While the door isn’t completely shut on the issue, it seems very likely that the contract of incumbent head coach Lionel Hollins will be allowed to expire without an extension. Both parties are now exploring other options, with the Nuggets being one of them for Hollins, coincidentally.
Why is this a coincidence?
Well, news broke yesterday morning that George Karl was fired by the Denver Nuggets. It was surprising news, to say the least. Karl won Coach of the Year this season en route to the third seed in the Western Conference with a record of 57-25. However, the Nuggets were booted from the playoffs in the first round for the eighth time in nine appearances under Karl. Not long after Karl was fired, the Grizzlies approached him, bringing the Grizzlies-Nuggets-Karl-Hollins saga full circle.
It’s hardly surprising that Memphis has interest in Karl, the Coach of the Year that he is. In spite of his underwhelming playoff record, Karl has an excellent regular season record. Over the past nine seasons with Denver, Karl has a regular season record of 423-257 (0.622). It’s a mystery why he’s been unable to go past the first round more than once given his consistent regular season success, but you can see why Karl is a good coach from that regular season success.
That said, the Grizzlies and Karl may not be the right fit for each other. This isn’t because Karl is “a bad postseason coach”. I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that such a thing exists. Instead, this would be more of a difference in style between team and coach.
The Grizzlies have established one of the most recognizable identities in the NBA. Grit-and-grind has taken a hold of Memphis basketball. Recognizable traits of the Grizzlies are their physicality in the paint, their effort defensively, and their slow tempo of play.
However, Karl’s Nuggets have been a very different team than these Grizzlies. The Nuggets were known for their fast and energetic style of play. Three-pointers, points in the paint, and running out on the fast break were things that cold be associated with that team. Points in the paint aside, the Grizzlies don’t seem to match that philosophy very well.
First off, three-pointers. This was a striking flaw for Memphis, particularly in the postseason as the Spurs exploited their lack of three-point shooters to clog the paint against Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. While Memphis will almost definitely add more shooters in the offseason, this isn’t a team with a perimeter-oriented offense and it would be a big change for it to be established as one.
Secondly, the tempo of play between the two teams are wildly different. Denver had a team pace (possessions per 48 minutes) of 97.5 last season, while Memphis measured at 91.3. The Nuggets had the second-highest team pace in the NBA, while the Grizzlies had the second lowest. Mike Conley is one of the fastest players in the NBA and we’ve all seen Tony Allen dash out for an easy hoop after creating a steal, but for the most part, this is a jogging team rather than a running team.
Could Karl adjust to match the Grizzlies’ roster better? Yes, he could. All great coaches understand basketball at a high level, and if Karl needs to change his gameplan, so be it. Certainly he has done so in the past, between his Carmelo Anthony-led Nuggets of the past to the team-concept Nuggets of last season. However, going from the Nuggets to the Grizzlies is a huge difference in style. Melo or not, the Nuggets’ strength came largely on the offensive end of the court. They have always been a high scoring team. The Grizzlies and grit-and-grind are quite the opposite of anything Karl has done in Denver.
Karl could certainly take the Grizzlies to a high level of regular season wins, the bright basketball mind that he is. The Grizzlies are much better than their fifth seed from this year would indicate, and it would make sense for this team to move forward from that after maturation through their best playoff run ever,
However, and this is not a knock on Karl’s history in the playoffs, would Karl’s system take these Grizzlies to greater heights in the postseason than that of Hollins? The Grizzlies are looking for even more playoff success than what they had this season, but the question is whether or not Karl can bring them more success than what Hollins already has. The Grizzlies shouldn’t make a change just for the sake of making a change.
Lionel Hollins is still amenable to a contract with the Grizzlies. He wants to be here, regardless of the contract issues that would have to be sorted out. Whether or not he is the best match for Memphis can’t be proven, but given their success thus far and especially this season, I’m hesitant to say that he’s anything other than a very good fit with the team.