Should Dave Joerger Get Fired?

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LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Short version: no, but that doesn't count for much in the NBA.

No one thought we'd be having this conversation in the third week of the season. Sure, people had expressed doubts about whether the team would be able to compete for a championship this year, but the concern was never that they'd get beaten by 19, 30, and 50 points all in the same week, before getting down 20 to the Jazz—too far down to come back from, as it turned out on Saturday night. The concern was that the roster was a little weird, and lacking in a few areas that might hurt them as the season progressed— never that they'd look old, tired, and washed up right out of the gate.

Instead, here we are. The Grizzlies are 3-4 which, given the strength of their early schedule, really isn't that far out of line with what would've been a reasonable expectation. That's not really the problem, though: the problem is that they look like the worst team in the league when they lose. They're currently 29th (out of 30 teams) in offensive rating, 23rd in defensive rating, they're 27th out of 30 in pace—which is how you know any player blaming their poor start on playing too fast is throwing the coach under the bus—and they're last in the league in field goal percentage at .401.

All that being the case, it's not really surprising that ESPN's Marc Stein reported on Friday that Joerger could be fired if things don't get better. In the NBA, when a team that should be good starts playing like garbage, that's usually the first head to roll. But is that the right thing to do?

The Case Against Dave Joerger

In an NBA that has rapidly evolved over the last five seasons, Dave Joerger's coaching style is a bit of a throwback—but it's really impossible to tell whether that's because that's how he coaches (he came up under Lionel Hollins but has always said his "real" mentor was Flip Saunders) or because that's the only roster he's ever been tasked with coaching: slow big men, poor outside shooting, and a point guard/center combo who excel at the high pick and roll.

Because this is the only NBA team he's coached, it's hard to tell which struggles of the team are because of Joerger and which ones are because of the roster, but there are a few flaws with Joerger that hold this team back:

➭ I'm not sure what he's done to make the players think they're playing so fast, but this is the second season (out of the three he's been the coach) that the Grizzlies have gotten off to a terrible start and the players are complaining to the media that they're "playing too fast" and that they need to "go back to playing the way they used to." There are two possibilities here, and they aren't mutually exclusive:

  1. The Grizzlies' players, especially the older ones who have been here for a while, are so set in their ways that they refuse to consider adopting a new system (or, at least one imposed by Joerger) because they don't trust that it's going to work
  2. Joerger is telling the team that they are changing/evolving/whatever when really they're making incremental changes, and they either can't be bothered to learn the new stuff well enough to use it in games, or the new stuff just doesn't work at all in games.
Mike Conley has said the Grizzlies "aren't on the same page defensively." - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Mike Conley has said the Grizzlies "aren't on the same page defensively."

I'm not sure what this whole thing is about. It does indicate, pretty clearly in my mind, a gulf in trust between the coach and his players—they don't want to go down whatever road he's taking them down, and they either don't respect him enough to do it anyway or he doesn't do a good enough job of implementing it—to the point that even Mike Conley is willing to speak out and say they need to "go back to playing the way we play." Last time it was Tony Allen leading the charge against the new plays, which, well, let's just say that's a little less surprising.

But that lack of trust is concerning, and that is what's visible on the court right now: a lack of trust. More problematic than the coach/player divide that seems to be growing is the lack of trust on the floor, especially defensively. Guys are over-helping all over the place because they simply don't think the other guy is going to cover his man, and they're leaving everything on the floor wide open as a result. Ball movement baffles this defense right now because they don't stay home because no one thinks anyone else is going to take care of it.

➭ Just like his predecessor, he refuses to play young guys. It's no secret that Joerger wanted the Grizzlies to pick Rodney Hood over Jordan Adams in the 2014 Draft, and Hood has gone on to play very well for Utah, but Adams has never had a chance to prove whether he can play or not. On a team that is starved for play-making and scoring at the wings, Adams is a guy who has potential to fill some of those needs, but instead of getting a chance to develop (and being allowed to play through rough patches, something neither Joerger nor his predecessor has ever even thought about doing except in the case of Mike Conley), Adams only played 250 minutes all season last year, while Vince Carter and Jeff Green and the Conley/Calathes and Conley/Udrih combos ate up all the minutes at the 2 spot.

