So the Grizzlies finally made it official and promoted lead assistant Dave Joerger to head coach. This qualified as breaking news about as much as reporting that barbecue has been discovered in Memphis.
We knew what had been cooking all along, well before Lionel Hollins’ contract was not renewed and the Grizzlies went through the process/charade of interviewing other candidates (George Karl, Alvin Gentry and Ed Pinckney) for the job. The widespread sentiment now: Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien has put himself, and his new head coach, in a very vulnerable position.
But, as always with pro sports, it all comes back to expectations and whether you meet them, fail to meet them or exceed them. So any discussion of where the Grizzlies go from here must involve an honest look at expectations and what’s realistic and what’s not.
The Memphis Grizzlies officially announced Dave Joerger as new head coach June 27. The promotion of the team’s lead assistant was widely expected and didn’t come as a surprise.
(Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images)
Quick reality check: Memphis probably is not going back to the Western Conference Finals. So get your head around that. That out of the way, let’s look back at the two biggest decisions new management made before the hiring of Joerger – trading Rudy Gay and not bringing back Hollins. Personally, I was publicly lobbying for the Grizzlies to trade Gay before it happened. I’m not even interested in debating about the pieces they got back and what their value might be going forward. Removing Gay made the Grizzlies better overall and was the ignition for turning on point guard Mike Conley’s scoring ability. I can’t prove this next statement, but I don’t think the Grizzlies would have beaten the Los Angeles Clippers with Gay, much less Oklahoma City en route to the conference finals.
As for Hollins, the fact no other team has hired him after his most successful season as a coach is further evidence that his legendary stubbornness simply wasn’t worth the trouble.
Which brings us to expectations. It is folly to hold next year’s team and its first-year coach to the standard of winning 56 games and reaching the NBA’s final four. Odds are, a Hollins-led team would fail to meet those expectations next year, too. Competitive circumstances change from year to year and in the season just past the Grizzlies were fortunate to survive an 0-2 start against the Clippers and to play OKC without Russell Westbrook. Both those teams will be better next season. Also, you may have heard of the San Antonio Spurs – the NBA’s Ageless Wonders.
Levien’s problem and, by extension, Joerger’s problem, is that perception does become reality at some level. If many fans believe that the Grizzlies ditched Hollins and hired Joerger just to save money – a reported $1.5 million annual salary on a four-year contract – it matters not if the finances were second to finding the right fit as coach, someone who would be collaborative and willing to use advanced basketball analytics. The perception that the Grizz went cheap will become a rallying cry if the team gets off to a bad start. Ultimately, this could settle into that most lethal of sports diseases: apathy, displayed as empty seats at FedExForum.
In all probability, the Grizzlies will earn some goodwill by re-signing free agent and resident icon Tony Allen. The Grizz also could feel the love by drafting former Memphis Tiger D.J. Stephens or, if need be, by trading for him on draft night, Thursday June 27; they have three second-round picks at 41, 55 and 60 overall. The chances that one of those picks makes a significant on-court impact for the Grizzlies? About like you winning the Powerball.
So, yeah, the Grizz do have something of a PR problem. The new regime hasn’t quite figured out that there’s nothing Memphians dislike more than someone from the outside talking down to them, or seeming to talk down to them. That’s how this whole coaching “process” felt, like management believed the community might buy into the parade of candidates coming through town that had little or no chance of getting the job and suddenly feel better about the hiring of a rookie NBA head coach that the franchise’s harshest critics view as a mere “yes man.”
But fans should remember the Grizzlies set franchise milestones in the new ownership’s first few months in Memphis, too. Controlling owner Robert Pera’s front office pushed the right buttons. Now they believe Joerger, 39, who was in many ways the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator and a guy that won five minor-league titles as a head coach is ready to lead the team into a new era.
They could be right. They also could be wrong. As the owners, they are entitled to follow their own vision.
Meantime, fans are entitled to their opinions, to spend their money as they see fit. That could mean filling the seats at FedExForum. Or it could mean staying home with a Redbox.