Monday, June 3, 2013

The Coaching Endgame? — Griz Give Hollins Permission to Shop Around

Posted By on Mon, Jun 3, 2013 at 7:08 AM

Is the clock ticking on Lionel Hollins coaching tenure with the Grizzliesl?
  • Is the clock ticking on Lionel Hollins' coaching tenure with the Grizzliesl?
Major movement erupted on the Grizzlies' coaching front Sunday afternoon when multiple outlets reported that the Grizzlies had given head coach Lionel Hollins permission to negotiate with other teams after an apparent bad turn in talks between Hollins and the Grizzlies. (Sorry. I was traveling when all of this came tumbling out. I have no idea who reported it first.)

Most stories cite sources as saying “major philosophical differences” were the reason talks stalled even before the sides could negotiate potential contract terms. It's hard to be too surprised by this. In citing a series of questions and concerns that might prevent Hollins from returning to the Grizzlies' sideline next season, I led with “implementing organizational philosophy” when working through The Coaching Question back in April. Revisiting the issue in May, I wrote this:

Given the on-going success of this postseason and the team's player-contract situation, bringing the current core back next season now looks likely, and bringing Hollins back to coach it preferable. But this core has a two-year expiration date. So, is Hollins the right coach to preside over the transition to a new roster and potentially new style, the territory a new contract would take him into?

When that becomes part of the question, then issues about Hollins' commitment to and ability to implement a new organizational philosophy, as well as his development of young assets begin to loom larger.

A second issue with a new long-term contract for Hollins — and one I'd prefer not to get too far into right now because if feels unnecessarily trouble-making, but here we are — is the opportunity cost in likely losing lead assistant Dave Joerger to a head-coaching opportunity elsewhere. Joerger has been, in large part — let's not deny Hollins his due credit here as well — the architect of what may be the league's best defense and has a compelling head-coaching pedigree at the minor-league level. There are many who believe he could be the next Tom Thibodeau or Erik Spoelstra. While Hollins may be the best coach for the present, does a long-term deal close off the possibility of Joerger in the future?

Though sources close to the talks have apparently stressed that a deal could still be reached, those two issues — Hollins' potential incompatibility with the organizational philosophy and the long-term considerations that have to come into play when considering a likely four-year commitment — are the ones that now seem to be driving Hollins and the team apart. In both of those earlier posts, I concluded that losing Hollins would be very risky and that I felt the team was likely to try to bring him back. My opinion hasn't changed on the former, but on the latter the tea leaves were pointing in the other direction last week, which Chris Vernon and I talked about on his show on Thursday.

A few thoughts on where we are now:

What changed?: Before the playoffs began, the team's front office seemed to want Hollins back — or at least fear losing him. You would think a successful playoff run would only strengthen the odds of his return, with the one thing likely to change the calculus being an increase in Hollins' price tag via the interest of other teams (namely the large-market Clippers and Nets). Instead, leverage and price seem to have had no bearing on the break-up of talks between Hollins and the Grizzlies. Rather, it goes back to square one: When new ownership comes in they want to implement their vision, which often means hiring “their guys.” While taking over a team in a period of success with a proven coach could change the course of what is normally inevitable, Hollins doesn't appear to have been willing to bend enough to alter this path.

Perhaps having emerged as a head coach in the combative environment fostered by previous owner Michael Heisley, Hollins undervalued the importance of organizational coherency. At his final media session, while sounding optimistic about the prospects of continuing with the team, Hollins nevertheless suggested he didn't want much input with — or, by implication, from — the front office. But if Hollins desired to be left alone, the new regime desired a partner.

This impasse has been presented as — and is likely to continue being presented as — a battle between Hollins and the front office, particularly new VP John Hollinger, whose pre-hire fame probably makes him too much of a focal point for both praise and criticism. But everything starts with ownership, on every team. What's unusual here is that there's absolutely no breathing room between ownership and the front office. Team CEO Jason Levien leads the front office, but he also put together the ownership group and has an ownership stake himself. Unlike under Heisley, there's no competition within the basketball apparatus to get the owner's ear and shape the direction of the team. The ownership and the basketball apparatus are one and the same, and for a coach to thrive in that situation he needs to be willing to work both under the direction of and in philosophical partnership with the ownership/front office. Hollins was apparently unwilling or unable to make that leap. Perhaps Levien was unable or unwilling to bend the organizational philosophy to fit Hollins. You can look at it either way. Except that one side of this equation is employed by the other.

Levien and Hollins were always going to have to reach a comfort level on this front before contract details mattered, and based on everything we're hearing, that just never happened.