On a team that is clearly getting older and needs young guys to be ready to step up as the aging rotation players start to decline, not developing young players isn't just a shame, it's stupid and self-defeating. I'm not saying Jamaal Franklin could've been Kawhi Leonard, but if he never sees the floor, either (1) his practices are going so poorly that he doesn't need to play or (2) you don't know because you've never seen him in a game.

The most recent thing along these lines that infuriated me just happened Saturday night after the Utah game. The Grizzlies had come back from down 20 to only lose by 10 (these are the things we celebrate right now) and Joerger's answer to the problem was to "shorten the rotation." He only played 9 guys to begin with, so I guess the guy he's cutting out of minutes is JaMychal Green—the young guy who is playing pretty well right now and emphatically not the problem. This is so shortsighted it makes my blood boil. The problem isn't that you're playing too many guys at the back end of the rotation, Dave, it's that the front half of your rotation looks like they'd rather still be on summer vacation.

Is JaMychal Green the odd man out of this supposed "shortened rotation"? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Is JaMychal Green the odd man out of this supposed "shortened rotation"?

➭ He's been the coach three years now and in all three seasons there's been some sort of meltdown—the beginning of his first year, which is to be expected somewhat when a rookie coach takes over a veteran squad, but then after the All Star break last year and now the beginning of this year. There's something about his tenure and his coaching style that allows this team to drift into the rocks pretty easily, and I'm not sure what inspires that lack of unity, but it's hard to coach effectively when the team is always melting down on you. I don't know how much of that is his fault, but I do know that other coaches do a better job of keeping their teams on the same page.

➭ Just like his predecessor (noticing a trend here?), his rotations and substitution patterns are strange at best, and willfully ignorant of lineup data at worst. The chief example here of the Joerger era is the Jeff Green/Courtney Lee wing combo, which has already been abandoned as a starting pair this season (mercifully) but which was clearly proven not to be a good idea last year and yet still persisted until Jeff Green told the coach to bring him off the bench.

And then there's the thing I've been ranting about on Twitter since the first week of Joerger's NBA career: playing the starters—all five of them, because of course the guys who start the second half have to be the same as the guys who start the first—for nine minutes straight without a substitution in the third quarter. This happens almost every game, whether the starters are doing well or poorly, whether the Grizzlies are up or down, whether they start looking tired around the four minute mark or not. You could make the argument that this kind of set pattern helps players get in a rhythm because they know how long they're going to be on the floor, and I agree with that sentiment, but that big stretch of time in the third means they're gassed in the fourth quarter when the team seems to be trying to hold on to a lead or come back from down 7.

I don't think Joerger is a good "in game" coach in that sense—I don't think he has a sense for who to play when or what lineups work and which ones don't. However:

The Case For Dave Joerger

➭ Dave Joerger is an excellent coach in the playoffs. In three series (vs. OKC, Portland, and Golden State) Joerger has made excellent strategic adjustments from game to game, and knows exactly what is required of him tactically to win over a seven-game series. He's really very good at it. Same goes for after time-out plays: Joerger is a master of them. In terms of basketball IQ, I think he's one of the better coaches in the league.

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

➭ He's been handed a tough situation for any coach, but especially one who started out as an assistant on this team. An aging team of veterans who have been through the playoff trenches for five years straight is not going to take easily to change, and they're not going to listen to just anybody. I would imagine the Grizzlies' locker room is a pretty tough environment to steer on a regular basis—especially, and this sounds like a joke but I'm serious—without a guy like Tayshaun Prince around, a very vocal locker room leader who has Been There And Done That. The leaders on this team in the locker room are the Core Four, and Conley and Gasol have never really been ones to step up and tell guys how it is, so that leaves Randolph and Allen. I think there's a bit of a leadership vacuum on the roster right now, and that's a hard situation for a coach to manage.

➭ Speaking of the roster, it's not exactly Dave Joerger's fault that over his three years as coach the roster has progressively gotten older and older and now looks like maybe they should be headed to the retirement home. The blame for that lies mostly at the feet of Chris Wallace, the GM for all but one year of the Grit and Grind Era... I said this on Twitter during the Utah game on Saturday:

Remember when Mike Miller was the last piece of the championship puzzle? - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski
  • Remember when Mike Miller was the last piece of the championship puzzle?

