Before the Memphis Grizzlies hired Lionel Hollins as head coach in January 2009, the Grizzlies, as a franchise, had never won a playoff game. (It was actually Hollins' third stint as coach of the Grizz; he coached one year in Vancouver and was an interim coach in 2004.) Four months after Hollins was hired, the team drafted Hasheem Thabeet with the second-overall pick, before James Harden, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday and countless other better players than Hasheem Thabeet. The first free-agent signing of the Hollins era was Allen Iverson. This was not a particularly good job.
Since then, though, the Grizzlies have been one of the best teams in the Western Conference. After winning zero playoff games in the first 15 years of their existence, they've won 18 in the last three, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals this year. They've got the best frontline in the NBA, a growing fanbase that has somehow overcome the tragic events of 45 years ago and appear as well-positioned as any team in the NBA for future success. And the players love their coach. "I know that he's fought for me in every situation that he's had to. I can't even put enough words in the sentences to say how much it means to me," says Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley, someone who's apparent as a big a fan of run-on sentence as I am. After years in the basketball coaching wilderness -- his years spent not with Grizzlies include stints with the Las Vegas Silver Bandits in the IBL and the St. Louis Skyhawks in the USBL -- Hollins has finally found his home.
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Lionel Hollins' life changed last December, when the Grizzlies, looking to maintain their level of success while reducing the amount of their payroll, brought in John Hollinger as vice president of basketball operations. Hollinger came from an unusual place: The media. (Well, however we define "media" these days.) He was a hoop stathead from the get-go, perhaps the original one, with his old site Alleyoop in the late-'90s -- and I can vouch that having a site in the late '90s was nerdily ahead of the curve in every way -- to his work with Basketball Prospectus, Sports Illustrated and, ultimately, ESPN.com, where he was an invaluable daily read. He invented the Player Efficiency Rating, he blazed new trails in the world of per-possession research and his illuminating Hollinger Game Score and one could argue he has served a similar purpose to the NBA as Bill James did to baseball. (The parallel isn't perfect, of course: Dean Oliver, among others, came before Hollinger, and Hollinger also worked as a more traditional "reporter" to supplement his work in a way James ever did. I'm using shorthand here.)
Hollinger, in other words, is the brightest representative of the statistical revolution that is closing in on the NBA's closed borders in the same way the James/Beane/Neyer/Moneyball revolution did in baseball. And he's making some changes around Memphis. The first, most vivid example was trading Rudy Gay to the Toronto Raptors a month after taking over, a trade that went against conventional wisdom (giving up the best player in a deal, a proven end-of-game scorer) but jived with everything Hollinger had ever written about the game. It also, lo, worked, with the Grizzlies playing light years better after the trade and Gay hardly turning the Raptors into the playoff contender they'd been hoping to be.
But one person who didn't like the trade was Lionel Hollins. Hollins had been open about his disdain for obsession with statistics before the Gay trade -- "You've got guys spouting off stat after stat after stat." -- and furious afterward, saying, "When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget." Hollins seemed to think the trade was solely because of financial reasons, rather than Hollinger recognizing that Gay was an inefficient offensive player and a serious drain on resources. Hollins was emotional about a player he'd coached for years; Hollinger took emotion out of it and made the prudent move.
In other words: He did what baseball general managers have done for a decade now, essentially succeeding in taking over the sport. (It's generally known that the Phillies are the only team without a full-time statistical analyst on their staff, and look how that's turning out.) Baseball managers, on the whole, have made their peace with this; as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, the day of the Tony LaRussa type, a dugout skipper with the power to run the whole organization, is behind us. If you are not on the same page as your general manager in baseball, you're likely to be soon out of a job. And those general managers are, across the board, at least tangentially connected to the world of advanced analysis.
Now it's hitting the NBA, and Hollins is in real danger of the world passing him by. Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski reported that one of the main reasons the Grizzlies are allowing/encouraging Hollins to talk to other teams about their job vacancies is because of a confrontation Hollins and Hollinger had during the playoffs.
During the Grizzlies' playoff run, tensions turned to a confrontation when Hollins exploded during a practice session upon finding Hollinger had walked onto the practice court and engaged forward Austin Daye during a shooting drill, multiple sources told Yahoo! Sports. With the team watching -- and with a motive to show his players that he was completely in charge on the floor, sources said -- Hollins loudly questioned Hollinger about what he was doing, and why he believed it was appropriate for a management official to intrude on what's considered sacred territory for a coach and team, sources said.
(It's worth noting that Wojnarowski and Hollinger have a history themselves, with Wojnarowski never missing an opportunity to tweak the "statistician who worked for a cable sports company.")
Hollins might not necessarily be wrong -- no coach likes a suit stepping onto his practice court -- but there's a real risk of being on the wrong side of history here. It is also worth noting that these issues only come up in baseball and basketball where, to put it nicely, coaches have a little less influence on games than they believe they do. (It is always amusing to hear coaches miked up during playoff games only to say, "Go get 'em! Play hard! You gotta FIGHT!") In the world of football, coaches don't have time to have philosophical arguments about whether stats should matter more than heart; they're too busy feasting on the souls of the vanquished and staving off the hyenas at their heels to worry about such matters. But in baseball and, increasingly, the NBA, the culture clash sometimes seems to be more important than wins.
This issue has mostly been settled in baseball, save for your spare Jim Leyland or Dusty Baker here or there. But in the NBA, it's coming. There are more John Hollingers coming than there are Lionel Hollins to fight them off. This is going to become one of the signature fights in the NBA over the next few years. It appears Hollinger is going to win this one. There will be many others. Winter is coming.
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