Back to the Future 

Can Lionel Hollins turn the Grizzlies around?

If there's a model for this year's Grizzlies, it isn't the past two seasons, but the 2002-'03 squad, in which Hubie Brown took over for fired coach Sidney Lowe and guided a young core through a season-long improvement. That team only won 28 games, but it got better, was fun to watch, and set the stage for a massive improvement the following season. That's a realistic model the 2008-'09 Grizzlies would like to follow, but with players who have even more upside. The looming question would be: Is new coach Marc Iavaroni the Hubie Brown of this scenario — or is he the Sidney Lowe?

That was how we ended our season-preview Grizzlies story back in October. On January 21st, that final question was answered with Iavaroni's dismissal after a year and a half at the helm. Iavaroni was improbably but most definitely the Sidney Lowe of this scenario.

In 2002, Lowe started his third season as Grizzlies coach 0-8 before being relieved of duty by then general manager Jerry West and replaced by long-dormant veteran coach Brown. Inheriting a young team in a serious funk, Brown disregarded any short-term emphasis on wins and losses, going so far as to label his first eight games an in-season training camp. His mandate, as he saw it, wasn't to save a season but to change a culture and foster a style that would pay long-term dividends.

It worked: Brown's team kept right on losing — five more before finally beating Washington after a 0-13 start — but got better, going a respectable 10-15 in March and April to finish with 28 wins. The next season, after a couple of additions, the team surprised everyone with the franchise's first playoff run.

On hand for it all was Lionel Hollins, who was on Lowe's bench and then retained by Brown. After watching — and helping — Brown turn the Grizzlies around, Hollins will draw on that experience (as well as his time spent with coaches such as Mike Fratello, Scott Skiles, Paul Westphal, and Jack Ramsey) as the Grizzlies' newest head coach.

Like Brown, Hollins has turned up the heat in practice and focused more on imposing his style than obsessing over individual games.

"There's not going to be a playoff here [this season] anyway," Hollins said after practice last Friday. "So why are we worried about going out there and eking out a win by not practicing and then [the team] never gets to [play the way] we want? We're going to lose those games anyway if we don't play a better way. It's already a bad season. It can't be much worse. I wasn't expecting to come in here and win 20 in a row and get back into the playoff hunt. If this team was capable of that, the coach who was here before would still be here."

The coach who was here before has to be regarded as the franchise's most inexplicable flameout. Handpicked by West and hired before general manager Chris Wallace (a fact Wallace reminded a mistaken TV reporter about in his first local press conference following the coaching change), Iavaroni arrived with carte blanche and almost immediately squandered it — coaching a veteran-laden squad to an 8-22 start in his first two months on the job, consistently losing close games, and sticking with ineffectual bench player Casey Jacobsen so long that owner Michael Heisley had to intervene.

A celebrated hire, Iavaroni's tenure was marked by upheaval and uncertainty. This was partly the result of dramatic roster changes and evolving mandates, but regardless of the team issues he was saddled with, Iavaroni never seemed to have a sure sense of what kind of coach he wanted to be. He had served as an assistant under such varied coaching personalities as Pat Riley, Fratello, and Mike D'Antoni but along the way never seemed to develop his own philosophy.

Iavaroni was brought in to replicate D'Antoni's high-octane offense and drafted a speedy young point guard (Mike Conley) to make it happen. But in Phoenix, Iavaroni had been a frontcourt coach and defensive-oriented assistant. He started one-legged veteran Damon Stoudamire instead.

This season, given a mandate to improve the defense, Iavaroni seemed to overcompensate by smothering the offense, shackling his hand-picked point guard with constant play-calling from the bench and stumbling into an overthought offense that looked undercooked: In a de facto sense, the Griz were a halfcourt isolation team — 24th in pace and dead last, by far, in assist ratio.

The Dallas Mavericks got to the NBA finals a few years ago playing a brand of basketball not too dissimilar to this, but that team was loaded with good one-on-one scorers. On this year's Grizzlies squad, only rookie O.J. Mayo and instant-offense sixth-man Hakim Warrick seemed to be a good fit for the seemingly accidental non-style. Would-be leading man Rudy Gay became horribly miscast, forced to bail out a stagnant offense with a steady diet of perimeter isolations late in the shot clock, highlighting his shaky ball-handling. Meanwhile, the team's two should-be-dynamic young point guards too often became borderline-useless spot-up shooters.

On the floor, the result was bewilderingly disconnected from the team's talents and Iavaroni's stated goals, and frustration with Iavaroni's leadership, or lack thereof, was rampant at all levels of the organization. Asked last week how the departed coach could have gotten so far off track, one team insider just shook his head and said, "Some guys just overthink things."

That doesn't seem to be a problem with Hollins — and that's no backhanded compliment. Less prone to second-guessing and agonizing than Iavaroni, Hollins seems more comfortable in his coaching skin, and that ease seems, so far, to have inspired more confidence from the team.

In truth, when Iavaroni's firing leaked out, very few thought of former assistant and two-time former interim head coach Hollins as a likely candidate. Even when his name was floated, it was to most like a cursory mention.

When Hollins' hire was made official, it was greeted with a mix of confusion and derision by all but the coach's most ardent local supporters. But if Hollins seemed (or seems) like a bad hire, the Grizzlies organization has only itself to blame for that perception.

click to enlarge The Grizzlies hope the third time is a charm for former assistant coach Lionel Hollins. - BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • by Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Grizzlies hope the third time is a charm for former assistant coach Lionel Hollins.

