One of my most exciting moments as a Grizzlies fan, no lie, was when the news leaked that the Grizlies had decided to relieve Marc Iavaroni of his coaching duties. One of my most disappointing moments as a Grizzlies fan was about 15 minutes later, when news leaked that the likely candidate for his replacement was Lionel Hollins. I no longer feel that extreme about the "L-Train," but I certainly feel that Lionel's 1.5 year term as head coach bears a bit of examining.
I don't know a single Grizzlies fan, media member, owner, etc. that looks back on the Marc Iavaroni era fondly. Now I know this seems very unlike me, but I do not blame Michael Heisley here. Yes, you read it correctly. I do not blame Michael Heisley for the Marc Iavaroni era. Iavaroni was the hottest assistant on the market at the time, and several teams were interested. He was the lead assistant in Phoenix, which had sniffed the conference finals the two previous years, and he wasn't a retread. I think everyone was excited.
Then came Casey Jacobsen, Mike Conley as a "Ferrari," and about 800 other things I'd like to forget. Needless to say, it was past due for Iavaroni to go when he did. However, at the time, I didn't think the Grizz were capable of making a dumber hire to replace him. Lionel "Interim" Hollins, who had already been an unsuccessful interim coach twice for the Grizzlies, was who Heisley went after. Partly because he wasn't expensive. I hate this pattern.
Hollins interim record as the Grizzlies head coach was really, really bad. The Grizz were 18-46 after he took over that year. I'm not sure about other fans, but something like that really fails to inspire me. Iavaroni was a robust 33-90, so the only way to go was up, but still. I was irritated.
Hollins continued to frustrate me through the end of the 2008-2009 season. His substitution patterns were questionable, hotshot rookie O.J. Mayo didn't see much more playing time, and honestly things didn't seem all that different. Mike Conley made slight improvements, and the Grizz finished out the year 13-26 for a winning percentage of slightly above 33%. Yay?
Ok, get ready, because I'm about to compliment Michael Heisley again -- with a record like that, Heisley again made a smart choice only giving Hollins a one year deal in the summer of 2009. While Hollins hadn't done a horrendous job as interim coach, he certainly wasn't deserving of a long term deal, Ron Tillery lobbying aside. I wasn't thrilled with the deal (and wished Avery Johsnon had accepted the reported offer), but I could live with it. Then, once training camp hit and Allen Iverson came aboard, a funny thing happened. Lionel decided to assert himself a bit.
Lionel knew that the Iverson deal was bad from the start. Outside of maybe Chris Wallace, I'm not sure anybody else knew it would go as poorly as it did. I was even in the CA with a relatively optimistic quote (ed. note: I too supported the deal at first).
However, Hollins refused to cater to Iverson's every whim, and good for him. Without the Iverson debacle galvanizing the team, I sincerely doubt all the improvement on the floor last year would have happened. This was the first example of Hollins actually stepping up and treating the Grizzlies like they were his team, and it was a refreshing change of pace. But Hollins' stubbornness in the AI situation soon showed his ugly side as well.
Hollins is a stubborn guy. I think anyone close to the Grizzlies, be it a fan, media member (JARVIS!), or even front office member would tell you the same thing. This manifests itself in several negative ways -- OJ Mayo not being given a chance to play point guard is the most glaring. He also didn't exactly develop the three rookies at his disposal last year, and was very, very hesitant to rely on his bench for any length of time.
Part of these were in hopes that he wouldn't lose his job at the end of the season, which I can respect, but he also needs to be aware he can hurt the long term future of the team by not being flexible. You could also call Hollins not very, um, media friendly.
On the other hand, Hollis has certainly done some good things. He won the most games for the Grizz since they last went to the playoffs. He trusted Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and they blossomed into perhaps the best frontcourt starters in the league. I'm also all for coaching continuity. If Hollins serves out the length of his new three year deal, he will be the longest serving head coach in Grizzlies history. That is sad, awful, and amazing all at the same time.
In short, despite my misgivings in the past and his epic man-crush on Mike Conley's playing ability or lack thereof, I'm treating the L-Train era with cautious optimism. I don't hate the new three year deal, and it appears Heisley's cheapness reared its ugly head again, so if things go downhill, it won't be hard to buy him out. I expect Conley to be traded this year, so that problem may be eliminated without Hollins even having to change. Everyone cross your fingers that this happens, if not for anything else than to lower mine and Chris Vernon's blood pressure.
If he subs a little better, trusts his bench and gives Sam Young and Xavier Henry a longer leash, and we get a few breaks in the schedule, I really could see playoffs happening. Go get ‘em coach.
- Chris Wilson