The Grizzlies lost their best player, Zach Randolph, to injury for most of the season. They weathered the O.J. Mayo trade rumors without infighting. Hollins changed the offensive scheme to adapt to Randolph’s absence.
Then, when Randolph returned, the Grizzlies fit Randolph into this new scheme successfully.
Despite the troubles the Grizzlies have faced, Hollins has led kept them in the thick of the playoff race.
Many surely wonder how Hollins pulled it off.
Here’s a breakdown of how Hollins has sustained the Grizzlies and made himself the best candidate for the Coach of the Year award.
Coping with injuries to big men
Early on, the injury bug bit the Grizzlies. The first biting injury was Darrell Arthur’s Achilles injury, which sidelined the jump-shooting power forward for the season. Arthur was a plus shooter last year, hitting 49.7 percent from the field.
After having just a couple of weeks to practice his team, Hollins had to find places in the rotation for Dante Cunningham and Quincy Pondexter. The Grizzlies acquired them to replace Arthur’s size and mid-range shooting.
Should Lionel Hollins win the Coach of the Year award?
Then, in a loss to the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 1, Randolph partially tore the MCL in his right knee when Mayo fell on his knee. The Grizzlies scrambled to acquire Marreese Speights from the Philadelphia 76ers in a three-way trade.
Hollins fit each of the three into the rotation very well. While playing a small role off the bench, Pondexter has been a nice shooter, shooting 45.3 percent from the field. That's 4.7 percent better than last year when he was with the New Orleans Hornets.
Cunningham has stepped up each time Hollins has called on him. With Marc Gasol injured, Cunningham put up 13 points and 14 rebounds in a March 27 win against the Minnesota Timberwolves.
He also had 12 points and eight rebounds to pick up for a struggling Gasol against the Denver Nuggets on March 11.
Cunningham is averaging 5.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 17.5 minutes per game this season. He pulls down eight rebounds per 36 minutes.
Speights eased his way into his role as the starting power forward. He played six minutes in his first game, and then more off the bench in his second game.
He entered the starting lineup in his third game.
Hollins worked his strange personnel practice with Speights and Cunningham. In Speights’ first eight games, he played 24.9 minutes per game. Then, in the next 10 games, he played only 17.4 minutes per game, while Cunningham played 19.6 minutes per game.
Partly, this served to test the Grizzlies’ rotation. Also, Hollins wanted to use Cunningham in matchups against more athletic big men, like Josh Smith of the Atlanta Hawks. In early February, Cunningham held Smith to 11 points and picked up 12 rebounds.
After that stretch, Speights played much more and responded well, picking up a few double-doubles.
During this process, Hollins had the Grizzlies rising up the standings. They steadily climbed to sixth place in the Western Conference in February after sitting on the outside of the top eight before the month began.
This countered cries that the Grizzlies were finished after losing Randolph to injury. Notably, Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated said, "With Randolph out, a Memphis team that became a League Pass favorite last season loses its identity."
Despite skepticism, the Grizzlies rediscovered themselves, partly by reinventing their offense.
Changing the offense
The Grizzlies were never one of the highest scoring teams in the NBA. They were a middling offensive team last season. They found a significant amount of scoring by banging in to Zach Randolph and Gasol in their double-post sets.
Gasol and Randolph would create mirrored looks in the post and off pick-and-rolls.
This season, they had to find a way to score enough points without Randolph, who led them in scoring the year before.
The keys to offensive survival lied in Rudy Gay’s creativity and their already existing defensive prowess.
The Grizzlies are No. 1 in the league in steals (9.6 per game) and turnovers forced (17.1 per game). To a degree, their transition offense had helped scoring last season. Sometimes steals quickly turned into fast break points.
This season, it has played a bigger role. The Grizzlies have often deployed the transition offense to supply a significant amount of scoring. On occasion, they’ve found 20 or more points on fast breaks.
