The Memphis Grizzlies are hiring...again.
Change is in that air over at 191 Beale Street. The Grizzlies front office has been overhauled (once more...again), and Zachary Kleiman and Jason Wexler have been empowered with figuring out just what the future of the Memphis Grizzlies looks like.
They have said the right things so far - no more being reactive, focusing on being proactive and more up front and direct with the realities the team faces moving forward. A long road back to playoff relevance is ahead of Memphis, and the term “long-term sustainability” being uttered by Wexler and Kleiman is acknowledgement of that.
“Rebuild” and “process” aren’t very sexy to season ticket holders...best to not try to sell that.
There must be something for folks to buy in to, though, and while potential front office hires like Richard Cho may bring more organization and understanding of the workings of NBA front offices, that won’t move the needle when it comes to the on court product. The Grizzlies need a long, and extensive, interview process in which they meet with as many folks as possible that may be willing to listen to their pitch about what being the Head Coach in Memphis will look like moving forward.
Yes...even though there are only 30 such jobs in the whole world, Kleiman and Wexler will have to recruit and sell folks on this gig. That much damage has been done. The opportunity will get them in the room...it will be on the Grizzlies brass to get them to want to stay.
And it will be on any candidate to show that they have the good to be the person to bring Memphis back from the abyss that is the NBA Lottery and the race to convey.
Before the break down of candidates the Grizzlies should be very, very interested in, let’s look at how they should be compared.
They need to have some sort of meaningful experience. If they’re younger, or a college coach? They need to be former players. If they’re older and a retread/assistant, they need to be an NBA lifer, having shown the ability to work with a variety of coaches and in a lot of different schemes.
Beyond a base concept on both ends of the floor, the next head coach of the Grizzlies must be able to show both on the board and on tape that they have an understanding of coaching the actual game of basketball. Relationships are important - more on that below - but it doesn’t matter how much they love you if you can’t put them in positions to score on out of timeout plays on a consistent basis. If J.B. Bickerstaff could do this, he would still be here.
This part matters. A lot.
It’s not just the players seeing you as one of “their guys”. It is the ability to make the front office think you’re their guy at the same time. Lionel Hollins and Dave Joerger both succeeded in Memphis at the expense of their relationship with the higher ups in the organization. Whether its financial investment in the roster (Hollins) or in the coaching position itself (Joerger), making frustrations known publicly hurt your future employment by those you are actively pissing off.
Smoke and mirrors. “Playing the game”. Being an all-around “people person”. Whatever you want to call it, the next Grizzlies head coach must emphasize building trust across all levels of the organization.
Ah yes, the rub.
Memphis lacks identity right now. That hurts to write...but it’s undeniably true. Your sole survivor of the Core Four, Mike Conley, is ready to move on and probably will be traded. Your best player moving forward is a 19-year-old who shouldn’t be asked to establish a team’s culture at this stage. There are no veterans that have been around forever, or any set leaders in the organization itself that have displayed the characteristics needed to set the tone for what it means to be on the Grizzlies.
No pressure...but it will have to come from the coach.
Peter Edmiston outlined the organization’s potential strategy for putting together the best talent available in his latest piece for The Athletic. If they’re going to be fully engaged in the analytical side of things - which is smart considering the limitations of the Memphis market - they’re going to need the coach to take those pieces and make them Grizzlies.
What that means is more important to rediscover than just about anything a computer will churn out.
So who should be the top contenders?
In Part I, we will deal with three names that make sense, but likely won’t make it to Memphis. First, someone that should be more seriously considered than...she...will be.
Ettore Messina would be wonderful, but all signs (at least in this writer’s eyes) point to him taking over for Gregg Popovich when he steps away from coaching, probably (sadly) sooner rather than later. Beyond him, the tree of Pop has another possible star pupil that has been putting in the time in the gym working with players and off the court refining schematic understandings with Popovich. Becky Hammon has risen up the ranks in San Antonio...and should be in the mix for this gig.
But she won’t be.
