The Memphis Grizzlies are hiring...again.
In Part I, which you can read here if you missed it, we broke down the situation for Memphis when it comes to the inexperienced new front office and how it will be on Zachary Kleiman, Jason Wexler, and the other remaining Grizzlies brass to sell any future head coaching candidate on the opportunities present in Memphis. Jaren Jackson Jr. is enticing, but beyond that?
Crickets...depending on what happens with Mike Conley.
Part I also talked about the criteria that should be in place when finding the next head honcho for the Grizzlies. Let’s review-
Meaningful experience, as a former player, as a college coach, a former head coach, or an NBA lifer of an assistant. Multiple teams, 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.
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. 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.
Part I looked at three dreamy possibilities - Becky Hammon, Brent Barry, and Tony Bennett. All three have viable arguments for their hiring. All three are a stretch for a variety of reasons.
Now? Here are three realistic possibilities for Memphis. We begin with a retread...but one that’s been a part of a successful rebuild recently.
3. Jacque Vaughn
You are going to see a lot of former head coach options floated for the Grizzlies. David Blatt, Mike Brown, Mark Jackson...guys that swung and missed the last time they were head coaches but probably deserve another shot somewhere. Memphis is the land of redemption, of course, and any of those guys listed could fit the bill in a variety of ways. But if a retread is going to be the choice, give me a guy who has most recently been a part of a terrible situation and helped return it to relevance.
Enter Jacque Vaughn.
Now, you’re probably Googling Jacque Vaughn and seeing his career coaching record of 58-158 - a 26.9% winning percentage - and wanting to X out of this tab immediately.
Don’t do it.
Because if you’re going to give other guys who failed a shot, why not do the same for someone who has recently been a part of a turnaround? Especially considering he failed while running out a squad that featured Glen “Big Baby” Davis and Beno Udrih as key contributors?
After one of the worst trades of all time, after years of futility, Sean Marks, Kenny Atkinson, and yes, Jacque Vaughn have made the Brooklyn Nets a playoff team in the Eastern Conference. Not only are they competitive again, they shocked the Philadelphia 76ers in Game One of their 1st round series just days ago. Brooklyn isn’t favored to win the series, but the fact they’re even functioning at such a high level at this stage is damn impressive.
And Vaughn has witnessed it all. The Nets are now a team that grits and grinds its way to wins while prioritizing efficient scoring and playing together as a team, not worrying about the credit.
Sound familiar? Take out the threes, and there’s something about that description that rings a bell...
The Nets have an identity. It’s been built without numerous high 1st round picks. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert both credit Vaughn’s demeanor and work ethic with their development. Vaughn’s experience in coaching that team, as a player in the Association, plus experience failing before, all make him attractive. Given the fact he probably wouldn’t be too expensive, it makes him that much more realistic for Memphis. He’s learned from past mistakes, seen a new way to do things, and bought in to it. That all is valuable for the Grizzlies.
There’s a better former NBA guard option for Memphis at Head Coach, though - we will talk about him later. Now? An NBA lifer of an assistant that should get a shot at running his own squad...
2. Dan Burke
Dan Burke is 60 years old. He has spent parts of over parts of 20 seasons as an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers. He has coached for Larry Bird, Rick Carlisle, Isiah Thomas, Jim O’Brien, Frank Vogel, and now Nate McMillan. From Reggie Miller to Paul George to Victor Oladipo and everyone in between, Burke has dealt with generations of talented players and has helped develop them all. He is viewed as a defensive genius whose schemes can fit almost any personnel structure and offensive system. And he is able to do it while still being a “player’s coach” - as Monta Ellis testified to in this 2016 Indy Star article-
I love D.B. to death...one thing about it, he don’t shy away from any guy, no matter if you’re the top (of the roster) down to the bottom. He always calls you out when you’re wrong. He always pushes you to get better. You can’t do nothing but respect a coach like that.”
Not enough for you? What about current Grizzly C.J. Miles, who played under Burke when he was with the Pacers-
“When you got a guy with that much knowledge, you don’t second-guess that...why would you? I have no reason not to trust him. When you’ve got Larry Bird putting people in those (coaching) seats, you don’t second-guess.”
He was a video coordinator for the Portland Trail Blazers for eight years before arriving in Indiana. He has been tasked with stopping everyone from Michael Jordan to LeBron James. His players respect him, he has shown the ability to work with folks from all walks of life, and his long run in the NBA would bring a veteran presence to a younger front office. He is a part of a staff that led a team without it’s best player in Oladipo to holding serve in the Eastern Conference instead of collapsing, as the Grizzlies have done in the past And it its’t a fluke...because he’s done it before.
Prying him away from an area he has been in for so long could be a challenge, but Burke could see these final years of his career ahead of him and may want to finish out as running his own team. Pair Burke with a young offensive assistant who could potentially take over 5-10 years from now, establishing a long-running culture within the coaching staff that can permeate across generations of players, and now you’re looking at a stability Memphis has never had in its coaching staff.
He’s #2 on this list, though, because of someone that mixes similar experiences with “youth” while being a former NBA player.
1. Sam Cassell
Sam Cassell has been an NBA assistant for a decade now, and whether it be with Flip Saunders and the Washington Wizards or Doc Rivers and the Los Angeles Clippers, he has learned from some of the very best the NBA has to offer in the coaching profession. He has helped develop point guards, from John Wall to Austin Rivers to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and his own playing experience as a member of eight - count em’, eight! - NBA franchises will carry weight with modern NBA players.
He won championships in bookend fashion in his career, at the beginning with the Houston Rockets and at the end in his last year as an active player, on the 2007-2008 Boston Celtics. He was essentially a player coach his last year in Boston, and from his retirement he became a full blown assistant. In almost 1,000 games played, Cassell averaged 15.7 points and 6 assists per game, so he isn’t just a “random guy”. He is known for playing with a bit of an...edge.
Can the guy some younger players may know as a GIF of the “big balls dance” be the next head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies?
Yes. And he should be the next head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.
Like Vaughn and Burke both, Cassell is a part of a coaching staff that is overachieving. The Clippers traded away their best player - Tobias Harris - earlier in the season, and yet still made the playoffs in the tough Western Conference and just pulled off the largest comeback in NBA Playoffs history. Like Burke, Cassell is an NBA lifer, but unlike Burke he’s done it as both a player and a coach. Across 15 seasons as a player and now 10 as an assistant, Sam has been through multiple eras of NBA basketball. He knows what wins. He knows what loses. And in his time as a coach, from the likes of Saunders and Rivers, he’s learned how to teach it.
He checks all the boxes. He understands scheme. He can build relationships with player and front office member alike. He has the resume, and can implement the vision with a bit of swagger that Memphis desperately needs. He can build an identity for what the Grizzlies will be moving forward, and at 49 years old he can do so for at least the next 10 years more than likely.
Sam Cassell’s time to be a head coach is now. And it will hopefully be in Memphis.
#3 would take a bit of convincing, but any retread could have a similar argument made for them. Vaughn makes the most sense to me. From there, I’d really like Burke and love Cassell. Any of these hires would be terrific.
What do you think about this list? Would you prefer another retread to Vaughn? Maybe like the coaching experience of Burke more than the combination of youth and playing in the NBA of Cassell? Let us know in the comments below.
Regardless of who eventually gets the job, here’s to hoping Wexler, Kleiman and the crew take their time and meet with as many folks as they can. They need to be picking the brains of as many smart people as possible.
Patience must be a virtue, in many ways. That’s the reality.