Did the Memphis Grizzlies Outsmart Themselves by Letting Lionel Hollins Walk?

Tom Firme@TFirmeAnalyst IIJune 17, 2013

May 13, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins during the post game interview of game four of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedEx Forum.  Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-97, and lead in the series 3-1.  Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies' replacement for Lionel Hollins will be one of the most ironic new coaches patrolling the sidelines come late October. Hollins became one of the rare coaches to be let go after leading a team to franchise-record winning percentages in consecutive seasons and its first conference finals.

Indeed, the Grizzlies' new front office may be interested in someone who is amiable and more interested in implementing its strategy on the court.

Chris Herrington of the Memphis Flyer noted how Hollins went from coaching in a Michael Heisley-owned franchise that allowed a lack of "organizational coherency" to one that demands a clear top-down approach to which the coach must adhere.

Herrington mentioned later that Hollins wasn't interested in taking input from the front office regarding strategy.

According to Marc Stein of ESPN.com, Grizz assistant Dave Joerger is the "overwhelming favorite" to take the reins.

Thus, president Jason Levien and vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger seem inclined to hire a coach who supports the metrics-based strategy.

Differences between Hollins and the Grizzlies' higher-ups may have been great. However, as Matt Moore of CBSSports.com tweeted, seeing them mending fences and agreeing to a short-term deal would have been nice.

As seen in Moneyball (more in Michael Lewis' book than in the movie), a front-office strategy can be executed despite tense relationships between the coach and management. Art Howe directed Billy Beane's strategy successfully for a division-winning season.

The implementation of advanced statistical analysis is relatively new in the NBA, compared to the MLB. Hence, Levien and Hollinger are taking a risk in striking out and hiring a more agreeable coach.

First, managing the large egos is still a huge part of coaching, something at which Hollins was fairly successful. Second, one may look at how a coach affects how players produce.

Personnel Management

One aspect of coaching that wins coaches more acclaim than others is managing the egos on the team.

Hollins was generally successful with his players. Indeed, he didn't have a sunny relationship with Zach Randolph. But Randolph showed up in condition for training camps in Memphis and worked harder than he did at any other stop in his career.

He had his two best seasons—and the best seasons in franchise history—in 2009-10 and 2010-11, averaging 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game and 20.1 and 12.2, respectively.

Last year, Randolph acquiesced to Hollins' call for him to play off the bench during the stretch run after he returned from injury.

Not many coaches can successfully put the highest-earning player on the bench for an extended period of time.

While national media exposure shone light on disputes within the team, the fourth-year full-time head coach never seemed to have lost the team.

That's despite having had to deal with injuries to key players and the trade of the leading scorer. While they sputtered at first after Randolph's injury last year and the Rudy Gay trade this year, the Grizz rallied. They finished with a franchise-best winning clip last year and remade themselves into a slightly better contender this year.

Star power becomes more magnified in the NBA than the MLB with half as many roster spots and less than half as many starters (if you include starting pitchers). Also, the ability of one basketball player to take over a game is greater than that of a baseball player, especially considering rule limitations on player movement in baseball.

With the greater ease of producing points and wins in basketball comes a higher challenge to manage superstars.

One candidate for the Grizzlies' opening, George Karl, has had his share of experience with superstars, such as Carmelo Anthony and Gary Payton. Whether that portends success with Randolph and burgeoning stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley is anyone's guess.

However, Hollins handled them well and could have been trusted with them, even if he didn't handle the entire roster in the most sensible manner.

How Hollins Influenced Statistics

Since the only numbers directly tied to coaches are wins and losses, and since his influence on team numbers is mitigated by players' activity, one can look at players' numbers he positively affected.

He liberated Conley to become a scorer after the Gay trade. As Hollins told Grantland's Zach Lowe, "I've told [Conley], 'You've got to be that guy who can get us 25 or 30 points on some nights when we need it.'"

Conley averaged 16.9 points per game after the Gay trade. Thirteen of his 17 20-point games came after the trade. With his higher shot tendency, Conley shot 45.2 percent from the field, compared with 42.8 percent before the trade.

During his time in Memphis, Marreese Speights was entirely at the mercy of Hollins. In 2010-11, Speights' production fluctuated with his playing time. In a 10-game stretch in which he played 19 minutes per game, he put up 5.1 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. That was followed by a nine-game run of 12.4 points and 9.4 rebounds in 25 minutes per game.

After the All-Star break, Speights averaged 8.9 points and six rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 46.3 percent from the field in 21.9 minutes per game.

This season brought the challenge of having to share playing time with a rejuvenated Randolph and Darrell Arthur. His production wasn't too bad for his minutes, as he averaged 6.6 points and 4.7 rebounds in 14.7 minutes per game.

He averaged 5.3 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game in November, compared with 4.4 rebounds in 12.6 rebounds per game in December.

The question for the next coach is how he will—or how Hollinger will direct him to—allocate minutes production. Whether Conley, Gasol and others will be used the same way will is fair for people to wonder.

Conclusion: Risk of Change Tempered by the Grind

While Hollins brought a new level of success as the Grizzlies' head coach, fans shouldn't mistake that for a creation of the winning culture. Players, such as Gasol, Randolph and Tony Allen, created that culture. Hollins pushed them each time they faced adversity, but they also found it in themselves to rally.

That likely won't change under a new coach. As Chris Herrington tweeted, Gasol wouldn't be as fickle as he implied.

Coaching changes bring challenges, especially when the previous coach had remarkable success. The challenge for the new coach is improving numbers on offense. Hollins sometimes was able to improve them. His successor will need to find new ways in order to improve the team.


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