Matt Hrdlicka (@TheRealHrdlicka on Twitter) went on a great Twitter rant about why Lionel Hollins should not be brought back as the head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies. I thought his argument was well-considered and compelling, so I asked him to write it up for the site. Y'all be nice.
Much has been said regarding the head coaching question in Memphis. If the Grizzlies front office declines to re-sign Coach Hollins, it won’t be because he questioned the Rudy trade. It won’t be because Coach Hollins costs too much. It won’t even be because Coach Hollins is “at odds” with the front “new wave” of thinking.
The only factor that matters is that they believe another coach gives them a better chance of winning games. Both now, and in the future. Much has been made about the fact that Coach Hollins is the right man for the job next year. I’d certainly be hard pressed to form a compelling argument to the contrary. But that is not the entire equation. Dispelling a few myths regarding his tenure as the Grizzlies head coach may help bring the rest of the equation into sharper focus.
1. Coach Hollins has developed a young core into a title contender.
This is a nice narrative that fits tidily with the Grizzlies uptick in winning percentage during Coach Hollins’ tenure. The problem is that it happens to be false. There is very little evidence that Coach Hollins even considers player development part of his job. Prior to this year, only four Grizzlies playing on their rookie contracts posted above-average PER’s during Coach Hollins tenure1: Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol (three times each), and Mike Conley and Darrell Arthur (one time each).
Of these four players, only Conley and Gasol have shown true progression. Rudy regressed as his role increased. Darrell’s productivity was scuttled by injuries.
I question how much of Gasol’s development is a result of Coach Hollins. After all, he was a 23 year old “rookie,” with an MVP of the 2nd best basketball league in the world already under his belt. He was already good, and all evidence points to his being a self-motivated, incredibly intelligent player.
Coach Hollins deserves all of the credit in the world for trusting Conley, rather than yanking his minutes when he failed (which is the pattern which has held true for almost every other player he’s coached). Conley is Hollins’ greatest example for player development.
Unfortunately, Conley is the exception, not the rule.
It must be noted, too, that Conley’s development has not come without cost. It took four years for Conley to become an average NBA point guard, another two for him to become near-elite. But with any player development, there were sacrifices along the way. The Grizzlies traded away two players (Greivis Vasquez and Kyle Lowry) that both immediately became more productive after escaping Coach Hollins' tutelage. Why these sacrifices were deemed acceptable, while others—such as allowing O.J. Mayo to initiate the offense—were not, is not really a mystery.
Coach Hollins plays the guys that don’t make mistakes. This is why Darrell Arthur (a net minus 3 points per 100 possessions) played ahead of Ed Davis (positive 17 points per 100 possessions) this season, despite Arthur clearly being injured2.
More recently, Quincy Pondexter has been held up as another case of Hollins’ “development.” This, again, is overstated. Quincy’s development is largely the result of becoming a better corner 3 point shooter. His other numbers are flat. His defense, though improved, has been good since coming into the league, and was the ostensible reason for acquiring him. He is, likely, the only type of young player that suits Coach Hollins: the type that does what he tells him to do. No more. No less.
2. Coach Hollins deserves credit for getting this team to play defense.
This is most likely an overstatement of the truth. The Grizzlies have 3 of the best 10 defenders in the NBA. Their center—the reigning defensive player of the year—can call out the other team's sets before they run them. In a late regular season comeback victory against the Spurs, Gasol played the entire fourth quarter with Ed Davis, literally shoving Ed into his defensive rotations on more than two occasions, while still defending his man and the entire painted area. His presence, and Conley's, also allows Tony Allen to be the maniacal turnover-generating missile that he is. Given the cohesion between these players, it is unlikely the defense will suffer much.
A better way of thinking on this idea: will the Grizzlies' defense suffer under the assistant who has coached the defense, and already knows the players?
3. The Grizzlies can’t afford to mess with a good thing.
This is a narrative driven, most of all, by fear of the unknown. The status quo is always more comfortable. Unfortunately, change happens. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are both a year older. Every franchise faces key questions every offseason. Things will never be "the same" as the year before. "Running it back" is a myth. There are costs associated with the status quo, they are just easier to gloss over than the big scary unknown.