Every year for five years now has been "the Grizzlies just need to make this one move and they'll be able to win a championship." That "one move" was the Rudy trade, or it was bringing in Mike Miller, or it was signing Vince Carter, or it was flipping Tayshaun Prince for Jeff Green in what was essentially a reversal of the Rudy trade. When you spend several years just trying to bring in a veteran playmaker to bolster your playoff run, you end up with a roster full of veteran playmakers, and a future (two draft picks in the next 4 years have been traded away) that has been mortgaged to get them here. That's on Chris Wallace. Especially the decision to use another first round pick to get Jeff Green here. The coach didn't make those moves. The GM did.

And speaking of draft picks, if this franchise doesn't figure out how to use first round picks wisely and develop young players, when the current crop of Griz players ride off into the sunset (and hopefully that's not what we're seeing happen right now before our eyes), it's going to be a long time before they're good again because they'll have to build from the ground up. For a team that talks about wanting to be like the Spurs—and a lot of that talk has come from the top, from Robert Pera—they sure don't have a lot of options for players to step up as the current guys struggle.

Which is to say this: ultimately it's not Dave Joerger's fault that (1) Conley and Gasol aren't playing well and they're the anchors of this team and (2) the entire roster is aging and no young players are there to step up. It probably is his fault that Jordan Adams isn't farther along in his development, but that's one guy. The problem is bigger than that.

The Way Forward From Here

So. Should Dave Joerger get fired? Probably not. Will he be? I think so. But I think it will be because of things I haven't even discussed yet.

LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Larry Kuzniewski

Remember when Joerger almost left the Grizzlies to go take the Timberwolves' head coaching job and go home to Minnesota to coach with Flip Saunders? And then had a last minute heart-to-heart with Robert Pera and ended up signing a contract extension? Well, that Timberwolves job is still open. Sam Mitchell is the interim coach, they've got a lot of good young players, we know from the interview process last time that Joerger has a good relationship with their owner, and... it's not hard to connect the dots and see why the job that he already came this close to leaving for once already and is still available might be more appealing to him than the one he has, as he gets scapegoated and the team plays like the Senior PGA version of themselves.

The Timberwolves are mentioned in the Stein piece, but the other thing mentioned in that piece that I've also heard more than once? There's a reason the name of Tom Thibodeau, the former Bulls coach, keeps coming up in these rumors: the rumors are based in reality—not necessarily that Grizzlies ownership wants to clean house and make way for Thibs to take over, but that Pera certainly has a high opinion of Thibs (to be fair, one that Thibs earned, though I certainly have issues with the way he ran his Chicago teams), and if something were to go down with Joerger, Thibodeau would probably be on the short list of replacement candidates.

More importantly, given what we know about the difficulties in the past between Pera and his coach, and the current "this team looks old" posture Joerger has taken publicly, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that you can only take an axe to a tree so many times before it falls over. You can only have so many leaks about wanting to fire a guy before it makes itself a self-fulfilling prophecy. Add to that the players who are apparently willing to blame some sort of imagined systemic change (with the starters anyway; the second-unit changes are real for their own poor performances despite a lack of evidence that any change of that sort actually happened, and you've got a bad situation that seems poised to get worse if the Grizzlies can't get it together in a week where they're playing the Clippers and two other teams that have already beaten them by a combined 69 points.

What is happening right now is surely eroding Pera's trust in his coach, the coach's trust in Pera, and the locker room's trust in both, and it's only a matter of time before that relationship becomes too damaged to be productive. If the Grizzlies take bad losses to the Clippers tonight and the Warriors at home on Wednesday, headed into another game against a hot Portland team on Friday, my gut tells me things are going to get very interesting in Grizzlies-land.

But. (And there's always a but.) If the Grizzlies come out tonight against the Clippers and play hard, look like themselves (to the extent possible) and pull off a win? And then perform well against the Warriors on Wednesday, keeping it close if not pulling off an upset? This all changes. This all turns back into a slow start in a tough schedule, something everyone knew was coming. If that can happen, this discussion goes away (at least for now) and Joerger and the team actually start to heal whatever rifts are growing right now, and we're back to talking about basketball.

The question is: can that happen, and if it does, what will it look like? Something is wrong with the Grizzlies right now (this is like saying "The Mississippi River contains a lot of water.") and it's got to get fixed before there's any clear path forward from this string of blowouts. The situation with the Grizzlies, top to bottom, is very unclear right now. My feeling is that it's going to be clarified soon enough, but if they keep losing games by double digits, I'm not sure we'll have to wait around very long.

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