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VOL. 131 | NO. 101 | Friday, May 20, 2016
Don Wade

Don Wade

In a Players’ League, a Coach Is Captive to His Roster

By Don Wade

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As the Memphis Grizzlies continue The Great Coach Search, it’s fair to ask this basic, and at some level, almost offensive, question:

Does it really matter that much?

Specifically, will the next Grizzlies’ coach, be he a veteran like former Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel (which appears more unlikely all the time), or an untested current NBA assistant, ultimately determine the direction of the franchise?

No, he won’t.

Consider: What’s the short answer to why the Oklahoma City Thunder beat the Golden State Warriors at Oracle Arena in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals?

Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.

What’s the short answer to why the Warriors rebounded with a decisive win in Game 2?

Two-time league MVP Steph Curry.

The Warriors’ Steve Kerr was NBA Coach of the Year, and in this space Kerr has been a favorite since he was a sweet-shooting sidekick to Michael Jordan on championship Chicago Bulls teams.

But Kerr would be the first to tell you this is the ultimate players’ league. And rookie OKC coach Billy Donovan, while impressive and already accomplished with two NCAA titles at Florida, knows his two stars have a much bigger impact – positive or negative – than anything he can draw up on the sideline.

Arguably, a manager in MLB is of greater importance than an NBA coach, if only because he must navigate a regular season that is twice as long and soothe the egos of a roster that is twice as large.

But let’s step back and revisit a line from the great Whitey Herzog, former St. Louis Cardinals manager.

“If you don’t have outstanding relief pitching,” the White Rat said, “you might as well piss on the fire and call the dogs.”

Eloquent? In its own White Rat way, yes. A baseball team – and thus its manager – is doomed if the relief pitching gives up the lead at the end of games.

The Grizzlies’ historical shortcomings have never changed. Whitey’s concern about relief pitching is the Grizzlies’ lack of shooting and athleticism. If you fail to join the modern NBA offense, well, call the dogs.

Now, coaches and managers get fired all the time for what their teams cannot do. Kevin McHale barely had time to look at this season’s NBA schedule before Houston canned him.

The Atlanta Braves, on pace to equal the 1962 New York Mets for ineptitude, just fired manager Fredi Gonzalez, and now Brian Snitker, the Braves’ Triple-A skipper, will serve as interim manager. Which is perfect, because Atlanta has a Triple-A roster.

Really, what this comes down to is the ringing truth spoken by the Grizzlies’ Matt Barnes during the playoffs sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs: Spoons are not suitable weapons in a gunfight.

So the Grizzlies will hire whatever coach they will hire. Be it Vogel (Orlando seems a better bet now), or one of the parade of assistants to have interviewed. Most of them, I’m guessing, fans have never heard of – same as many fans probably didn’t know Dave Joerger was an assistant to Lionel Hollins until Hollins was out and Joerger was the Grizzlies’ head coach.

It’s not that a coach can’t have some impact. The NBA coach who “loses his team” is always standing by helpless as the team spirals downward. The NBA coach who is good at reaching and developing players is capable of lifting a team from back-of-the-lottery status to that last spot or two in the playoffs.

But coaches do not make marginal rotation players into core players. They do not make serviceable starters into All-Stars.

The Grizzlies’ roster, as well-documented, is ever-flawed and aging. A bright, current NBA assistant may prove to be a master at squeezing the most out of what the front office gives him.

But if the Grizzlies do not re-sign point guard Mike Conley and add at least one significant offensive threat to help Conley, Marc Gasol, and the rest, the new coach’s influence will be limited.

Even Gregg Popovich does not shoot a high percentage beyond the arc.

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