4. Coach Hollins knows what wins.
Certainly Coach Hollins deserves some of the credit for his team’s success. But how much? I tend to think that bringing in veterans like Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Shane Battier, and Jerryd Bayless has had more to do with the Grizzlies' uptick year to year. After all, these above average vets replaced below average also-rans. But even this shift in minutes took time. Given his druthers, Coach Hollins preferred Sam Young to OJ Mayo; he preferred Xavier Henry to Tony Allen; Jeremy Pargo to Greivis Vasquez; Darrell Arthur to Ed Davis. He prefers Keyon Dooling to a rib mascot (those ribs can ball tho).
Coach Hollins has said he coaches by "feel." But his eye test fails, and not because his eye doesn't know basketball. Gut instinct, whether you played in the NBA or not, isn't always correct. There is simply too much happening in an NBA game to take it all in—adjustments, counter-adjustments, minutes, matchups, score, situation, timeouts, which plays have worked, how were they defended, how will they likely be defended next time—and this all happens at a lightning pace. A basketball game is chaos, especially when it is not viewed from the comfort of your couch3. Especially when you are in charge of 13 paid athletes, most of whom are, by definition, among the best 400 in their given field. All of whom, for the most part, make more money than you. None of whom are wanting for pride. All of whom want more minutes, more shots, more run.
Coach Hollins is most likely an above average NBA coach in terms of winning games in any given season. He will not cost you games you should win (which is more than you can say for some coaches). His teams will, for the most part, play hard (although I quibble with even this idea in the absolute). But retaining Coach Hollins is choosing to sacrifice the future for the present yet again, which brings us back to...
5. Coach Hollins’ job is to worry about winning the next game.
The Front Office deals with the future. This, for a very long time, has been the conventional wisdom. I just don’t think this is true any more, and it probably hasn’t been for a while now. You cannot maintain any kind of competitive advantage over 29 other teams without synergy between the people that acquire players, and the person that plays them.
Coach Hollins doesn’t think about basketball that way. He doesn’t care about anything beyond the next game. This is clear from his minute distributions—whether it be playing the starters late in blowout victories against lottery teams, or not finding spot minutes for a teenage talent like Tony Wroten.
To truly develop young players, you must allow them make mistakes. This, regrettably, means losing a few games you should win. The NBA is an on-the-job-training league. You have to risk allowing Greivis Vasquez to make a few mistakes on a random Tuesday night game in Charlotte because it may better prepare him to one day be one of the league leaders in assists. You must allow Ed Davis to bungle a few Pick & Roll defenses because you should know Darrell Arthur may not be fully healthy come playoff time.
And though I’ve talked about playing young players possibly costing wins, there was arguably no better season in Grizzlies history to develop young players than this year. After all, playing a youngster like Ed Davis alongside a superstar who can not only cover for his errors, but plays the right way, is the best of both worlds. And make no mistake: Marc Gasol is one of the best ten basketball players alive. This Grizzlies season was a wasted opportunity for 25% of the Grizzlies roster to gain valuable on-the-job-training playing alongside one of the best ten basketball players alive.
Coaches must have a plan for every player on the roster, and every minute of every game, and that plan should go further than "can he get the job done today or not?". It should include recognizing both what a player is now and what he could become in the future. Hollins has done this with two young players over his five years in Memphis. After all, young players make mistakes. Mistakes cost wins. Wins cost playoff position.
This is not a missive endorsing Coach Joerger. I’m not qualified to know whether Coach Joerger will be a better coach than Coach Hollins. It may be likely he wins fewer regular season games than Coach Hollins would next year. The year afterwards? More importantly, the playoffs? That conversation is wide open.
PER is not a perfect stat. It is referenced here strictly for brevity, a handy tool when comparing a player’s season-to-season progress. It is not the whole picture. ↩
The Darrell Arthur vs Ed Davis question is its own article. I love both players, but one is clearly better than the other. How much better? Ed Davis collected defensive rebounds at a rate comparable to Joakim Noah and Al Horford, while posting a block rate of over 7%, putting him in the company of Larry Sanders and Serge Ibaka. ↩
As fans, we often forget this. I know I do. ↩