Hollins was on the bench again as an assistant when Fratello was fired in mid-season 2006. Though he had served two previous interim head-coaching stints with the franchise during their Vancouver tenure, then general manager West bypassed Hollins and named player personnel director Tony Barone head coach. One West confidant suggested at the time that the Logo didn't take Hollins seriously as a head-coaching candidate.

West's vote of no confidence devalued Hollins as a head-coaching candidate throughout the league, something Hollins reluctantly acknowledges.

"I'm sure that other people were asking that question, you're absolutely right," Hollins says. "That's the way it goes. The people who were making the decisions then aren't here now. They had to do what they had to do, but they're gone. Mike Heisley is doing what he feels like he wants to do. It's not a do-over or make-good or redemption for me. It's an opportunity for me to come in and help try to turn this situation around."

Despite losing his first three games by double digits before a rousing road win Monday night over a similarly struggling Washington Wizards team, Hollins seems to be doing just that.

Those watching closely have seen an immediate, positive transformation of the team's offense. The style Hollins has implemented is clear: aggressive in transition, quick into the halfcourt sets, more freedom for point guards, more movement off the ball, more team effort put into getting Gay better touches.

Hollins is not reinventing the wheel here. This is exactly the kind of basketball most everyone watching the team has been clamoring for all season. The biggest beneficiary so far has, oddly, been the one player most identified with Iavaroni, at least early on: Mike Conley.

After shuttling between the starting lineup and bench all season while producing an underwhelming 8 points and 3 assists per game, Conley was tossed into the deep end by Hollins. A couple of days after his dismissal, Iavaroni acknowledged that the team's unsettled point-guard situation had been one of his biggest challenges and that he had likely erred in choosing what was most fair for the players (open competition) over what was best for the franchise (full immersion for the highly drafted Conley).

Hollins has been clear on this subject, committing to Conley not out of any stated faith in his ability but out of a candid assertion that the franchise has to gauge what it has in the second-year guard.

"Conley was the fourth pick in the draft, and he hasn't played very well," Hollins says. "I want to see, if I give him freedom and responsibility, if he can be what everyone thought he was."

So far, Conley has responded well to the increase in both freedom and pressure. Given starter's minutes, charged to push the tempo, and given the freedom to run the team rather than look to the bench for guidance before possessions, Conley has quickly begun to look more like the playmaker the Grizzlies expected after taking him out of Ohio State a year and a half ago. After a rough first game under Hollins in which he was matched against the Denver Nuggets' veteran all-star Chauncey Billups, Conley has averaged 14 points and 7 assists.

As a former high-level NBA guard himself, Hollins has a better feel for coaching perimeter players, something Heisley cited as one of the reasons for hiring him after the new coach's introductory press conference.

"Marc was a big man, and I think he did a nice job with Darko [Milicic] and Marc [Gasol]," Heisley said. "I don't think the guards did as well. But Hollins was a great guard, and I'm hoping he can bring them along. That's my hope."

If the early returns are encouraging with Conley, they are equally so with small forward Rudy Gay. While part of Gay's improved play (nearly 8 rebounds a game under Hollins) can be attributed to renewed effort after growing disenchanted with Iavaroni, he's also been used much more efficiently. Gay is a great athlete and good shooter, but he's a forward, not a guard. In Iavaroni's offense, he was too often asked to create shots on the perimeter rather than finish them at the rim or beyond the three-point line. Under Hollins, the quicker pace has led to more fastbreak baskets while, in halfcourt sets, Gay has been posted more and is getting more feeds on the move.

Against Washington on Monday, the team's four most important young players — Gay, Conley, Gasol, and the preternaturally unflappable Mayo — all played well at the same time. It was a first, and it was fun to watch: Mayo raining jumpers, Gay attacking the rim, Gasol abusing smaller defenders, Conley using his quickness and length to generate steals. It was a glimpse of a possible future that felt like some of the great performances at the end of Brown's first year; it felt like something that can carry over.

Not that there won't be bumps on the road ahead: The Grizzlies will face a March schedule in which 11 of 15 games are on the road and will likely to be underdog in all but a handful of their remaining games. (They will be helped, however, by the looming return of defensive stalwart Milicic. Food for thought: The Griz were 10-19 when Milicic went down with a broken knuckle a month ago; they've gone 2-16 without him.)

It remains to be seen if Hollins was the right hire. If so, it will be bittersweet: a hire that should have been made two years ago, one that could have prevented an awful lot of lost time and stagnant development. If Hollins' promising start is a mirage, then, like everyone else who has ever coached the Grizzlies (10 coaches in 14 years), he won't last long. Hollins signed an 18-month contract to coach this team — a contract so unusually short that it marks Hollins as a glorified interim coach, coming in, essentially, to finish out Iavaroni's contract. He has a lot to prove if he wants to keep the job beyond his current term. If nothing else, this reboot has suddenly made the Grizzlies season interesting again.


click to enlarge The Memphis Grizzlies' young core of Marc Gasol (top), Mike Conley (middle), O.J. Mayo (bottom), and Rudy Gay will lead the way in the season's second half. - BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • by Larry Kuzniewski
  • The Memphis Grizzlies' young core of Marc Gasol (top), Mike Conley (middle), O.J. Mayo (bottom), and Rudy Gay will lead the way in the season's second half.

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