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Q&A with ESPN's Amin Elhassan: Talking Grizzlies, Vince Carter and Dave Joerger

ESPN NBA Insider Amin Elhassan speaks with Grizzly Bear Blues.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

You may know him from his work at ESPN, where he writes Insider columns and appears on TrueHoop TV, or you may know him from his colorful #HateHard conquests on Twitter, but Amin Elhassan is one of the best NBA analysts in the business and has a unique perspective of how teams function behind closed doors. Earlier today, he spoke to Grizzly Bear Blues about the new-look Memphis Grizzlies, Vince Carter and more.

The Grizzlies will play the Boston Celtics at 7:00 PM ET tonight on ESPN. You can should follow Amin on Twitter at @AminESPN.

GBB: The Grizzlies' roster is in a very peculiar place right now, a couple of moves at the trade deadline seeming to have changed the dynamic of this team. What is your overall impression of this so-called "Goon Squad"?

Amin Elhassan: Well, these guys are good players, right? You've got guys who are vets and they've played in the league. You know, when you say something like Goon Squad, to me, it makes it seem like these guys are a bunch of malcontents. Yeah, Lance Stephenson is on an island out there, as far as behaviorally. But Tony Allen and Matt Barnes and Birdman, all these guys are guys that have played and won in this league and contributed, but the stuff in their past seems to kind of live on and follow them around, but I don't see them as problematic guys. You've got a bunch of guys who are productive players who can come in and play.

The other thing is, especially when you talk about the injuries that Memphis has gone through, you need guys who can come in and play with versatility. Again, for all of his headaches and his antics, Lance is still a guy who can play the 1, 2 or 3, theoretically. Matt Barnes is a guy that can play the 3 and a little bit of a small-ball 4, P.J. Hairston the 2 and 3. So they're able to fill a lot of lineups out there where guys can switch defensively and offensively, at least theoretically, space the floor.

Right, that versatility seems to be something they're targeting more these days. Then, how far do you think these Grizzlies can realistically go in the playoffs?

Well, I mean, not very far. It all depends where they end up, right? If they finish in that fifth seed and they're playing the Clippers or the Thunder, both of those teams are significantly better than the Grizzlies, particularly given that Marc Gasol isn't coming back, he's gone. And so, while they're one of those teams that are a scrappy team, the hard sixth seed that'll battle you to seven games or whatever, I just don't think they have enough to get them over the hump like Oklahoma City or the Clippers that are just so much more talented.

I guess if I had to pick one as far as a better shot, I guess it'd be the Clippers because depth is always going to be an issue for them, and Memphis' ability to go deep in their bench versus a Clippers team that is pretty much four guys and then everybody else, it leaves them vulnerable. But I don't see Memphis getting out of the first round, not today at least.

I don't know if you saw this, but after Monday's win against the Cavaliers, Grizzlies sideline reporter Rob Fischer asked Tony Allen about this notion that grit and grind is dead. In classic Tony Allen fashion, he just laughed it off. What about you? Where do you think grit and grind, this supposedly fading version of the Grizzlies, goes from this season?

Well, that depends what we're talking about here. This is a team that's made one conference final in its history?

Yeah, against the Spurs [in 2013].

So let's not pretend like it's something that swept the nation. It's an identity that this team has had, but as far as success in the postseason, success has been very limited and precisely because it will only take you so far. So what we saw last season from Golden State is that once you figure out there's a couple of guys on the floor who only play one side of the floor – I don't have to guard that guy! Once you've done away with the myth that the power forward has to guard the power forward and the small forward has to guard the small forward, once you get away from that, then the Grizzlies become extremely vulnerable. If Tony Allen had a jumpshot, life would be a whole lot different, but he doesn't and so for him to be out there, it means that there's a guy on the floor that teams don't have to guard and if you dump it in to Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph all the time, it makes life more difficult for them.

Now, I don't expect [Allen] to say anything different, because why would anyone say the team that made me successful isn't going to work anymore. That's not how humans are hard-wired, they're wired to believe that they're successful because of the way they do things. In that sense, is it alive, is it dead, who cares – they're not going to win a playoff series. Mike Conley is a free agent at the end of the year and Marc Gasol is older and has now had a pretty serious injury, and when he comes back he's going to be older. This team doesn't get better from here without massive roster changes.

Switching gears a little bit, you used to work in basketball ops for the Phoenix Suns, and I believe you were around for Vince Carter's tenure there, is that right?

I was, yes.

Were you surprised at all when Carter, at 34 years old, moved on to Dallas, and I swear Rick Carlisle can do this with anyone, but Carter suddenly became the ideal role player: a catch-and-shoot guy who could post up mismatches and generally function within the flow of the offense. Did it catch you off guard, that he had that much left in his tank?

