The Coaching Question, Revisited



The offseason can never wait. A couple of weeks ago, with the Grizzlies down 0-2 to the Clippers, a smattering of eulogies to the Z-Bo-era Griz sprouted up. This week, with the team in the middle of a second-round series and it long established that Lionel Hollins' coaching future would not be dealt with until after the playoffs, speculation on that subject has popped back to the top of the Griz-topic queue.

The news peg for the latest flare-up is that the Nets have been reported as a team with interest in Hollins. This kind of story was inevitable. I know of one other franchise that has at least discussed Hollins and have had a third suggested to me by someone with connections to that organization. There's nothing surprising in any of this. Hollins will be a coaching free agent of sorts with lots of jobs out there to be filled and would make a pretty splashy hire for a lot of teams. I would imagine that any team with an opening would be having internal discussions about him as a potential candidate.

Locally, Hollins' future with the Grizzlies has tended to be written about and discussed in simple terms: He's done a great job and he deserves to be back next year. But while I ultimately believe both of those assertions to be true, it's a lot more complicated than that. I wrote about the coaching question at considerable length about a month ago, but now seems like, if not a "good" then perhaps an inevitable time to dig a little deeper into some of the points I made then.

Sometimes you'll see fans ask some variation on, "How can you fire a coach who's accomplished what Hollins has?" But the decision about Hollins' future with the Grizzlies is a two-way conversation. His contract is up, and unlike the last time Hollins was in this situation, when Michael Heisley simply handed him a deal to sign, refusing to respond to counteroffers, this time it's going to be a real negotiation.

Hollins has made it clear he would like to be back. I wrote a month ago that I sensed the organization had concluded that bringing Hollins back is their preferred path, and Hollins himself suggested as much this week, even as CEO Jason Levien declines to comment on the pending negotiation. But on whose terms?

This is where it gets complicated. My guess is that the front office would be happier right now if Hollins still had one or two years left on his current contract. Because getting a deal done with Hollins this summer is not about bringing him back for next season; it's about locking him in for what would likely be a minimum of three years. (Hollins is unlikely to respond favorably to a two-year offer, especially given that he'll probably have other options to provide him with leverage.)

And if you're talking about a minimum three-year deal, now you're asking questions deeper than 'Is Lionel Hollins the right coach for this team?"

Given the on-going success of this postseason and the team's player-contract situation, bringing the current core back next season now looks likely, and bringing Hollins back to coach it preferable. But this core has a two-year expiration date. So, is Hollins the right coach to preside over the transition to a new roster and potentially new style, the territory a new contract would take him into?

When that becomes part of the question, then issues about Hollins' commitment to and ability to implement a new organizational philosophy, as well as his development of young assets (Tony Wroten, Ed Davis) begin to loom larger.

A second issue with a new long-term contract for Hollins — and one I'd prefer not to get too far into right now because if feels unnecessarily trouble-making, but here we are — is the opportunity cost in likely losing lead assistant Dave Joerger to a head-coaching opportunity elsewhere. Joerger has been, in large part — let's not deny Hollins his due credit here as well — the architect of what may be the league's best defense and has a compelling head-coaching pedigree at the minor-league level. There are many who believe he could be the next Tom Thibodeau or Erik Spoelstra. While Hollins may be the best coach for the present, does a long-term deal close off the possibility of Joerger in the future?

A third issue, of course, is money. Hollins is due for a big raise, one way or another, and coaching contracts don't count against the salary cap or luxury tax. If money itself is perceived as the sticking point that prevents a deal between the Grizzlies and Hollins, that would likely bring a good deal of heat on the Pera/Levien team. But that might not be totally fair. This new group is oriented around efficiency and maximizing resources, and that extends beyond the roster. It's an unexplored issue, but there's probably a case to be made that massive coaching contracts may not be a good use of resources.

All that said, there's a risk vs. reward element to any outcome. And I tend to think that, right now, the risk of losing Hollins is greater than the risk of making a long-term commitment to him. The Grizzlies have a team built to win now and Hollins has established himself as a Top 10 NBA coach. He's also proven adaptable enough that it isn't fair to conclude that he can't adjust to the transitions that loom, though that's a central question that's been far too ignored.

I think bringing Hollins back is the right move. And I think that's more likely to happen than not. But it's not a simple question.

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