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Grizzlies Coaching Clarity

Two or three things I know about the Lionel Hollins situation.

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A few things I know as the Grizzlies part ways with Lionel Hollins and officially embark on a new era:

This shouldn't be that surprising: Lionel Hollins' fate as Grizzlies coach was always dependent on the resolution of conflicting normalcies: "Don't mess with success" vs. "New owners hire new people." When Hollins bristled publicly about the Grizzlies' new front office on multiple occasions mid-season, the odds tipped in the favor of change, but that didn't seal his fate. Instead, closing interviews — not just with Hollins but with others around the organization — seemed to convince team CEO Jason Levien to make the change he probably always desired.

There are many factors at play in this unpopular decision, but it's ultimately about an apparently unbridgeable cultural divide: Hollins is of the "you provide the players, I'll coach them" mold. Levien and controlling owner Robert Pera want to forge a more collaborative organizational culture, one where the coaching staff doesn't just receive players from the team's front office but also actionable information. Even as Hollins publicly dismissed talk about "philosophical differences," those very differences were on display.

"Risk" and "mistake" are different things: "Don't mess with success" is pretty persuasive if you ask me, but to call this a mistake is to assume a future, and I don't put that much stock in the importance of Hollins or any individual coach. But it's certainly a risk. There are obviously coaches out there who can work better with his bosses. There are also a smaller number who can be as or more successful on the floor. There's a smaller group still who can do both. And there's no guarantee this or any front office can successfully choose that person no matter how good a hire seems at the time. Past Grizzlies history is instructive here.

It could have been handled better but was always going to be messy: Hollins' success is too glaring in the context of franchise history, his community roots now too deep and personal, and his status as a successful black leader in a city (really, country) where race impacts perception too meaningful for his removal to ever be easy. But Hollins' own awkward media tour and Levien's man-behind-the-curtain disappearing act made a bad situation worse.

Jason Levien needs to shore up his public diplomacy: I have little doubt that Levien ran this move by players, minority owners, and others around the organization and knew a coaching change would not cause a revolt. But the Grizzlies are at once a private enterprise and public trust, and the community needs a fuller and more personal explanation than the brief, antiseptic press release the team put out Monday night. Levien needs to explain this decision, in direct but polite terms.

For better or worse — and I think it's both — this is a "speak to the Rotary Club, hobnob at the college football game, banter on the radio shows" kind of market. Levien is a bright man undertaking a big job, but he needs work in this area.

Fan outrage is a by-product of fan investment: The despair in some quarters over a coaching change — something that's happened with nearly half the NBA in recent months, including several other playoff teams — is a bit much, but it also speaks to the number of new fans created over the past few seasons. That increase in interest is a positive for the organization, but the lack of perspective from many new converts also suggests their fandom is precarious. Ups and downs are unavoidable for most pro sports organizations, but the growing fan base here isn't stable enough to fully withstand a downturn right now, and the reaction to this move underscores that.

This is about the future: This coaching change won't alter the Grizzlies' projection for next season in the minds of most who follow the NBA closely. Coaches matter, but rosters matter much more. What fans need to understand is that the Grizzlies were heading into a period of transition even without a coaching change. How the new ownership and front office manages this transition — not just this offseason but in the next couple as well — will determine their ultimate success or failure.

A longer version of this column can be found at "Beyond the Arc," Chris Herrington's Grizzlies blog, at memphisflyer.com.

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