Why The Memphis Grizzlies Must Keep Lionel Hollins

Job security in the NBA is at an all-time low, especially at the head coach position. This season alone, the turnover rates have been astronomical, and even quasi-successful coaches have found themselves in the hot seat as the offseason approaches and teams attempt to retool their rosters and reshuffle their coaching staffs for the upcoming season.

At a glance, the current crop of unemployed coaches clamoring to fill vacancies is like an island of misfit toys. There’s Byron Scott and Lawrence Frank, whose winning percentages both hover around an unremarkable .45 percent mark. There’s Nate McMillan, who doesn’t fare much better with a .51 winning percentage during his 12 seasons as a coach. Then there’s the brothers Van Gundy, neither of whom seems particularly interested in coaching anymore. Jeff, for the past few years, has settled comfortably into the broadcast booth over at ABC, while Stan (aka “The Master of Panic”) seems to be still reeling from the Dwight Howard saga that cost him his last job in Orlando.

In other words, there isn’t exactly a hotbed of talent, which is why the Grizzlies brass would be wise to do everything in their power to re-sign Lionel Hollins to a long-term contract extension. His resume speaks for itself, and after a three-hour exit interview with Grizzlies owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien last Thursday, Hollins seemed confident that the two parties would be able to come to terms on a deal that would keep him in Memphis for the foreseeable future.

Hollins has stated publicly on at least two separate occasions this past week that he’d prefer to stay on as the Grizzlies head coach. On Monday, he spoke with Memphis radio station Sports 56 WHBQ to reiterate that fact: “I believe in Memphis. I love Memphis. I never had any intention of going anywhere.”

But that didn’t stop the Grizzlies from unexpectedly announcing that they were allowing him to explore other options. Hollins’ contract expires at the end of this month, and the Los Angeles Clippers and Brooklyn Nets are rumored to be interested in acquiring him.

From a fan’s perspective, it’s hard to imagine how it could have come to this, but rumors of a widening rift between Hollins and team executives have been circulating the entire season. Things were exacerbated recently by reports of a verbal confrontation between Hollins and Grizzlies VP John Hollinger. Hollins allegedly yelled at Hollinger during a recent practice session after he (Hollinger) waltzed onto the court, without permission, to speak with little-used reserve forward Austin Daye. Team practices are traditionally the coach’s domain, and it’s likely Hollins took it as a sign of disrespect and yet another example of management’s ongoing interference in coaching-related matters.

It’s certainly possible that some of this has been blown out of proportion in the media. After all, Hollins claims that he and Hollinger had a laugh about the alleged incident after practice, but tensions have been mounting ever since the Grizzlies hired Hollinger as Vice President of Basketball Operations in December. Hollinger, the former ESPN wunderkind and analytics guru, is the brains behind the celebrated player efficiency rating (PER), a complex formula designed to measure a player’s overall statistical value.

Together with general manager Chris Wallace, they comprise a front office duo that isn’t afraid to make bold moves that go against conventional wisdom or popular opinion. It was Wallace who infamously traded away Pau Gasol to the Los Angeles Lakers and got next to nothing in return, aside from the drafts rights to Gasol’s younger brother, Marc; however, the emergence of the younger Gasol as a perennial All-Star candidate, defensive stalwart and franchise cornerstone in a league bereft of old-school centers is threatening to make Wallace look like a genius for his foresight.

Along with team owner Robert Pera, the precocious 34-year-old billionaire entrepreneur who purchased the Grizzlies for a reported $350 million last summer, the team executives have adopted what can only be described as a Moneyball approach to management.

Keep reading to hear why Hollins and his old school approach fit Memphis…

And this is where the rumors of “major philosophical differences” between Hollins and the front office’s sabermetrics disciples have derived from. After the widely-criticized Rudy Gay trade – a move motivated in equal parts by salary cap considerations as well as Gay’s relative inefficiency on offense (he was making only 40 percent of his field goals at the time of the trade while taking a high volume of shots) – Hollins was vocal with his criticism. Management apparently proceeded with the trade despite consulting with him numerous times prior to the February deadline. In a radio interview with Sports 56 WHBQ in Memphis following the trade, he also voiced his skepticism about the growing pervasiveness of sports analytics.

“Analytics has a place. It can’t be the be all end all. I’m still trying to figure out when the Oakland Athletics won a championship with all the analytics they have,” Hollins said, later adding, “There’s a lot to be said about stats, but there’s a lot to be said about heart, toughness, courage and bravery to go in the big moment.”

Hollins is an old school coach who knows what it takes to be successful in the NBA. After all, he was part of the Portland Trail Blazers ’77 championship team, and it’s obvious he doesn’t appreciate being bossed around by a bunch of young hot shots who have never set foot on a basketball court except to disrupt his practice session.

Still, his differences with management are anything but irreconcilable. Despite his opposition to the Gay trade, the Grizzlies barely missed a beat, going 26-10 the rest of the season. Hollins was able to seamlessly integrate Tayshaun Prince into the lineup without sacrificing any chemistry or cohesion. Management would love to take credit for it, as would Hollins, but perhaps it’s best if everyone shared the recognition because this is the only way the two can coexist.

The irascible Hollins may, at times, be forced to bite his tongue when it comes to certain management decisions he doesn’t agree with, but Hollinger et al need to show a little more respect to a man who is a proven winner and an invaluable asset to the franchise.

There are certain things that you can’t quantify. In a league where superstar players regularly undermine their coaches’ authority and, in some cases, are directly responsible for their removal, the level of respect Hollins earned among his players is a rare commodity. As the stern but loving patriarch to his ragtag Grizzlies, he’s helped Mike Conley develop into a top tier point guard while under tremendous scrutiny. He’s transformed former castaway Jerryd Bayless into a serviceable role player (despite having never learned his name).

And he’s served as mentor to Zach Randolph after the rest of the league had written him off, nurturing in him a level of maturity and professionalism that nobody ever dreamed was possible. Under his watch, the team improved consistently, and this year, he led the Grizzlies to a franchise-best 56-win season, punctuated by the team’s inaugural trip to the Western Conference Finals.

Beyond that, Hollins has connected with the citizens of Memphis in a way no previous coach has been able to, partly because he’s created a team culture that mirrors the blue collar work ethic of its hardscrabble fans. Aside from a brief stint as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks, he’s been with the Grizzlies organization since they were a fledgling expansion team in Vancouver. He’s been loyal to the city of Memphis and the Grizzlies organization for more than a decade, a sentiment reciprocated by the fans and players.

The front office might write the paychecks and assemble the roster, but make no mistake, this is Hollins’ team. Letting him walk away at this point would be a waste all of the cultural capital and goodwill and civic pride they amassed during his tenure. It’s been a long time since a team has truly embodied the spirit of its city the way the Memphis Grizzlies have over the past few seasons, and it all begins with Hollins’ leadership. There aren’t any metrics that can measure the lasting impact he’s had on the franchise and the city he calls home.

What should the Grizzlies do?

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