MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The obvious finally occurred. Did anyone really think Lionel Hollins was returning to coach the Memphis Grizzlies?
Unceremoniously, the team confirmed Monday evening that Hollins’ contract would not be renewed for next season.
Just like that, the Hollins saga is over. No big press conference. No major television announcement. Nothing, just Hollins quietly making his exit.
Hollins had been at all three pre-draft workouts, the last two sitting alongside general manager Chris Wallace. At the first such workout last week, it was Hollins and vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger in attendance. It was an awkward scene considering Hollins’ contract was expiring and a big factor in those contract talks was the fact that he never got on board with Hollinger’s analytic-driven style.
Hollinger became a stat guru and grew his name as an ESPN columnist. His style was quickly adapted by new Memphis management, just not Hollins.
Hollins wanted to stay — and deserved to stay after a record-setting season. He has been with the organization for 10 of its 12 years, an original member of the Vancouver Grizzlies. The team improved in each of his four seasons as head coach.
But the writing was on the wall and Hollins understands the basketball business. Management didn’t stab Hollins and Hollins did nothing wrong. He will be fine and so will the Grizzlies.
Assistant coach Dave Joerger hasn’t been seen at any of the three workouts, all closed to the media. But he may be there for the next one, and the next one as a head coach. Joerger is a heralded young mind, who had a lot to do with the current Grizzlies’ defensive prowess and a guy in many circles thought to be the next star coach (i.e., Erik Spoelstra or Tom Thibodeau).
Memphis picked a good time for the news to slip. Tim Tebow had just agreed to a deal with the New England Patriots. That kept the national chatter at a low level. Nothing low about the level of opinion in Memphis, though. Grizzlies fans are upset and they have every right to be.
Fans see what this team did with Hollins at the helm. And that’s a fair assessment. Head coaches get the blame. Shouldn’t they also get the credit?
Hollins deserves a lot of credit. He did a lot of good things. He took a team he openly wanted to keep together and won without a big piece (Rudy Gay). He took point guard Mike Conley — a big Hollins supporter — under his wing and played a big role in transforming him from a player once considered trade bait into a player the Grizzlies can now build around.
Fans see that and are understandably upset. If they weren’t upset, that would be a bigger problem. But Memphis now cares about the Grizzlies. The FedExForum is full for every playoff game, loud for all the home games and after the Clippers series has developed a reputation as one of the NBA’s tougher places to play.
During the conference finals, Memphis’ own Three 6 Mafia rapper DJ Paul was nearly in the Spurs’ huddle while performing during a timeout.
Memphis is, dare we say, feared. And a lot of that has to do with Hollins, a hard-nosed coach who demanded this team get better; a hard-nosed coach who openly yelled at his players and secretly liked it when they yelled back.
He had awkward moments with the media, then joked with them seconds later. He often had sharp answers to questions. But that’s what Memphis became: a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, working-class team that embodied how Hollins played and coached.
But new owner Robert Pera handed the reigns of the team over to CEO and managing partner Jason Levien. Before the All-Star break, Pera said in a press conference with local media that he trusts Levien.
Levien’s statement was released Monday night.
“After a thorough internal process, which included conversations with Lionel and his representatives, we decided as an organization to move in a different direction,” he said.
At that same midseason press conference, Pera expressed his confidence that the Gay trade was for the good of the team, going as far as saying he thought this team was set up for its longest playoff run to date.
Was he crazy? No, he was right. Memphis not only won a playoff series for only the second time in franchise history, but won another and made it to the Western Conference finals.
Thus the uproar.
Fans have every right to be upset. They pay the bills. But it’s not doom and gloom for the Grizzlies. If Joerger is promoted to head coach, you now have a guy you might have lost. George Karl is also available. Like Hollins, he was let go after a very successful season in Denver.
Memphis was in a win-win situation. Keep the guy who took you to the dance or hire the up-and-coming star. Or hey, hire Karl. He’s pretty good, too. There are good candidates who can keep the train rolling.
But there is also a front office that a lot of people are furious with, mad at and having their Twitter mentions blown away by anger.
It was also this new front office that made a trade in late January that propelled this team into uncharted waters.