No, I wasn't surprised by that at all. We were the last stop in Vince's career where he was expected to be a leading scorer, to be a dynamic offensive player who we could count on for 20 points a game. I could tell, all of us could tell that, not that he didn't have it any more, it's that he just couldn't be Vince Carter anymore. He couldn't be that superlative player anymore. But he was still really really really good. He's really smart, and he's a good shooter, and he's a creative offensive player and he's a decent passer and all these things, and defensively, he was solid.

So we knew that this guy could still play, but you could see the struggle that he was having, the identity struggle – if I'm no longer Half Man, Half Amazing, what am I? And so going to Dallas allowed him to go somewhere where he was not expected to be Half Man, Half Amazing, and that made the transition for him to become a role player a lot easier. And so all of these skills that he still possesses, like I said he's still a good basketball player, a productive NBA player, but now when you shift the focus away from being a superstar to just being a contributor, then it's a lot easier for those talents to come out. And he did that in Dallas perfectly.

It sounds like Carter's interested in coaching once he retires. How do you think he would fare?

I think he would be terrific. He's so smart. He's one of the smartest basketball players that I've been around, and a lot of times that's not necessarily something that goes hand in hand with someone who's supremely talented or supremely athletic. A lot of times athleticism allows a player to get by with a lack of knowledge of the game, but Carter's so smart. Guys not only like him, but they respect him and they respond to him around the league. I've seen the relationships he has with a lot of players over the years, younger players, and guys remember what Vince was like, so when he speaks, he's not just blowing hot air, he's someone who speaks from the experience of having been there and done it at the highest level. And I think that's huge.

The next step beyond that for every player who wants to be a coach is, are you ready for the workload? Because the workload of a coach is very different from the workload of a player. Players come to practice at 9:00 in the morning and they leave around 1:00, 1:30. If they're really hard workers, they'll come back at night and get some shots up, but that's it, other than that, that's their day. Being a coach means being there the whole day, watching a ton of film, a lot of times meaningless film, you know, things that are not going to help you when trying to extract the meaningful parts and building a game-plan out of that. To me, when former players, even smart players like Vince Carter, talk about wanting to be a coach, that's the first thing my mind goes to: are you prepared for the workload? I know you can handle it from an I.Q. standpoint, from a mental standpoint, but do you have the perseverance to handle an enormous workload?

So the Grizzlies are playing the Boston Celtics on ESPN tonight. Brad Stevens obviously has established himself as one of the best coaches in the league. Do you think Dave Joerger tango with him and keep the Grizzlies competitive?

Well, I mean, basketball doesn't work like that, right? In a one-game scenario like today, you know, Memphis played two nights ago, Boston last played [on Saturday night]. And either way, you're talking about one day of preparation. The coaches sort of become irrelevant in that sense. The players have to go out and execute what they've been working on all year long, and yeah, you had practice yesterday and a shootaround today, where they go to what their favorite plays are and all that, but it's very rare for a single game to be like this ‘meeting of the coaching minds.' The playoffs are more about the chess match of the teams' coaches, because you have to make adjustments and you have time to watch and evaluate and process things.

Right, let me amend my question a little bit - how do you think Dave Joerger compares to Brad Stevens on a more pure scale of coaching quality?

Well, from an X-and-O's standpoint, Dave Joerger is a very solid coach. All of the guys that have done the minor league thing, you know, they're not here for their good looks, so to speak. They're here because they cut their teeth coaching basketball at the toughest level, where talent is champion and they're not sure if they're going to be here and gone tomorrow. So you have to be creative with your playcalling and diagramming and all of that. From that standpoint, Dave Joerger is a fine head coach.

Now, he's been in a different situation than what Brad Stevens has been in. Stevens went to a team that was in a full rebuild, everyone's young and he's been able to mold his players to his style and his style to his players. Whereas Joerger took over for a team that won 50-plus games and was very successful, and there were going to be fewer changes. In some sense, and I don't know this to be true but I imagine, that Joerger hasn't been able to do everything the way he wanted to do, because that what happens when you take over a veteran team. You have to kind of acquiesce to what those guys are accustomed to doing. You may be able to tweak here and there, but for the most part you can't come in with rampant changes, because then you have to win guys over.

And that's what makes Steve Kerr in Golden State that much more special is that he took over a team that won 50 games and had been to the second round of the playoffs, and to a team like they were that was on the right track, he said, "You know what, everything we're doing offensively, scrap that, we're going to do something completely different." It's not that it's a bad idea, it can be a tremendous idea, but you have to get these guys to buy in, to say, "Hey, I know we've been successful doing it this way, but let's try what coach is saying now." That's just a lot harder than it sounds, and so I think that's the main thing to remember when you're comparing Dave Joerger to Brad Stevens. It's that Stevens had the opportunity to win tabula rasa this season and last, while Joerger had to pretty much adjust things.

Thanks to Amin Elhassan for taking the time to speak to Grizzly Bear Blues.