May 13, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins during the post game interview of game four of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Oklahoma City Thunder at FedEx Forum. Memphis Grizzlies defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder 103-97, and lead in the series 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

How Lionel Hollins Sealed His Fate


On Twitter, in the media, up and down message boards, and around the water cooler the next day, Grizzlies fans (and NBA fans at large) were shocked by Lionel Hollins’ dismissal on Monday evening. They shouldn’t have been.

Those who didn’t watch the Grizzlies closely this year or follow the ownership change and the drama surrounding it are now asking: Why? Without an answer, they are pointing fingers and even pitchforks the front office, Jason Levien, Stu Lash, and John Hollinger. They don’t understand why a coach who took a team from laughing stock to contender, who turned in a 56-win regular season and led the team to its first Conference Finals appearance is now looking for work.

The fact is, Lionel Hollins had all year to save his job. He chose not to. Like Art Howe of the “Moneyball” Oakland A’s, he ran the team his own way and ignored his new managers’ wants. And it worked – Memphis enjoyed its most successful season ever. But Hollins’ stubbornness was his own undoing, and he will not see the end of the grit-n-grind era because of it.

Let’s go back to the beginning. When the paperwork was done and Robert Pera was officially handed the keys to the team, details about his ownership style and approach to basketball began to leak out in interviews. The young tech entrepreneur (and lifelong basketball fan) emphasized the value of analytics and box scores in running a basketball team. He wasn’t just talking about using numbers to assess player value – though I’m sure he familiarized himself with Rudy Gay’s stat sheet before trading him – he was talking about using PER to determine minute distribution, and adjusted plus-minus figures to determine which lineup should be on the floor the most. In other words, better coaching through statistics.

This didn’t play well with Hollins. Not only did he resent the idea of being told how to coach, but he thought that analytics were a negligible part of basketball – something that already existed and was now being glorified by sports media. Something that could not add to his personal understanding of the game. Something of little instructional value to his players. So he resolved to coach his own way, despite his new owners’ intentions.

“I’m going to go out and do the best job I can as often as I can,” Hollins told the Commercial Appeal in November, after one of his first encounters with Pera. “What other people think is on them. I’m going to go out and coach. I’m not going to try to be somebody different.”

When Pera hired John Hollinger, everyone’s favorite ESPN stats guru, to a position in the front office, he had every intention of using Hollinger’s data to supplement both his own player evaluations and Hollins’ coaching decisions. Hollinger discussed this with the Grizzlies in a radio interview shortly after his hire.

“I’m definitely going to be available to help them as much as I can, and we’ll just see how it goes from there. [Hollins] has had plenty of success without me, but at the same time, I think there are probably ways that I could potentially help him, and once we start really working with each other, we can figure out where that balance is.”

But Hollins didn’t want balance. A few weeks after John Hollinger joined the team, the Rudy Gay trade rumors began to swirl. Hollins, who apparently was involved in the trade process, did not want it to happen. He said so publically multiple times, and also couldn’t restrain himself from criticizing the analytics that were so prized by the front office and which eventually led them to pull the trigger on the Gay trade.

“We get hung up on statistics a little too much, and I think that’s a bad trait all over the league that’s taken place,” he said. “And the media has done it because it’s easy to go to the stats to make a point or to build up a player or tear down a player. Just the analyzing, I see it every time listening to talk show radio. You’ve got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat. The bottom line is going out and contributing to your team for winning.”

Hollins’ and the ownerships’ different views on analytics would not have been such a problem had the two sides been able to reach a compromise and combine their philosophies. But again, Hollins wanted his way or the highway: he threatened to leave when his contract expired if they traded Gay against his wishes.

After Gay was dealt, the Grizzlies suffered through a 1-3 stretch while they adjusted to the new roster. Hollins again spoke out against his ownership, delivering perhaps the catchiest sound bite of the whole affair before getting spanked by Oklahoma City.

“When you have a champagne taste, you can’t be on a beer budget,” he told TNT’s Craig Sagar.

Oh, but Lionel… after you said that, you won 13 of 14 of games and finished the season on a 27-10 record (third best in the NBA in that period), including only one home loss.

Wait, so who gets the credit for that? Hollins, for coaching with what he had? Or the ownership, for removing the piece that was gumming up the works?

That leads to deeper (and largely unanswerable) questions about the role and value of a head coach, but none of that really mattered in the end. The Grizzlies won, but Hollins continued to coach using his methods. He buried trade gets Ed Davis and Austin Daye on the bench, gave Darrell Arthur way too many minutes, and continuing to lock out his “friends” in the front office.

Hollins thought that ignoring his management would matter less if he won games, and he certainly came through on that: leading the Grizzlies to their first ever conference finals appearance made parting ways even more difficult. But without a willingness to reach out to his ownership and involve them in the process, Lionel created an unbridgeable divide and thus, essentially, made Levien’s decision for him.

(The standoff even turned into open hostility at one point, when Hollins allegedly accosted John Hollinger when he approached Austin Daye during a shooting drill.)

Knowing all this, it shouldn’t be surprising that initial talks between Hollins and Levien quickly reached a philosophical impasse. Sources suggested that the group might offer Hollins a reduced contract, i.e. a two-year deal, but that Hollins wasn’t amenable.

As the negotiations stalled, Hollins went on Sports56WHBQ radio and, well…

He was characteristically candid, a quality respected by Memphians but not highly valued in the business of negotiation: he expressed his love for Memphis, his desire to return, and his dismay that he might not get a new contract. But he also sounded shocked at the turn of events, as if he never thought being released was an option.

Then he unloaded on his lead assistant coach, Dave Joerger, saying he wasn’t a defensive coach until Hollins appointed him. He took credit for engineering the Grizzlies’ top-ranked defense and suggested that Joerger was merely a field commander delivering his superiors’ orders. He said Joerger’s reputation was unearned. Ouch.

The damage was pretty much done at this point. The two parties tried again to meet at the negotiating table, but ultimately, the ownership decided to move on.

The bottom line is this: the decision on Hollins was not based solely on past job performance. It was not reactionary, spur-of-the-moment, or predetermined. The front office wants an ally in their head coach; they want an open line of communication that will benefit the team and the organization. Hollins did not offer that. They also know that the roster’s current core might not last another five years, and they want to install a coach now who can manage the impending transition – the same reason you start shopping for new cars before your old one coughs out on the interstate.

Hollins might have earned that job had he reacted differently to the ownership change. Sticking to his ways got wins, but it was not enough to ensure his future.


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