Is it Over?: It sure looks that way. Both sides are merely “seeing other people” at the moment, but based on what's already out there, divorce seems inevitable.

Mike & Marc & Locker-Room Leadership: Losing Hollins won't necessarily be a mistake — that depends on what comes next — but it will undoubtedly be a big risk. Hollins is a proven winner and this team, while probably a longshot to reach the conference finals next season regardless of the coach, is set up to be a competitive playoff team again next season. There's no guarantee that the next hire will be a successful one, no matter who it is.

That said, Hollins' greatest strength, by acclamation, is his leadership. He is often and deservedly credited with “changing the culture” of the team, even if Heisley and previous coach Marc Iavaroni set a pretty low bar at the time on that front. But Hollins had the spine and the gravitas to command the locker room and stand up to the owner (which the owner respected). He led a young team — and, it should be noted, ever-improving roster — back up the standings and to previously unknown success for the franchise.

That level of leadership will always be important, and if the next coach can't command respect it will be a problem. But perhaps it's somewhat less crucial at this particular time than when Hollins first took the job. This isn't really a young team anymore. Co-captains Mike Conley and Marc Gasol are veterans now. And though they've both repeatedly voiced their desire for Hollins to return, perhaps they are now ready to take over leadership of the team. Success and experience have bred stability. The Gay trade clarified the pecking order. Hollins entered into a void, but he doesn't leave one in his absence.

One near aside in all of this: While the next coach will have to have the respect of the players, please spare us suggestions that the very fact of a coaching change will somehow send the locker room into revolt or disarray. Remember after the Gay trade? Remember all those stories about players being upset about the trade? Overblown. If Hollins goes, some players will be upset. Some will be relieved. Everyone will move on.

Dave Joerger, Next in Line?: Lead assistant Dave Joerger was considered a potential head-coach-in-waiting as soon as the ownership change happened — an awkward situation for him, no doubt. And though that flame died down late in the season and into the playoffs, it seems to be burning brighter than ever now. I'll save fuller comment on Joerger until he actually gets the job, but if he does we can safely assume the desire to remain part of his coaching future was a consideration. A four-year commitment would have likely sent Joerger into a head job elsewhere at some point in the deal.

Like it or not — and I've suggested on multiple occasions that it would have been preferable for the team if Hollins had one or two years left on his current deal — a coaching decision this summer is about setting a long-term course. It isn't just about what happened last season or what may happen next season. It can't be just about that. Coaching-hire protocol — minimum three-year deals — necessitates long-range planning. Part of the decision is about leading what will most likely be the same core on another playoff run next spring, but part of it also has to be about who can best navigate the team through the choppy waters of a roster reconstruction and the stylistic shift that will probably come with it. (The Grizzlies have no plans for a full rebuild any time soon, but a major roster reshuffling around Conley/Gasol is inevitable over the term of the next head coach's contract.) These are two different jobs, but the timing of Hollins' contract expiration requires the team hire one coach for both tasks. Concerns about Hollins fitting your organizational style (or merely the prospects for a functional working relationship) or his development of young talent begins to weigh more heavily when you're looking three or four years down the line.

Next for Hollins?:
This is where things get (more) interesting. Because while Hollins is undoubtedly a compelling coaching free agent, there are more good candidates than jobs at this point. Early suggestions that the 76ers might be interested have understandably died down after the hire of their new general manager Sam Hinkle, who came from Daryl Morey's stats-oriented shop at Houston. There's been no suggestion so far of Hollins as a person of interest for Detroit's open spot. Instead it seems to come down to the Clippers and Nets, both who whom have some reported interest in Hollins. But there are other names involved as well. Is it possible that Hollins is out in Memphis and doesn't land anywhere else? It seems so now. That would be an uncomfortable outcome all around.

Potential Fallout:
There's a limit to how much I care about conventional wisdom and public relations. Everyone blasted the Pau Gasol trade. The Hasheem Thabeet pick got positive marks from nearly every national outlet. The instant national reactions are often wrong. But letting Hollins walk will not generally be well-received, locally or especially nationally. As with the Gay trade, there will be a Rorschach test element to the reaction, based on how much fans and media tend to think in the manner of the Grizzlies' new regime. But the fallout from not bringing back Hollins will be stronger and more complicated. It'll be posited, variously, in terms of philosophy (stats vs. feel), age/experience (old guard vs. new), money (despite no evidence that's a factor), and even race (ditto). And it could get worse in the very likely event that the Grizzlies don't advance quite as far in the playoffs next season. Ultimately, though, Levien's responsibility with this decision — as with the Gay trade — will be to do what he thinks is best for future of the organization. And that seems to be what his bet is on — the future.

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