After a few weeks of near silence on the front of Memphis Grizzlies coaching search, finally, we get a sense of what the Grizzlies may be looking for in their next head coach.
Omari Sankofa II and Tony Jones of The Athletic reported Tuesday that Memphis had begun what should be a lengthy and exhaustive process of interviews with Utah Jazz assistant Alex Jensen. While this appears to be another nod toward Memphis continuing the process of hiring current assistant coaches - as stated by Sankofa in the linked post, Mike Fratello was the last Grizzlies coach hired as a retread all the way back in 2004 - there isn’t much else to be taken from this first “official” name connected to the Grizzlies interview list.
Jensen has been a successful assistant under smart coaches, and has G (then D) League and Summer League head coaching experience. He is credited with developing big man Rudy Gobert, who has become a dominant defensive force in the NBA while effectively using his size and skill set on the offensive side of the floor so he isn’t a complete liability in an era where traditional bigs are becoming less valuable. All this makes him worthy of consideration, and as he makes the rounds interviewing with other squads he remains a name to watch moving forward for Memphis.
Also from the article is a reminder from “new” Grizzlies President Jason Wexler of what the refreshed Memphis front office is looking for in this search for the fourth Grizzlies head coach hire of the Robert Pera ownership era-
“This is a situation where it’s been proven that you can win on a sustainable basis with a great supportive market that has a strong identity, and those are all desirable things from a coaching perspective that are already built into the situation, and then secondarily, it’s up to us to articulate a clear vision of how we want to operate going forward, what brings the best of what we’ve accomplished previously but also distinguishes what we intend to do differently. We feel like doing that, we’re going to be able to attract a great head coach...
At the outset, we want to make sure that people understand the shift in philosophical approach from situational to strategic and from reactive to proactive, how that’s going to manifest itself from there, some of that will become clear with respect to the talent we bring in. That’ll become clear as the decisions get made over time.”
Most interesting in these quotes is the concept of identity. Yes, the city of Memphis has a strong one...but I would argue (and have repeatedly here at GBB) that the team has lost theirs. That doesn’t mean trying to bring back what once was. Grit and Grind came from Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, who have both been gone for two seasons now, and with the potential departure of Mike Conley via trade mere months after Marc Gasol was also moved any remnants of that era will be gone. The next head coach will be tasked with helping establish what being a Memphis Grizzlies basketball player means as the organization enters the next decade.
That, and other topics, should be discussed in every interview the Grizzlies front office schedules. Here are the top five questions that should be asked whenever Memphis brass sits down with a coaching candidate.
5. (Points at white board) We are in a time out and are down two to Portland at the end of the first half with seven seconds left, and we are looking to have a lead heading to half time. What play are you drawing up, given our current roster?
This would be a terrific situational question for any coach, and a pretty standard one more than likely. Zachary Kleiman, the newly promoted Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, has stated an emphasis on a coach with sound X’s and O’s will be a priority, and while J.B. Bickerstaff was dealt a tough hand in terms of roster during his brief time in Memphis he certainly could have done a better job in this department. It would be especially relevant with a career long assistant, like Sam Cassell, who would be getting their first chance to make the final call on a play with the Grizzlies, to dive in to the mind of every basketball genius that the Grizzlies talk with.
The answer to this question should be two fold - both specific to the team being played (is Enes Kanter on the floor? Attack him in the pick and roll), and an overall connection to whatever offensive scheme is implemented. This, of course, should be molded around whatever personnel is at the disposal of the coach (more on that later). Since Mike Conley is still on the team, a pick and roll with Delon Wright and Jaren Jackson Jr. with Conley playing off a screen from a big to get open for a three would be a fine call here.
There are lots of examples of possible plays. The goal here would be to see how the play is drawn up and communicated.
Speaking of communication...
4. In your opinion, what is the perception of the Memphis Grizzlies both on your current staff and around the NBA, and what can we do better?
This is vital, not just to the candidate, but as part of how this whole entire enterprise should be executed by the organization as a whole. It is important for the Grizzlies to gather as much intel as possible regarding what folks see them doing well, and what they don’t do so well. The positives are fairly well known - market relationship and the selection of Jaren Jackson Jr. in the 2018 NBA Draft are probably the top items there.
