Lionel Hollins repeatedly said more than he should have. So it is only fitting that the end of Hollins’ tenure as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies was marked by deafening silence from franchise CEO Jason Levien and then, finally, a press release saying the franchise was going to “move in a different direction.”
When you have all the power, you have the luxury of letting your press releases speak for you. And so Levien did just that, his most direct move in the offseason being to grant Hollins permission to speak with other teams about their head coaching vacancies: Don’t call us, call the other guys.
Oddly, Hollins and his most loyal supporters – a reported 100 or so desperate souls that showed up for a “rally” at Tom Lee Park – never quite caught on that this game had been over for a long time. The game was lost even as Hollins vainly played on by going on radio stations to make a case for himself.
Coming off a franchise-best 56-win season and first-ever trip to the Western Conference Finals, Hollins shouldn’t have had to make a case for himself, and wouldn’t have, if he could have been a little open to change and stopped himself from repeatedly taking verbal jabs at his bosses. But Hollins was too prideful for that.
Hollins sees the NBA, and his job, one way. Levien, controlling owner Robert Pera, and the rest of the Grizz front office see the league, and the cooperative relationship required of the modern coach, another way. Over time we will learn if his successor, most likely Grizz assistant Dave Joerger, was the right choice.
But Hollins was going to go short of the Grizzlies earning a parade down Beale Street. In fact, knowing how stubborn and arrogant Hollins can be, this seemed a strong possibility from the day the new management group arrived in Memphis.
Remember all that talk about a new, and better, way to operate an NBA franchise? They were serious, serious about borrowing a page from baseball’s “Moneyball” and doing everything within their power to be smarter on a budget – including using analytics in a big way.
The new paradigm is this: Upper management is > than the coach. So why give so much power – and money – to the coach? It’s a player’s league, so the key decisions are made upstairs when you decide which players to draft and acquire and how much to pay them for how long.
It’s an argument with many merits, if not also one clear flaw. After almost every regular season NBA game we hear the same words from the losing locker room about how the other team played harder, the focus just wasn’t there. Hollins did a great job in getting the Grizzlies to bring the energy and focus more times than not, much the way Hubie Brown did in the team’s first playoff season.
But small-market teams that do not draft extremely well always have a much lower ceiling than large-market teams because they can’t attract the marquee free agents.
The Grizzlies have spectacularly blown some high draft picks, the No. 2 overall selection in 2009 of Hasheem Thabeet under the direction of then-owner Michael Heisley being one of the worst picks in any sport ever. Beyond that, the Grizzlies have only two first-round picks since 2007 (Mike Conley, 4th overall in 2007, and guard Tony Wroten, 25th overall in 2012) still with the team.
It is a pattern that must be broken; unfortunately, the Grizzlies don’t even have a first-round pick this year. If the Grizzlies are to reach greater heights, it will be because they find a way to take the “Moneyball” formula of the Oakland A’s and do more with it, to actually build a sustainable championship contender without going into the financial prison that is the NBA luxury tax.
That means taking some calculated risks, calculated being the key word. In time, we likely will see that letting Hollins walk was, in fact, one of the smaller risks.