hand, it turns out that he was wrong to oppose it.

Personally, I file this in the “pro” column in terms of bringing back Hollins, but for the lesson it presents: As long as the Grizzlies have been here, the organization has gotten into trouble catering too much to their coaches in terms of team building. Under Hubie Brown, it was the drafting of Troy Bell and signing of Brian Cardinal. Under Mike Fratello, it was the jettisoning of coach-killer malcontents (not the problem) in favor of on-the-downside vets (the problem). Under Marc Iavaroni, it was “Casey Jacobsen, Sixth Man.” Under Hollins, the Vasquez trade is the prime example.

But the Rudy deal was different. This was the front office deciding to do what they believed was best for the organization even if their coach didn't agree. Hollins, a pro, took what he was given and coached it to the best of his abilities, and the results have been great. And this is the way it's supposed to work. It's more complicated that that, obviously. You can't and shouldn't shut your coach out of the team-building process. But evaluating and acquiring talent and setting team-building strategy is a different skill set and requires a different use of time and resources than coaching. Being good at one job doesn't mean being good at the other. What Hollins has proven is that he's adaptable. This is the lesson, with Hollins or any other coach: Give him the team he needs, which may not always be the team he wants.

The Risk of the Unknown: The biggest reason the Grizzlies would be wise to bring back Lionel Hollins? It's not just that he's a highly accomplished and successful head coach. Though he is. And it's not because there aren't other coaches out there who could do as well or maybe even better. There are. But that doesn't mean you'll make the right hire.

At one time, Iavaroni looked like a good hire. That worked out terribly. Both Hollins and Hubie Brown were considered curious hires. Those worked out great. It goes to show you never can tell. Set up to be a playoff contender with something close to the same core over the next two seasons, the Grizzlies would be taking a very big risk in making a coaching change this summer. I sense a growing awareness of that, along with a growing comfort level with Hollins. And so I suspect a deal gets done.

A first-round implosion or a particularly tough contract negotiation could change things. But, for now, my hunch is that Hollins is back.

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