This shouldn't be that surprising: Lionel Hollins' fate as Grizzlies coach was always dependent on the resolution of conflicting normalcies: “Don't mess with success” vs. “New owners hire new people.” When Hollins bristled publicly about the Grizzlies' new front office on multiple occasions mid-season, the odds tipped in the favor of change but that didn't seal his fate. Instead, closing interviews — not just with Hollins but with others around the organization — seemed to convince team CEO Jason Levien to make the change he probably always desired.
There are many factors at play in this unpopular decision, but it's ultimately about an apparently unbridgeable cultural divide: Hollins is of the “you provide the players, I'll coach them” mold. Levien and controlling owner Robert Pera want to forge a more collaborative organizational culture, one where everyone is working on the same track and the coaching staff doesn't just receive players from the team's front office, but also actionable information. Even as Hollins publicly dismissed talk about “philosophical differences,” those very differences were on display.
Film references are instructive (at least for me): Via Japanese master Akira Kurosawa there's the Rashomon effect, in which truth is difficult to uncover because people tend to give contradictory interpretations of the same event. Hollins, by his account, thought his exit meeting with Levien and Pera went really well. Levien and Pera apparently thought otherwise. Via French titan Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game is the wisdom of “The awful thing about life is this: Everybody has their reasons.” It's equally easy to see — at least to me — why Hollins would assume he'd earned a new deal and also why Levien would be reluctant to commit a long-term contract to a coach with whom he didn't think he could have a productive working relationship. Blame feels irrelevant.
“Risk” and “mistake” are different things: “Don't mess with success” is pretty persuasive if you ask me, but to call this a mistake is to assume a future, and I don't put that much stock in the importance of Hollins or any individual coach. But it's certainly a risk. There are obviously coaches out there who can work better with his bosses. There are also a smaller number who can be as or more successful on the floor. There's a smaller group still who can do both. And there's no guarantee this or any front office can successfully choose that person no matter how good a hire seems at the time. Past Grizzlies history is instructive here.
But, to his credit, Levien showed a confidence and willingness to make unpopular decisions with the Rudy Gay trade, though the team was on firmer ground there, even if a lot of traditionalists didn't know it (and still don't). The risk is greater this time.
It could have been handled better but was always going to be messy: Hollins' success is too glaring in the context of franchise history, his community roots now too deep and personal, and his status as a successful black leader in a city (really, country) where race impacts perception too meaningful for his departure to ever be easy. But Hollins' own awkward media tour and Levien's man-behind-the-curtain disappearing act made a bad situation worse.
Jason Levien needs to shore up his public diplomacy: I have little doubt that Levien ran this move by players, minority owners, and others around the organization and knew a coaching change would not cause a revolt. But the Grizzlies are at once private enterprise and public trust, and the community needs a fuller and more personal explanation than the brief, antiseptic press release the team put out Monday night. Levien needs to explain this decision, in direct but polite terms.
For better or worse — and I think it's some of both — this is a “speak to the Rotary Club, hobnob at the college football game, banter on the radio shows” kind of market. Incumbent general manager Chris Wallace, in addition to being a quality basketball man, had mastered this public role, one reason I always thought the new regime would have been wise to incorporate him more fully in the decision-making process and try to keep him around. Levien is a bright man undertaking a big job, but he needs work in this area.
The Grizzlies should take a hard look at George Karl: Longtime assistant Dave Joerger has seemed like the coach in waiting for a while now, but I think the Grizzlies would be wise to take run at Karl, the recently deposed reigning Coach of the Year whom the Grizzlies reportedly contacted last week. Three factors in Karl's favor:
A. He's a heavyweight. There may be legitimate questions to raise about Karl's recent playoff record, but he's been to the postseason with all five franchises he's coached and been to the conference finals or better with each of the past three.
B. He's one of the game's most creative offensive coaches, an attribute this team needs.
C. His past associations suggest he would work well with this front office. That doesn't just mean current Grizzlies player personnel director Stu Lash, who worked under Karl in Denver. Also suggestive is the strong working relationship Karl apparently had with former Nuggets' stats czar Dean Oliver, who, along with current Grizzlies VP John Hollinger, would be on anyone's “NBA analytics” Mt. Rushmore.
Dave Joerger intrigues: Joerger has an unusually promising resume for an assistant coach:
A. He's highly regarded around the league for his coaching acumen and has been instrumental in crafting the Grizzlies' elite team defense.
B. Unlike most hotshot assistants, Joerger's been in the big chair, winning five titles in seven seasons as a head man in the minor leagues. That's no guarantee, but there is a track record of successful minor league coaches translating to the NBA: Phil Jackson, Flip Saunders, and Karl all honed their head-coaching chops in the minors.
C. Unlike any other viable candidate, Joerger has pre-existing relationships throughout the organization, and you can bet Levien has gauged Joerger's candidacy with players and others who have already been working with him.
Even with that in mind, the unknown still weighs heavily here. Hollins — and Karl — have proven their ability to command respect and lead an NBA team. Handing a young, first-time NBA head coach the keys to a 56-win team would be quite the gamble.
Correlation is often confused with causation: If we're setting up 56 wins and a trip to the Western Conference Finals as the bar for the new coach next season, we're setting up that coach for likely failure. Hollins would be set up for failure if held to the same standard. Just as some see the trip to the conference finals as proof somehow that the team wouldn't have gotten there with Gay, some will see a failure to reach that mark next season as proof that the team would have been there with Hollins. In all cases, context is complicated and needs to be taken into account. Judging strictly on outcomes is misguided.
Fan outrage is a byproduct of fan investment: The despair in some quarters over a coaching change — something that's happened with nearly half the NBA in recent months, including several other playoff teams — is a bit much, but it also speaks to the number of new fans created over the past few seasons. That increase in interest is a positive for the organization, but the lack of perspective from many new converts also suggests their fandom is precarious. Ups and downs are unavoidable for most pro sports organizations, but the growing fan base here isn't stable enough to fully withstand a downturn right now, and the reaction to this move underscores that. The team should tread carefully.
This is about the future: This coaching change won't alter the Grizzlies' projection for next season in the minds of most who follow the NBA closely. Coaches matter, but rosters matter much more. What fans need to understand is that the Grizzlies were heading into a period of transition even without a coaching change. How the new ownership and front office manages this transition — not just this offseason but in the next couple as well — will determine their ultimate success or failure.
A shorter version of this column appears in the June 13th print edition of The Memphis Flyer.