MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Dave Joerger talked about his “blue collar” work ethic, his low-key rise up the coaching ranks (10 years in the minor leagues) and how he’s a stickler for doing the little things.
Then he proved it, helping Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien move a table at the end of his press conference, where Joerger, 39, had just been named the franchise’s head coach.
“My first job was pretty much mostly commission, as a general manager of a minor league team, assistant coach as well,” Joerger said. “I sold all the tickets. I delivered the tickets. I created advertising campaigns, printed banners and talked to the Lions Club, picked up the towels and washed the uniforms.
“I’ve come up the hard way, so I have an appreciation for being in the NBA and for being in this position.”
Levien said the Joerger promotion was a popular move in the locker room. If anyone outside is worried about hiring a new face, it comes without research.
Seen as a rising star, Joerger has been a Grizzlies assistant for six seasons, four under Lionel Hollins. His hands were all over the vaunted defense. Since his arrival to the sidelines, the Grizzlies’ defense has steadily improved, transforming into the NBA’s top scoring defense.
The hire somewhat signifies the end of a tumultuous era in Grizzlies basketball. Hollins, the franchise’s most successful coach, was not retained after a historic run to the Western Conference finals. People were angry.
The mood has seemingly simmered and the immediate reaction to Joerger has been overwhelmingly positive. That’s normally the case for new coaches hired during the summer. As head coach, Joerger will jump right in, guiding the franchise in the draft war room on Thursday night. Joerger said Hollins called two days ago to congratulate him.
Hollins will naturally get some credit for aiding Joerger’s defensive growth, but it’s not like the guy crawled from under a rock into the game. He carved his own path and offensive innovations. His blue-collar past also played a big role in landing the Grizzlies job — over the likes of George Karl and Alvin Gentry.
It’s a blue-collar team in a blue-collar town that Joerger has lived in, coached in, served in and gone with his family of four to his local Methodist church for the last six years.
Joerger has won everywhere he’s been. He claimed five titles in the minor leagues through plenty of circumstances — player call-ups, rebuilding jobs, etc. A break here or there and he would be able to boast seven titles in seven seasons as a head coach. Three came in the CBA, one in the IBL and the last in the NBA Developmental League — four with the Dakota Wizards.
For good measure, Joerger has two CBA Coach of the Year awards and a .665 winning percentage.
“I am ready for this opportunity. I have won in the past. I know how to win. We’re going to win,” Jeorger said.
How do you argue with numbers? Grizzlies management has grown to love the process. Analytics dominated the coaching-change conversation, though it never entered the conversation on Thursday. It’s not the first major change for the still-new ownership — see Rudy Gay — and Memphis won after that controversial move. That had to be the case, if this ownership would maintain credibility in a tight basketball community.
This is no different, more urgent, actually. The Grizzlies’ reputation continued to grow in the spring.
There are no signs that say Joerger won’t win. His team is coming back. Guards Jerryd Bayless and Tony Allen are free agents, but offensive centerpieces Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley Jr. are under contract. The latter two were NBA All-Defense, as was Allen, who everyone in Memphis expects back.
Allen, the creator of the Grizzlies’ grit-and-grind attitude, and his new boss already shared dinner at Fleming’s Steakhouse. That can’t be a bad sign.
Joerger already has plans to get his team to the next step — and fair or not, that next step is toward the NBA Finals. That plan involves some change, but don’t expect any sort of Lob City monikers. His off-the-court approach may not be as oft-snarky (and entertaining) as Hollins, but his gameplan still involves letting the big guys do their thing.
“We’re going to push the pace. We’re not going to play, perhaps, vomit basketball, where we shoot in the first five seconds of the clock. I think that would be silly,” Joerger said. “We’ve got two all-stars playing the power forward and center” (Randolph, Gasol).
It’s about floor-spacing and ball movement. It’s no coincidence that Joerger is already trying to adapt his team to two things that cost the Grizzlies in their season-ending sweep to the Spurs in the West finals. Coaching is his focus and has been for quite a while.
Joerger asked his way into an unpaid internship with the IBA’s Fargo-Moorehead Beez to get his career going. He washed towels and got water, then continued to do the same once hired as general manager and assistant coach at Bismarck. He sold tickets, picked up banners and probably even cleaned a toilet or two.
So don’t be surprised when you see Joerger at Target or speaking at the Lions Club next week.
It’s who he is. Laid back. Confident. Authentic.
“I live here. This is my home. I don’t hide,” Joerger said. “I feel the passion. It’s Grizzlies. It’s Tigers. I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Even if he wanted to, there’s nowhere to do so. The Rudy Gay thing worked out and this will too. Until then, Joerger will probably be washing towels, cleaning bathrooms and picking out dish detergent — and whatever else wife Kara has on the side of the fridge — after he helps Memphis through Thursday’s draft, of course.