by Kevin Lipe
The dust has settled a little bit after Saturday morning’s dismissal of Dave Joerger as the Grizzlies’ head coach, but I’m not sure we know much more than we did in those first few frantic hours on Saturday after the news started breaking. This morning, Adrian Wojnarowski has some news about the Grizzlies’ candidate list, though Woj’s list is conspicuously missing Mark Jackson, whose name was reported other places.
Here's what I think about the whole thing, after another day and a half to sit and think about it.
One thing this weekend taught us is that the Grizzlies, rightly or wrongly, still haven’t managed to put the past behind them. The PR barrage the Griz took when Jason Levien and Stu Lash were sent packing after the 2013–14 still sticks with them, locally and nationally, as there was a great deal of Internet Speculation about the internal workings of the Grizzlies organization and a great deal of hand-wringing about whether the Grizzlies were such a disaster internally that they wouldn’t be able to find a quality replacement for Joerger.
The truth of the matter is complex. The Grizzlies’ party line is still that Chris Wallace is running the show, that he makes the decisions and presents them to ownership, and that there’s a very clear hierarchy in the basketball ops side of the franchise. The Basketball Twitter Rumor Mill dark timeline (which has even been promulgated by folks like Marc Stein at times) is that Grizzlies “Director” Joe Abadi makes the decisions, and that everyone else jockeys for position like in the Heisley days, when there were different factions in basketball management pushing different strategies and Heisley would decide. Or, sometimes, he’d just pick Hasheem Thabeet because he wanted to, no matter what anyone else wanted to do.
Honestly, I don’t know what the truth is. Most people in the organization seem to support the “official position,” but then, isn’t that in their best interests? Are the voices that say otherwise disgruntled, or telling the truth? I don’t know. And I don’t have enough evidence one way or another to make some kind of definitive statement about How Grizzlies Basketball Ops Really Works. I think that’s the way most NBA teams are, really. Each person in an organization has his or her own mental model of how that organization functions, and they can be vastly different from one another.
What is becoming apparent as the coaching search kicks into gear is that Wallace (and Ed Stefanski) seem to be in the driver’s seat. The lists of candidates we’ve seen—from Wojnarowski, from Ron Tillery at the Commercial Appeal, and from other places—seem to be “Wallace” lists. They fit with the kinds of guys I think Wallace would be interested in hiring.
What does this have to do with Future Sacramento Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger?
How valid was Joerger’s criticism of the front office? Who wanted to trade for Jeff Green? Who wanted to keep Courtney Lee and Jeff Green on the team until the end of the season? Who played Ryan Hollins over JaMychal Green, and played Jeff Green and Courtney Lee together at the wings months after it was apparent to all involved that it was never going to work? Who watched his team get blown out a few times—over what was clearly a mental/chemistry issue, getting down 15 points and quitting—and then decided to call them old?
Joerger’s a good coach. But even if the Grizzlies’ front office is some sort of Pynchonian conspiracy designed to hide the fact that Robert Pera’s in absentia representative controls the levers of power, I’m not sure Joerger ever had the players who mattered on his side. In his emotional moment after the Grizzlies’ elimination, he talked a lot about Matt Barnes and Vince Carter. He benched Zach Randolph for Jeff Green this season, and though Randolph didn’t say anything about it to the media, he did manage to mention that “Joerg wanted to do that anyway”. It didn’t seem like Joerger ever had a better relationship (as head coach anyway) with Tony Allen than Lionel Hollins did. At the beginning of the season, when the Griz were getting pummeled by every team with a record over .600, even Mike Conley gave a quote to the media about how the Grizzlies needed to “get back to playing the way we play.” Two out of Joerger’s three seasons, there was some sort of scheme change implemented at training camp against which the players rebelled, and/or they came into the season out of shape and used him as their scapegoat.
And let’s talk about that “But He Got Them To The Playoffs With All Those Injuries” thing. I think head coaching matters, for sure, and I think Joerger is a very good head coach—probably top 10 in the NBA, or at the very least with the potential to establish himself as such. But to quote Hubie again, “Well, this is professional sports.” The uninjured players are all proud guys. The D-League guys, especially were playing for their NBA lives. JaMychal Green has never taken a possession off in his life. Matt Barnes is in a contract year, Vince Carter (1) is a competitor and (2) was motivated to prove he should come back and play next year. Lance Stephenson was going to be out of the league if he didn’t play well. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have been known to coast, and they stayed mostly engaged, so maybe that’s a counterpoint, but still: they won 11 games after the All-Star break, and 4 after Mario Chalmers (also in a contract year and playing out of his mind) went down.
It comes down to how much of that motivation you think came from the head coach. Some of that gets a little “White Savior”-y to me. If you think that particular group of players needed to someone pushing them to keep it together, then yes, Joerger deserves the utmost respect for that. I tend to think that particular mix of players needed guidance, yes, but that they all—almost to a man—had a reason to prove they needed to stay in the NBA next season. They’re professional athletes, and the Grizzlies’ whole “Grit/Grind” thing comes from the players more than it ever came from the top down.
There are a lot of reasons to think, especially after the last media availability of the season, that Joerger’s future with the Grizzlies was untenable. His criticism of the front office, his maybe-good maybe-not relationship with the core members of the Grizzlies’ roster (you know, the ones on Mt. Grizzmore), and those players’ three-year refusal to change their own style of play had culminated in this. I think Joerger was gone one way or another. It just happened faster than I thought.
Now, we’re going to get a sense of how the Grizzlies’ front office actually works, and whether the party line—Wallace as GM, the decision-maker—is really what’s happening. We’ll see what the plan is for the future, whether they can get a coach as good as Joerger (who is, as I’ve stated repeatedly, a very good basketball coach).
What really matters is whether whoever they get (1) makes Mike Conley feel confident in the Grizzlies’ plan going forward (he did, after all, mention coaching as one of the things the Grizzlies needed to take a hard look at this offseason—lots of people let that one slip by without notice) and (2) is committed to the patient development of young players. Without those two things (and make no mistake: the second point is more important than the first), they’ll be worse for showing Joerger the curb, even though I think they did the right thing in dismissing him.
For the first time since the Grizzlies decided to keep Lionel Hollins as head coach after he took over for (man, remember this guy?) Marc Iavaroni, they have a chance to make a break with the continuity that has made them a playoff team for so long, and move to the direction they supposedly want to be: “More like the Spurs.” The model they want, of course, is a head coach who collaborates with the front office, instead of antagonizing them. That’s not to say a yes man, but someone who can be a part of the discussions but also accept when his desired outcome isn’t the one the team goes for. Joerger never did that. Lionel Hollins didn’t do it either, but Joerger was much more openly critical of his employers than Hollins was.
This is an opportunity for the Grizzlies to get better, become more unified (if such a thing is possible), make a stronger commitment to developing young players—necessary as Conley and Gasol can no longer play anything like the minutes load Hollins and Joerger subjected them to—and maybe even move into the 2010’s NBA a little bit (though that also depends on what they do at the wing in free agency). If they blow this summer, with this coaching hire, with free agency, with the draft, with whatever other trades are still up their collective sleeve, even if they retain Conley, they’re not going to be good for a few years.