HANG TIME SOUTHWEST — RIP, GnG?
Lionel Hollins, the gruff, old-school head coach who delivered the embraceable blue-collar, Grit-and-Grind identity to the once-floundering Memphis Grizzlies, is officially out. And the organization’s new ownership group, led by young tech billionaire Robert Pera and his analytics-charged management team headed by CEO Jason Levien, is officially on the hot seat to keep a good thing going.
The apparent choice to replace Hollins has been his understudy, Grizzlies assistant Dave Joerger. Joerger is credited as the architect of Memphis’ stone-cold defense and would take over a club that won a franchise-best 56 games and appeared in its first Western Conference finals.
“On behalf of the Grizzlies organization I would like to thank Lionel for his service and hard work in helping this organization throughout his years in Vancouver and Memphis,” Levien said in a statement. “We have begun to identify our next head coach, who we feel can best move us forward.”
Where will the staunch Hollins, 196-155 in four-plus seasons with Memphis, land? Perhaps with the stylistically opposite Denver Nuggets. Reports out of Los Angeles have him on the Clippers’ long interview list for this week.
But back to the Grizzlies. Memphis is a fragile small market and Hollins, along with key player acquisitions by general manager Chris Wallace — who took a back seat to Levien and is reportedly a top candidate for the GM job with the Sacramento Kings — turned a second-class citizen to its FedExForum co-tenant, the Memphis Tigers, into the pride of the city.
That’s rare stuff. Even so, Memphis’ attendance ranked 19th out of 30 teams this season. They played to 91.8 percent capacity. Only 13 teams played to fewer home fans (in terms of arena capacity) and only three were playoff teams — Indiana, Atlanta and Milwaukee.
“One thing I think is very unique about [our] market which helps us is that we’re the only game in town,” Levien, a former agent and former assistant GM with Sacramento, said last month in an interview during the second round against the Oklahoma City Thunder. “So if you’re in L.A., you’re competing with all these pro sports teams and all this other entertainment. If you’re Memphis, the FedExForum is the spot. The Grizzlies are the team. And even though it’s a smaller market, we need to do a better job of commanding that attention consistently, but we think that’s an advantage for us.
“The great thing about Memphis also is we’re in the Southeast. This is a basketball city, this is a basketball region. Even though SEC football is big all around us, people love basketball and a lot of that is the Tigers’ tradition. So we are very cognizant of the fact that we are growing on the backs of the Tigers and what they built here in terms of the love of basketball.”
The Grizzlies’ plan is to keep growing, to widen their fan base by expanding television deals into regional markets such as the recent TV and radio deal into Little Rock, Ark. To sustain and grow attendance and increase television reach — which often creates new sponsor opportunities, ticket sales and other revenue streams — Memphis must keep a winner on the floor.
Levien has major decisions ahead and tough ones in shaping a team under the constraints of the salary cap. A coach is No. 1. Then comes whether to re-sign defensive specialist Tony Allen. The free-agent swingman is affectionately called “The Grindfather” by fans who wear T-shirts bearing that name in the style of the “The Godfather” logo from the movies.
Will Levien shop Zach Randolph, who turns 32 next month and is owed $34.3 million over the next two seasons? Randolph became a beloved figure in Memphis as well as a two-time All-Star under Hollins, who deserves credit for sticking with and developing point guard Mike Conley and 2012 All-Star and 2013 Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Does Levien prefer the Grizzlies move away from the Grit-and-Grind foundation and to a more up-tempo attack to mirror the rest of the West?
Levien said he had begun earlier in the season the process of calling every season-ticket holder to share his vision for the club.
“The thing I’ve noticed in Memphis is they were down for so long they want to know that you want to win,” Levien said. “And If they think that you are serious about it, and that you have a process, and that you have a strategy and that you really want to win, I think they’re with you and they’re excited about that.”
Dismantling the structure of an operation that reached new heights is risky business. Mark Cuban took apart a championship team (his reason being to better deal with the changes of the new CBA) and two years later the Mavericks are out of the playoffs. Memphis doesn’t possess the longstanding fan goodwill (or deep-rooted corporate sponsorships) as Dallas does to sail through a public relations storm of a precipitous fall.
And its players that are locked up don’t want to even think about that.
“I’ve seen both ends of it,” Conley, who went 22-60 as a rookie, said during the West finals. “We were terrible, the support was pretty bad and now we’ve seen it hit an all-time high and I don’t want to go back to what it was before. Trust me. It would be huge if we could just stabilize what we have and just keep moving forward.”