When it comes to end-of-season awards in the NBA, the debate leading up to the final decision is often more valuable than the trophy ceremony itself.
The coach of the year race is no different, as it forces us to dole out well-deserved credit to men who will inevitably spend so much of their professional lives taking an inordinate amount of the blame. That conversation extends well beyond the short list of candidates, too, which brings us to first-year Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger.
His team could go undefeated from here until the end, and it's still unlikely he'd win the award, not with coaches like Jeff Hornacek (Phoenix Suns), Tom Thibodeau (Chicago Bulls), Steve Clifford (Charlotte Bobcats), Frank Vogel (Indiana Pacers), Terry Stotts (Portland Trail Blazers) and Gregg Popovich (San Antonio Spurs) so far out in front. But as the playoffs and all the pressure that comes with them near, his complex and thus-far convincing regular season is worth examining.
GRIZZLIES: No one wants to play them
Joerger, to review, was the longtime Grizzlies assistant who was handpicked by Memphis management to replace Lionel Hollins last July in the wake of the franchise's first Western Conference finals appearance. This was a puzzling choice, you see, because widely respected coaches like Hollins who reach such heights aren't typically sent to the unemployment line.
Yet most of what occurred was standard fare, the ripple effect of the Grizzlies having a new owner (Robert Pera led a group that bought the team in June 2012) and a new front office (CEO Jason Levien took over in November 2012). Levien, who later hired former ESPN writer/analytics guru John Hollinger and former agent Stu Lash to join him, clearly wanted a coach with whom he felt more of a connection and who was more open to management having a day-to-day voice in how the team's talent was used. That proved to be Joerger, a longtime head coach in the minor leagues (five total championships in the NBA Development League, International Basketball Association and Continental Basketball Association), who joined the Grizzlies as an assistant in 2007.
Yet after a rocky beginning — including a 3-5 start and the knee injury that sidelined Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol for seven weeks — Joerger and the Grizzlies are doing just fine after all. They have the best record in the NBA since Jan. 10 and are looking fully capable of the sort of first round playoff upset that Hollins' group pulled off in 2011 when they felled the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs as the eighth seed.
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Joerger, who recently turned 40 years old but swears this challenge isn't aging him, discussed his debut campaign with USA TODAY Sports this week:
Q: When I saw you back in November, you were still getting adjusted to the new role, and the group was having a tough time (the Grizzlies were 5-5 then). Safe to assume you're more settled in now?
A: Well, the more you do it, the more comfortable you get with your team. And you know, we're playing a lot better. We have Marc back. I don't know that he's (fully healthy). He's certainly gotten a lot closer to 100% than when he first came back (on Jan. 14), so there's always that. We've been in so many different transition periods throughout the course of the year.
When Marc went down, we were, I believe, going into a home stretch and we took some losses that were kind of hard to take and they're hurting us right now…Then we got (Gasol) back, and (guard) Tony (Allen) still was out for an extended period of time (he missed 21 games with a sprained left wrist from Jan. 5 to Feb. 18), and (swingman) Quincy Pondexter went down (on Dec. 7 with a season-ending right foot fracture), who we were counting on to be a big piece of what we were trying to do.
Then we added (forward) James Johnson (from the Rio Grande Valley Vipers of the D-League on Dec. 16), who kind of gave us a little spark — especially around Christmas-ish time. And then later we added (guard) Courtney Lee (via a Jan. 5 trade with the Boston Celtics). Then we get Marc back, got Tony Allen back. Tony coming off the bench (with Lee starting) has been good for us. It kind of balances our wings out, and we've kind of gotten into a little bit of a rhythm, which we haven't been able to all year. We've had different groups of guys playing together. And that's important, because the cement has never dried this year on any group. You'll have injuries throughout the course of the season — that's just how it is. But not to the extent of where you're missing two, three, four guys at different times where now your seventh or eighth guy is being counted on as a third scorer in different groups, or a second scorer in a second unit where he would be more of a complementary guy. So we're getting more comfortable with the guys we're playing with.
Since the break, Mike Miller (who rejoined Memphis as a free agent on July 30 after being cut by the Miami Heat) has really upped his play. That's been really super for us. Marc has been fantastic. (Point guard) Mike Conley had a stretch where he really carried us. (Forward) Zach (Randolph) had a stretch where he really carried us when Marc was out. We've had so many — not must-wins, but where we needed wins to get (up in the standings), and we're talking about in January. So at this point, we're like, "OK, we've got this stretch and we need to get this number of games." It just is for us to be playing as well as we can, so that's kind of the big picture of where we are.
Q: All in all, where's your satisfaction level with how you guys have righted the ship? You'd obviously love to in the top half of the playoff picture, but you're looking like a team that could still do its damage from where you are.
A: Yeah, I mean whatever it will be it will be as long as we're playing well. If we're playing well, then you've got to go get the games you're supposed to get. Then whatever happens, happens. ... The chemistry is the best that I've ever seen it in all of my years here. Guys really like each other. They like playing together. They like traveling together. They're playing for each other, and I think that's very positive."
Q: If you look back on that mid-November period, when it seemed like there was some discontent and things weren't going as well, did it ever feel like this thing was getting away from you?
A: No, I never felt like that was the case. I felt like we weren't us in the first 10, 12 games of the year. I didn't feel like we played with the urgency that we needed to early in the year. I think maybe we got a little comfortable in thinking that we were one of the top, talented teams in the West, and I don't think anybody played us that way. People didn't come in and bow down. I think that was a little bit of a wakeup call.
