Coaching a professional basketball team is hard. The job is to get in a locker room and motivate a bunch of millionaires to play hard on a Tuesday night in February in Minnesota when they're already thinking about the playoffs and they want to be home in bed watching Swamp People reruns or whatever and playing in games that "matter." When things go really well, the players are likely to get all of the credit, and usually that's deserved. The only thing a coach with good players gets noticed for is screwing up; it's hard to tell how much of a given team's success is due to coaching decisions and how much comes from the guys wearing the jerseys.
First things first: my intention is to steer clear of the raging Lionel wars (which are apparently still going strong). I think some of the numbers—especially the fact that the Grizzlies' winning percentage with both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol on the floor is almost identical between last year and this year—justify that decision. (My other intention is to steer clear of any necktie discussions.)
But this year has been crazy, and it's not over yet, but I think we can already start to draw some conclusions about what was undoubtedly the Grizzlies' most controversial offseason move. With all of the personnel changes, injuries, and setbacks, (1) can we tell what effect the coach has had on how the team performs? And (2) has that effect been a good one?
The Grizzlies have played 74 of their 82 games so far this season, amassing a 44-30 record, which currently has them in 7th place in the Western Conference standings thanks to Steph Curry and his game-winner in Dallas last night and owning the tiebreaker with the Phoenix Suns.
They're holding opponents to an average of 94.1 points per game, the third-lowest average in the league. The pace of play this year is 89.7 possessions per game, which is up from last year, but is still the slowest pace in the league. When adjusted for pace of play, the Grizzlies have a defensive rating of 104.4 points allowed per 100 possessions (7th of 30 teams) and on offense, they score 106 points per 100 possessions, 16th out of 30 teams.
These numbers are... pretty much the same as last year. Which makes sense, for the most part, because the major pieces of this year's team are unchanged, even when accounting for the fact that Rudy Gay was swapped for Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince (I mean, I guess Austin Daye, too?) before last season's trade deadline. So there's not much improvement in the offensive and defensive efficiencies this season, but there's not much of a regression, either. The biggest change has been in defensive efficiency—points allowed per 100 possessions—where the Grizzlies were 2nd last year and are currently 7th.
My point here is that according to the metrics, the Grizzlies are pretty much the same team overall, with a slight drop in the defense (something that's been pretty obvious to everyone watching the team this year). So is Dave Joerger doing a good job?
What we talk about when we talk about injuries
This year, the Grizzlies have had more time missed than any in recent memory. So far, they've lost 116 "man games" to injury, a substantial gain over last year, and those haven't just been injuries to role players: Marc Gasol and Tony Allen both missed huge stretches of 20+ games, with Zach Randolph and Mike Conley missing much smaller stretches in between. If someone asked you which four players were most important to the Grizzlies' success, you'd probably say Conley, Allen, Randolph, and Gasol, so it's no surprise that the team struggled to keep its head above water while those players were missing time—especially Gasol, one of the best centers in the league and one of the real motors behind the Grizzlies' success.
This is where people usually say "yes, but every team deals with injuries." They do. But to two of the starting five, for more than 20 games, with a first-year NBA head coach, and an almost completely different bench? Not quite. Anyone who says that the Grizzlies' injuries shouldn't have had an effect on their overall record is being intellectually dishonest.
That said, the injuries make it much harder to judge Joerger's overall performance. There were games during the dark days of December and January where the Grizzlies started Mike Conley, Jerryd Bayless, Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis, and Kosta Koufos, and still should've won games that they didn't. Through weird lineups, poor performance, poor execution down the stretch—whatever the reason—there's no doubt that even without their two or three best players, the Griz still had a chance to win somes games that they didn't. How much of that is the coach? How much of that is because of the players, or because poor lineups were the only lineups available because the Griz had nine players in uniform?
The emphasis coming out of training camp, or at least the official word, was that the offense wasn't going to change much from last year. It was going to be last year's offense with "a few new wrinkles." When the Grizzlies—who played for several years under Lionel Hollins' (and his offensive assistant Henry Bibby's) methodical, 1975-inspired, what's-a-three-pointer, glacially violent offensive system—took the floor for the first time under Joerger, it looked like none of them had any idea what to do.
Joerger's emphasis on ball movement and his empowerment of the players to improvise had crippled the Grizzlies. Instead of making the right move, the one that came naturally, you could see guys—Mike Conley and Marc Gasol especially—holding the ball for several seconds, thinking about what to do next. Paralyzed by overthinking what they were about to do instead of playing naturally, which is ironic, because playing naturally was the whole point of the change. How many times did we see Quincy Pondexter pass up a wide-open three from the corner, where he's an excellent shooter, to drive to the rim and miss a contested layup in a crowd? It was infuriating.
Eventually, though—in part due to the Marc Gasol injury—the true image of JoergerBall started to emerge from the chaos like a developing Polaroid. It reached its apotheosis somewhere around early January, in an overtime loss to the Spurs and a home win over the Suns, right before Gasol's return: Ed Davis played 30 minutes, James Johnson played 30 minutes, mostly at the 3, Kosta Koufos started at center.