I wrote about why Hammon makes all the sense in the world to meet with for Memphis last year. All that remains true, with another year of experience added. And then there’s this, from Spurs forward Quincy Pondexter, diffusing all the “woman coaching a man” takes that come up whenever this idea is mentioned-
“Becky has really opened my eyes to see brilliance in basketball comes in all forms. Her love & passion for the game not only makes me better as a player, but the organization better for having her here.” - Spurs’ Quincy Pondexter on coach Becky Hammon#QuincyCloseUp Coming Soon pic.twitter.com/cLQFOwqSQK— CloseUp360 (@CloseUp360) January 25, 2019
Clearly unable to make an impact.
So why is she so low on this list? Because for a first job, Becky probably won’t succeed through any fault of her own in Memphis. She would be battling a lot of external factors in addition to the basketball problems the Grizzlies face. It would be a lot to overcome...
She needs a far more stable situation to start in. Hopefully she secures an interview, and if she made history in Memphis that’d be terrific.
It just probably isn’t in the cards this time around. Perhaps another San Antonio disciple with Head Coaching experience makes sense...but more on him in Part II.
Next? Someone else with Spurs ties...but as a player and executive, not an assistant coach.
Call it the “Steve Kerr effect”.
Barry has been rumored as possibly jumping in the the NBA coaching waters in the past, as this NBA article referenced last season. This quote from the ESPN article on Barry makes more sense a year removed-
...who is respected for his self-awareness, communications skills and knowledge of the game. With his kids almost out of the house, he’s poised to enter the basketball operations world -- but possibly first as an exec, a la Steve Kerr.
Why does it make more sense today?
Because he did enter the basketball operations world...with the Spurs. Could coaching the Grizzlies be the next step?
He has a good set up in San Antonio, and could possibly advance as folks like Popovich and RC Buford possibly ride in to the sunset of retirement. It would take money, and ignoring the fact he doesn’t have a ton of coaching experience.
It worked for Kerr...but he came in to a pretty good situation with the Warriors. Memphis isn’t that, both when it comes to paying coaches and the current talent available. Barry would be depended on to bring the legitimacy from the Spurs and apply it to the Grizzlies without actual coaching experience. It feels like a stretch...but it’d be worth a call. He is bought in to the type of approach Kleiman and Wexler want to take, and has the pedigree the Grizzlies should be looking for.
Finally, from one former NBA guard to another...
You want to talk adversity?
Developing a program...an identity?
STEP ONE- Build a national power of a program from almost nothing.
STEP TWO- Lose to a 16 seed as a 1 seed, becoming the first such favorite to do so in the history of the NCAA tournament.
STEP THREE- OWN THE FAILURE.
STEP FOUR- Win the national title the following season in a variety of unlikely ways.
Those student athletes believed in UVA basketball. In the schemes their head coach implemented, as well as the vision for what life beyond basketball was about. They lived it. They learned to be better people. And they won a championship.
Tony Bennett built that.
The Pack-Line Defense may not work in the NBA. But a hybridized version of it could succeed. What, are you not seeing the 2-3 zone making a bit of a comeback in the professional ranks? The Grizzlies themselves ran that college-based defense at times this season and had some success. Bennett is 49 years old and surely would be open to updating scheme to make it work in the pro ranks.
His defenses have always been terrific, but this past season Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter, and Kyle Guy helped Bennett’s offense rank 5th in the country in efficiency. His teams plays with deliberate pace, like the Grizzlies have over the years. With the right personnel within his system, success has been had despite a lack of “talent” compared to the blue bloods of College Basketball. Duke will have three players drafted in the top-10 in the 2019 NBA Draft, for example. UVA had three possible NBA players in general - Hunter and Jerome figure to be picked, but Kyle Guy may not be drafted and could head back to Charlottesville.
Bennett has thrived with less than his counterparts among the elite programs in the country. He has managed to get these young men to buy in to him and what it means to be a Virginia basketball player. They represent the program well both on and off the court, and while the NBA is a different animal the success of Bennett at UVA should not be explained away as a “fluke”. He has real understanding of making the most of the talent available...which Memphis needs desperately.
They also need an identity. Bennett can provide that in spades.
Do you have other dream options? Jay Wright from Villanova? One of the Van Gundy brothers (we can dream a bit better, can’t we)? Mention them in the comments below.
In Part II, we will turn away from the “dreams” and look at three real possibilities for the Grizzlies at head coach. You can read Part II here.