Dave Joerger’s road through professional basketball’s minor leagues has finally landed him in an NBA head coaching seat.
His first job is at a familiar spot, with a team he has been a part of for six seasons.
Joerger was introduced as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday after a season in which they won a franchise-best 56 games but split with coach Lionel Hollins.
”I am ready for this opportunity,” Joerger said. ”I have won in the past. I know how to win. We’re going to win.”
Joerger, 39, was a successful head coach in the minor leagues and was the lead assistant under Hollins the last two seasons. He has been with the team six seasons.
The Grizzlies are coming off a Western Conference finals appearance, but there was a disconnect between Hollins and the new ownership group led by Robert Pera. Hollins’ contract wasn’t renewed despite a 196-155 record since becoming coach of the Grizzlies in January 2009.
”Lionel Hollins did some great things for this organization. … Now we turn the page to the Dave Joerger era,” said Jason Levien, the Grizzlies chief executive officer and managing partner.
Terms of Joerger’s contract weren’t released, but The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis has reported Joerger signed a four-year deal with a starting salary of about $1.5 million.
”This is a blue-collar town, and I’m a blue-collar guy,” Joerger said. ”I came up the hard way. I came up through the minor leagues.”
Joerger’s name had been mentioned as the heir apparent to Hollins even as ownership and the former Grizzlies coach were trying to patch things up. On June 10, team leaders decided they had reached an impasse with Hollins and announced they wouldn’t keep him.
”This is something I’ve been dreaming about for a long time,” Joerger said. ”This is something I’ve been preparing for for a long time. This is Lionel’s job. When it wasn’t Lionel’s job, then I’m interested in coaching this team and leading this team. When that happened, then we started talking and going forward. The last couple of days, it went really fast.”
The Grizzlies also interviewed George Karl, the NBA coach of the year before being fired by Denver, Chicago Bulls assistant Ed Pinckney and former Phoenix coach Alvin Gentry.
Through it all, Joerger’s name remained the one most mentioned. Levien said he was ”positively inclined” toward Joerger as the coaching search began, but they had never talked about specific direction or style.
”I thought it gave us an opportunity to spend real serious time in evaluating who the other options were,” Levien said. ”There aren’t too many times you get a first-time NBA head coach who has won professional basketball championships as much as Dave has.”
Joerger won an International Basketball Association title and two Continental Basketball Association crowns with the Dakota Wizards. A third CBA championship came as coach of the Sioux Falls Skyforce in 2005. He won a fifth minor league championship in 2007 with the Wizards after they had moved to the NBA Development League.
Joerger was the Grizzlies’ lead assistant coach this season and helped coordinate a defense that allowed a league-low 89.3 points per game. His experience with the team also could help the Grizzlies have a smooth transition from the Hollins era.
The dismissal of Hollins wasn’t popular in many segments of the Grizzlies fan base. While Hollins had his detractors, his success made the departure tough to accept in the community, which has no other professional franchise.
”I think coming off the success we had at the end of the season here in May and the excitement around the team was palpable,” Levien said. ”Certainly making changes, making adjustments is never easy. I think there is going to be an important time now for people to get to know Dave, to get to know our vision for the team as an organization, where we want to take this team and its role in the community. … That said, I think also we’re going to soothe a lot of people when we start winning basketball games. We can’t do that until Oct. 31 or so.”
Joerger said his style will be a faster pace than in the past, but not at the expense of the Grizzlies’ defensive reputation. He said the Grizzlies will maintain a grit-grind attitude and remain one of the most physical team in the league. Joerger said the faster pace wouldn’t mean ”vomit basketball” in which shots are taken in the first 5 seconds of the shot clock.
”I think that would be silly regarding the fact we have two All-Stars playing the power forward and center position,” Joerger said referring to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. ”But by opening up the floor, moving the basketball, by spreading the floor a little bit, they are going to have more room to work.
”Other teams aren’t going to have nine dudes in the paint when Zach’s trying to back down and go to work. … I like 3-pointers, but I love layups and I love free throws.”