Often, Tony Allen or Mike Conley grab steals, and it’s only a matter of a pass or two before a Grizzlies player dunks it on the other end.
Rudy Gay has been a strong scorer. Gay is averaging 18.9 points per game on 45.2 percent from the field.
While these aren't career highs for Gay, he's taken the Grizzlies offense on his shoulders. He's leading the team with 16.5 field-goal attempts per game. With a 25.1 percent usage rate, Gay touches the ball more than anyone else on the team.
Hollins has allowed Gay to use his creativity to fuel the offense. Gay often breaks out on the fast break, goes from end to end to score or makes moves off the dribble to drive in for a score on the inside.
The trick for Hollins would be to make it work when Randolph returned to the court.
Breaking Randolph in as a Backup
When Randolph returned to the floor, Grizzlies fans were surprised to see that he wasn't starting. He scored 25 points in 25 minutes in an overtime win in his return.
Two games later, Hollins found reason to put him in the lineup. However, the Grizzlies struggled with Randolph in the lineup, losing three straight. This led Hollins to send him back to the bench. Putting Randolph on the bench turned out to be a successful move. The Grizzlies won nine of the next 11 games.
Indeed, Randolph wasn't entirely pleased with being sent to the bench. According to USA Today, Randolph asked Hollins if he could start. Hollins replied in front of the team that he believed the team was best off with Randolph playing off the bench.
As Hollins explained:
Mo Speights' contributions had dropped off. We weren't getting the same contributions we'd been getting. It was a difficult decision. ... I think they take it personal because that's the way the players are. They get hurt. Their egos get bruised a little bit. Ultimately, they see this was the best move.
What was also impressive is that Randolph remained calm with the decision. He didn't have an eruption or cause drama in the locker room. He showed much more maturity than he might have shown with such an occurrence early in his career.
No distractions caused by Mayo trade rumors
Mayo had been on the trade market and off again this season, as he was last season. In December, he was rumored to have been traded to the Indiana Pacers after Allen erroneously tweeted that Mayo had been traded. In January, trade rumors surfaced with him possibly going to the New Jersey Nets, per The Commercial Appeal.
Hollins was able to keep Mayo playing effectively despite the rumors. He's averaging 12.6 points per game and taking 15 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, which is second on the team.
Mayo's shown more fire through the trade rumors than last year, when he said via Twitter that he wondered to himself whether he wanted to play any more.
Hollins deserves some credit for keeping Mayo focused despite the rumors.
Conclusion: Hollins stands above other coaches who have worked through adversity
Other coaches have managed to steer their teams through adverse circumstances to strong campaigns. Gregg Popovich has adapted a San Antonio Spurs team around an aging core and the prolonged absence of Manu Ginobili due to injury.
He’s featured players thought to have relatively low ceilings like Kawhi Leonard and DeJuan Blair in key roles. Still, they’re the No. 1 team in the Western Conference.
Tom Thibodeau has turned quite a trick with the Chicago Bulls. Despite the persistent injuries suffered by reigning MVP Derrick Rose and All-Star Luol Deng, he’s kept them in the top spot in the Eastern Conference. They’ve taken advantage of some cupcake games and fit C.J. Watson in as a replacement point guard.
Hollins has done even more than Thibodeau and Popovich to make his team a contender. While Thibodeau has worked around the loss of an MVP-caliber player, he didn't have to do it against competition as tough as that which the Grizzlies have faced.
While Popovich has elevated players who weren't supposed to be as good as they are, he wasn't faced with the decision of reducing Ginobili's role after he became healthy like Hollins did with Randolph.
The Grizzlies just might contend for an NBA Finals spot, and that would happen with their best player coming off the bench. Meanwhile, it's questionable whether the Bulls do as well without Rose in the starting lineup.
Hollins' ability to adapt to these changing circumstances, as well as changes in strategy, make him the best candidate for the Coach of the Year award.