You started to get a sense that surrounding a big, skilled dude at center with a hyper-athletic power forward (Davis), a chaos-inducing athletic 3 (Johnson), and two shooters (pick two of Conley/Lee/Miller)—and this was before the Nick Calathes Era really began in earnest, so Conley was playing 40 minutes—was the key to the new Grizzlies: their offensive efficiency shot up into the top 10 in the league, the pace was furious, the chaos was palpable in the FedExForum, and they were firing on all cylinders, with Mike Conley scoring 30 more often than he ever has in his career.
And therein lies the rub: that roster is not the "real" Grizzlies roster. I'm not the only one who thinks Joerger's offensive stuff works a lot better with a guy like Davis at the power forward spot, defending pick and rolls and ranging the paint on offense looking for putbacks. With Gasol and Randolph back together, everything slows back down, like an Oldsmobile Cutlass on tank treads rolling over the other team at 15 miles an hour. There's no doubt in my mind that Joerger is an excellent coach at the X's-and-O's level—the question is whether he's the right coach for this Grizzlies roster.
Which may become a moot point anyway, right? This Grizzlies roster is not going to be the Grizzlies roster next year, and it's definitely not going to be here in two years. The Z-Bo contract situation this summer, Ed Davis' impending restricted free agency, Tayshaun Prince turning into Tayshaun Prince's Expiring Contract, James Johnson hitting the market—all of those will reshape the team in one way or another this offseason. The Joerger hire was made for the future, not for this year (which was a big reason why it upset so many people). We've seen the JoergerBall Promised Land, and we may not be there yet, but it's better to have seen it.
There's one thing I've complained about pretty consistently this season: rotations. There's one way in which Dave Joerger is almost exactly like his predecessor, and it's maddening. Joerger continues the grand Lionel Hollins tradition of "coaching by feel," which appears to mean "completely disregarding actual on-court performance in favor of playing whoever seems like a good fit at a given moment based on entirely random, non-public criteria."
When the Grizzlies made a change at the head coaching spot, the hope was that we'd never again see masterpieces like pulling out a bench lineup that was on a huge scoring run to put checked-out starters back in for no reason, or playing Hamed Haddadi in the 4th quarter of a home Game 7 (no offense, Hamed), or starting Xavier Henry.
So far that hasn't been the case. Tayshaun Prince continues to play too many minutes (possibly due to James Johnson's lack of trustworthiness and/or ego issues, but regardless, it's too many minutes). Ed Davis has been left for dead at the end of the bench, collecting DNP-CD's when he's not playing 20 minutes against a playoff team. What many believe to be the Grizzlies' best lineup, and a potential starting lineup that would make the team better—Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol—has only played 29 minutes together (11 in February and 18 in March), outscoring opponents by 37.5 points per 100 possessions in those minutes.
The overall pattern seems to be starters at the beginning of the first and end of the second, starters for literally the entire third quarter oh man please take them out they're so tired and then mixing in bench and starting players to "close" the game. It's led to some pretty gnarly low-scoring third quarters, and some gassed and tired Grizzlies at the end of games, and I'm not sure why it hasn't stopped yet.
I've written about it at length here more than once, so I don't really feel a need to go into any more depth on this, but controlling which players are on the court at which time is one of the key ways an NBA head coach can impact a game, and it's an area in which Joerger needs some improvement, without a doubt. I'm sure it'll come, but it's been uneven this year.
Is Dave Joerger doing a good job?
I think so. One could make the argument that he's mostly just not screwing up. There have clearly been moments this season when having a first-year head coach has cost the Grizzlies games, whether through lack of execution, poor lineup decisions, unwise strategic choices, or something else—but my sense is that these teething troubles would have happened to any first year head coach coming in to an established situation instead of a rebuild. This is a team that's been together for a while, and Joerger was forced to coach the team and not break anything, whereas if it were some rebuilding process, he'd have been much more free to experiment and learn on the fly.
It's clear that Joerger was a good hire for the organization. What's less clear is whether he was the right hire for this roster—and I think that mostly, he has been. The guys like him. They play hard for him. There's a much different dynamic between players and coach than there was during the Hollins years, but it seems that that's mostly been a healthy improvement of working relationships. But one also gets the sense that sometimes the players just aren't built to do what Joerger wants them to—the pace is still 30th in the league, the offense still a clogged toilet from time to time, outside shooting still a problem, and the defense faltering from time to time.
I think the Grizzlies would be somewhere around the same record no matter who the coach was. But I think it's clear that the team could have checked out during the Gasol and Allen injuries, when they were losing so many games the talk turned to tanking. They never quit. This is a strong-willed locker room, and I think Joerger, along with his team leaders, guys like Allen and Gasol (and Tayshaun Prince, practically a player-coach at this point) did an admirable job of holding together a team that could've fragmented and cracked.
The rotations are an issue that needs improvement, and I think everyone (including Joerger) knows that. He's a smart guy. I think he'll figure it out sooner rather than later, but it doesn't look like it's going to be this season. But overall, I think the fact that this team is sitting in 7th place fighting for its life rather than trying to tank down to the Jazz/Lakers tier is proof that something is working.
This has been a hard year to judge, and maybe the worst possible season in which to have a first-year head coach: coming off a star-crossed run to the Western Conference Finals that raised expectations beyond what was probably reasonable, suffering major injuries, playing in the best, tightest Western Conference in years. But when you look at it, taking the speedbumps and hiccups in stride, it still feels like the Grizzlies have the coach of their future in Dave Joerger. What the team does with the roster he's got to work with will probably determine how successful he is in the near future, whenever this season comes to a close.