Before a single local media member had expressed an opinion on the matter, reports last week that the Grizzlies had fired head coach Marc Iavaroni only to almost immediately hire former assistant Lionel Hollins were greeted with bewilderment and skepticism. Surely Hollins was being brought back as an assistant coach again ran the message-board consensus. Nope. This time, Hollins was getting the top job.
Defenders of the Hollins hire make a good point in asserting that Hollins' resume is as good as — if not better than — Iavaroni's was at the time of his hiring. Both were former players and longtime assistants who had served under some quality head coaches. Actually, Hollins was a little bit better player in his day and has more head-coaching experience (though with very little success) than Iavaroni. But if Iavaroni was perceived as a good hire and Hollins as a curious one, the blame for that rests primarily with the Grizzlies themselves, who had Hollins on their bench and bypassed him on multiple occasions, most notably when the team needed an internal interim coach after Mike Fratello's departure.
Former Grizzlies general manager Jerry West clearly didn't take Hollins seriously as a head-coaching candidate. Hollins supporters would point out — again correctly — that West has been wrong before. (Another explanation for bypassing Hollins in the past and hiring him now, of course, is that the budget for head coaches has changed.)
The truth is you never know: Marc Iavaroni was universally considered a good hire and didn't work out. Hubie Brown was greeted with initial skepticism and was a (short-lived) triumph.
But regardless of Hollins' head-coaching potential, the circumstances of his hiring are unavoidably prickly.
After two previous interim coaching stints with the team, Hollins is essentially back for a third. Hollins, owner Michael Heisley, and general manager Chris Wallace would all disapprove of applying the term "interim" to this situation, but that's what it really is. Most interim coaches are brought in to serve out a season. Hollins, by contrast, has been brought in to serve out a contract — namely, Iavaroni's.
Iavaroni's coaching contract will still be on the books through the end of next season, and this team doesn't want to spend too much on coaching — or anything else — right now. That doesn't mean this is strictly a money move: The cheap thing to do would have been to do nothing, but the on-court regression and growing unhappiness of key players made keeping Iavaroni untenable.
Hollins can replace Iavaroni through the end of Iavaroni's contract without adding too much additional expense and hopefully allow the team to get player development back on track while Wallace and Heisley finish putting the roster together. As someone who's pursued a head-coaching opportunity for years, Hollins was apparently willing to take the job for the right price and potentially limited security.
In the summer of 2010, with Iavaroni's and Hollins' contracts both up, there will be a clean slate for a new coaching hire. At that point, presumably, the roster will be in place for a team that can compete for a playoff slot, making the job more attractive for established coaches than it is currently.
This doesn't preclude Hollins from staying on the bench beyond the summer of 2010 if the organization thinks he's a coach who can take the team to the next level. Like many other interim coaches, Hollins will have an honest opportunity to earn a reappointment. But as a longtime organizational man with strong ties to Memphis and a relationship with the owner, Hollins can possibly be transitioned out of the job (perhaps to another organizational post) with minimal drama or disruption.
The problem with this scenario occurs if Hollins is a disaster on the sidelines; if, rather than allowing development to occur and the locker room to settle down, his leadership is instead listless and counterproductive. This is the gamble the Grizzlies are taking. But, as past history has shown, all coaching hires are gambles.
Hollins doesn't have to be Red Auerbach. He just needs to get players like Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, and Marc Gasol buying in, working together, building chemistry, and developing their individual skills.
Hollins brings with him a commitment to the city that probably hasn't gotten enough attention — in a nomadic profession, he's maintained a sole residence here. If he can get things back on track, this ostensibly curious hire will work out fine. But if he can't, the Grizzlies are stuck: Even though the franchise hasn't made a long-term commitment to him, the circumstances all but guarantee that Hollins will serve out his current contract, and this team can't afford any more lost time.