Beyond that, the areas of growth are key. Perception is often reality, and while some things can be explained away as “they’re not here, they don’t know”, that is by no means universal. In terms of things coaches can control (draft picks and free agents are eventually the decision of the front office and owner), player development and schematic holes would be likely places of emphasis. Once the candidate says those things, expanding upon what they mean would be very helpful - the “what we can do better” side of things.
Even if the candidate is not eventually hired, you are getting many different perspectives on what are the pros and cons of this job and organization as a whole. Within all that information is some combination of the truth, and how to get to that higher plain as a franchise.
3. How should a head coach be seen by their players?
This is something that, if Memphis were to be so bold as to hire Becky Hammon as the first female head coach in NBA - and male professional sport in the United States - history, would have to be discussed at length. Regardless of gender, though, this is an important topic. David Fizdale was doomed by a failed relationship with Marc Gasol. J.B. Bickerstaff was hired in part because Gasol and Mike Conley approved of the hire...and that did not work out. There is a fine line to walk between being a “player’s coach” and having the respect of said players as the head of on the court basketball operations on a day to day basis.
How you plan to win the hearts and minds of those you are trying to develop team chemistry with is massively important. Too soft, and you will not have control in key moments. Too hard, and you will see your greatest ideas wasted because your players will not care what you know. The plan to find the balance must be, again, communicated clearly.
2. What would be your three year plan to develop Jaren Jackson Jr.?
How fascinating would it be to hear noted defensive mastermind Dan Burke talk about how he developed a scheme around Myles Turner, Roy Hibbert, and others over his long tenure with the Indiana Pacers? Hopefully similar topics were discussed with Jensen, who has helped make Rudy Gobert a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Beyond the defensive end of the court, however, any conversation about the future of the Memphis Grizzlies starts and ends with Jaren Jackson Jr. and his growth.
By the end of the 2021-2022 season, if not sooner, Memphis will have a decision to make. Will Jaren be worth a max contract extension? Will he simply be extended a qualifying offer to see what others value him as? Will he be a malcontent trade chip like Anthony Davis?
Hopefully he isn’t the latter, but regardless the process towards showing Jaren that the future in Memphis is a bright one starts now with this hire. There must be a clear and concise understanding of just what kind of player Jaren is, and what he can be given the right support from the roster around him and the coaching staff. The goal should be having Jaren as an All-NBA caliber player by the final year of his rookie deal.
A bit lofty? Perhaps. But time is of the essence, and whoever the next head coach in Memphis is needs to be able to have a vision of how to get him there.
1. What do you see as the role of the front office with regard to working with you?
There must be clarity.
Whether it is a retread like Mike Brown, or a career assistant, or maybe even something else entirely like a current broadcaster or analyst, the disconnect between layers of any sports organization starting with a coach and their staff can completely derail any constructive environment. If the coaching staff wants a player and the front office doesn’t? Distrust can develop. If a coach says something publicly, and then is contradicted by his bosses in the offices upstairs? Frustrations can mount. If there is no guarantee that a job well done will result in an extension...and a deserving raise?
No good coach will stay in Memphis very long.
Here is where the new-look top brass for the Grizzlies can get their man (or woman) if they sell themselves well. Organizational malpractice and miscommunication have run rampant in Memphis for too long. Within this question, and the conversations that will come out of it, Robert Pera, Rich Cho, Glen Grunwald, Wexler, Kleiman, and everyone else in this “brain trust” process can show a level of self-awareness and willingness to adapt that has been absent in Memphis for some time. Real change will have to come from the top - any candidate will have a preconceived notion of what this job is. the move from reactive to proactive must begin with the new faces at the front of the franchise.
Hopefully, through honest and real responses to what the coach has to say, a real turnaround in how the Memphis Grizzlies do business can begin. Because whether or not the candidate is hired, they will leave the interview saying either this new group is more of the same...or something more.
And that word will spread...and spread quickly.