Making Sense of Memphis Grizzlies Front Office Mess

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IMay 19, 2014

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Between the seven playoff appearances in 11 seasons and a frontcourt core unrivaled in its ground-bound steadiness, the Memphis Grizzlies might, from the outside, seem the picture of NBA franchise stability.

Sadly, Grit and Grind’s sturdy façade only masks the foundational fissures below.

The latest crack: a report from ESPN’s Marc Stein detailing yet another front-office shakeup from Grizzlies owner Robert Pera, who dismissed CEO Jason Levien and assistant general manager Stu Lash following a “breakdown” in their respective relationships.

Worst of all, Pera’s most recent purge may not be over:

The Grizzlies declined to re-sign popular coach Lionel Hollins after last season's trip to the Western Conference finals and replaced him with Dave Joerger, who won 50 games this season as a rookie coach. But sources say the futures of Joerger and executive vice president of basketball operations John Hollinger -- who was hired away from ESPN -- are immediately unclear. Both were handpicked choices by Levien.

Chris Wallace, formerly the team’s general manager, is expected to take over as president of basketball operations.

The fallout, it seems, is far from settled. Still, a singularly pressing question remains: Where—after all the bodies are buried and all the bridges burned—do the Grizzlies go from here?

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Before we get to that, it’s worth wading through the team’s rancorous recent past.

The controversy began shortly after Pera first purchased the team from former owner Michael Heisley in June 2012—a deal Levien himself helped broker.

That December, the Grizzlies brought aboard longtime ESPN writer and basketball analytics pioneer John Hollinger. At first, the expectation—exemplified in this fair take by SB Nation’s Tom Ziller—was of a front-office denizen who would look to wade, rather than dive, into the fray:

Hollinger's oeuvre is filled with nuance. He doesn't rank players solely by PER, and in fact he probably has some adjustments to his myriad metrics up his sleeve. He's not going to be nearly as predictable as a decision-maker as anyone would be as a writer. The stakes are different, the realities of action are different. But no decision-maker in the NBA has had this much of their brain exposed to the world.

But it didn’t take long for the culture change to claim its first victim in head coach Lionel Hollins, who, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski, clashed with Hollinger over the latter’s stats-focused philosophy.

In the end, Hollins’ contract wasn’t renewed. A few weeks later, at the behest of Levien, Memphis official brought Joerger aboard.

Now, despite a 50-win, injury-plagued season in which the Grizzlies very nearly upended the No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder in their seven-game first-round series, it seems the house-cleaning is far from over.

However, according to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal’s Geoff Calkins, the crosshairs will spare at least one of the embattled parties:

Sooner or later, and despite Hollinger’s ultimate fate, Memphis will have to turn its attention back to the basketball court.

Indeed, with over $64 million in committed salaries (including an assumed-to-be-exercised $16 million player option for Zach Randolph), it looks as though that might be the only place safe from shape-shifting changes.

Paragon of consistency though they’ve been, the Grizzlies are likely looking at more of the same in 2014-15: a forgettable offense buoyed by one of the league’s best defenses, with the end result being another 50-win playoff appearance and a first or second-round ouster.

Then it gets interesting. With only $24 million committed for 2015-16, Memphis is one of many teams positioning itself to seize on that summer’s landscape-altering free agent class.

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If you’re the Grizzlies, the last thing you want in that situation is the reputation for being an unstable organization—an indictment they’ll no doubt deserve should Joerger, and to a lesser extent Hollinger, be let go.

That Joerger was able to forge a productive relationship with his players—players who, it must be noted, weren’t exactly thrilled with the decision to dismiss Hollins—speaks to stability Memphis must be willing to embrace at this point.

Even if, as ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz wrote in his assistant coaching primer back in May 2013, Joerger’s support of analytics represents the philosophical sword onto which Hollins was at least somewhat willing to throw himself:

Joerger loves to problem-solve and grapple with game theory, and he has an appreciation of analytics. He knows which NBA point guards, in descending order, reject screens most frequently and understands how to impart that information to players. Most of all, Joerger has an acute awareness of what each player on the roster can and can't do.

In yet another curious twist, USA Today’s Sam Amick recently reported that, in an extremely unusual move, Pera chose to conduct exit interviews with players independent of the coaching staff.

Given Joerger’s still-undecided fate, this invites the question: Were he and the players really on the same page? Or did the bitterness wrought by Hollins’ shocking ouster linger long enough to sour the team’s true potential?

NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 2:  John Hollinger, General Manager of the Memphis Grizzlies, stands on the court during Training Camp on October 2, 2013 at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
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Tangential to that, the more pressing concern is where Memphis feels it stands philosophically. Does ownership value the stats-friendly stance of Joerger and Hollinger? Are they hostile towards it? Ambivalent? Does it even matter?

In the universe of NBA franchises, Memphis has become a hellish house of mirrors, a labyrinth of shape-shifting alliances that would be endlessly intriguing, if it weren’t so irredeemably weird.

Lost in our attempts to navigate the Grizz's dastardly doings, these facts: four consecutive trips to the playoffs, two straight 50-win seasons, a seasoned core feared the league over and—perhaps most forgotten of all—a frenzied fanbase whose blue-collar sensibilities stand in stark contrast to the petulance of such palace intrigue.

Memphis’ future is one that could assume any number of shapes and fortunes. All the while, in their ceaseless search for success, the Grizzlies may wind up sacrificing something even more important: stability.