Then we went and beat all four of the California teams on that trip (from Nov. 15 to Nov. 20) and then we went through a really rough stretch there with Marc being gone and trying to adjust to that. It took a while, but then right around Christmas time we got back to getting some wins and feeling good about things and kind of had a little bit of an identity. Our team has changed a ton of times throughout the course of the year. James Johnson was a big part of it. He got us some wins earlier in the year, in late December and January. And now, with everybody back and healthy, he's kind of on the outside looking in. We use him in different situations moreso than a regular rotation guy. I just use that as an example of how there's a guy who was a borderline starter at different points of the season and we had to play to that. We played stretch guys, and we played power guys and we played two bigs together, and we mixed all kinds of things together. We're in a much better rhythm as a team right now.
Q: With all the turnover you've talked about and changing rotations, does your minor league experience come into play there as far as knowing how to make things work even when the roster is unsettled? What's the secret there?
A: Um, the best advice I was given is to be you. Especially (since) I've been an assistant here and I have relationships with these guys already, so not to come in and try to be somebody different. The players see right through that. There's nothing like (when) players call BS and it's over. So you've got to be who you are, and your personality has to remain the same, and even though now I'm in charge of minutes. That's one of my jobs. I think being able to communicate with guys has been positive. (Veteran small forward) Tayshaun Prince has been absolutely tremendous for us. Whether the guy plays or doesn't play, he's always helping guys and helping guys not just in the X's and O's but also (saying), "Hey stay with it," or "Yeah, we took a tough loss but whatever. Listen to what coach is saying.'" That's a guy, like Mike Conley or Marc Gasol and (power forward) Zach (Randolph) — who has had a tremendous year — where it's just staying with it, staying the course and I think that has been really positive for us.
Q: You mentioned Tayshaun. How do you keep a guy like that positive and engaged and productive in other ways when it's obviously no secret he has struggled this year – especially with his name coming up in trade talks last month, which obviously affects guys sometimes? (Prince, 34, is averaging 6.1 points on career-low 40.4% shooting.)
A: I pick his brain as much as possible. I mean he's got certainly more years of service in the NBA than I do, and what he sees and try to encourage him to come talk to me about what he sees. Sometimes I don't have to go ask him about stuff, so that's really positive. And he takes care of a lot of stuff.
When he's on the floor, I'm trying to use him for what he does well and not just make him a spot-up shooter because there are two ends of the floor. He's a good defender — he's a good on-ball defender, and he's a good team defender. But putting him in some actions where he can facilitate some offense and get Mike Conley off the ball at times, and then also for us, it's difficult to put him in the post a ton because he is playing with two bigs. If you're playing him with a stretch guy, then your spacing is a little bit different. So it's kind of getting him involved offensively so he's not just a float-around, spot-up guy. I've tried to get better at that and putting him in those situations.
Q: What about Marc and your outlook there? There was a lot of noise when he won defensive player of the year (last season), and I remember talking to Dwight Howard about how he didn't see Gasol as worthy of the award. But the overall numbers with and without him on defense are incredible. (Since Jan. 10, Memphis is third in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions and not far behind the top-ranked Pacers; 98.4 compared to 97.9. With Gasol out for most of that stretch before Jan. 10, Memphis' defense was ranked 24th at 105.1.)
A: He's just so huge. I mean it's very wide, all the things that he does for our team both offensively and defensively. ... We have a good relationship, with my focus having been on defense the last couple of years. It's (his ability to see) what's coming and trying to sniff stuff out. His IQ is so good that he helps everybody on the floor, not just the point guard in pick-and-rolls. He's early to help, early to talk through stuff. I don't know how you can (quantify) it, because people want to do that, right? They want to say, well they got X number of blocks and that makes him good, or he takes charges or whatever. But I think that just speaks for itself, the defensive efficiency when he's on the court.
Q: When he was out, what was that like when you can sense that the defense was coming off the rails and going through life without him?
A: Well the other part of it was that Tony Allen was out. For a large part of it, you had two big-time defensive players (out). And coaching is coaching, but those guys, they make it. It was difficult, no question. You talk about bringing (center) Kosta Koufos into the system (via a June trade with the Denver Nuggets), and sometimes it just takes time. Marc and Zach with Mike Conley have been in a bazillion pick-and-roll situations defensively, but Kosta not so much with Mike. They have a chemistry. And I use Mike because by and large a high percentage of pick-and-rolls are with the point guard. It does just take time. Kosta has gotten better as the season has gone on, but certainly Marc and Mike have a good chemistry on that stuff.
And then also Tony. Tony is a system guy, and he knows what the system is. But he's so incredibly high IQ-ed basketball-wise that he knows when he can break out of the system to make a play. There's a huge value on (that). But it took Tayshaun some time last year, (when he'd say), "Sometimes I don't know where this guy is going to be." And Tayshaun does know now, having spent time with him on the floor with Tony. But Marc does know that, and there's a chemistry there also where they know sometimes where Tony might step out of our box, of our system, and they can cover for him because he's making plays and disruptions. There are a lot of other things that are involved in (Gasol's value) rather than just being straight up black and white.
Q: How are you doing on the personal side? You always hear about how the jump from assistant to head is far greater than that 6 inches on the bench. How's your fatigue factor, just as far as the new experience and the daliy grind?
A: Oh, it's great. I love coming to work every day. It's not a job. It's a passion. I ask my wife, "Am I getting gray fast? Am I aging fast?" And she says, "No, actually you're going the other way because you have so much love of doing this that you're on fire every single day." There are times when you get fatigued physically and certainly mentally because even when the season's over you don't stop thinking as a head coach. Sometimes as an assistant, you've got your game prep done, your scouting and your video is done, and you go to sleep. But as a head coach, it (doesn't stop). That's what I love. It has been nothing but wonderful.
Certainly this has been a very, very different year for us, unlike anything like we've ever seen. And so you just work through it. It's been great. The other point of that, if I could add, is that we have a situation here in our organization — and I don't know how it is other places, so I can't speak to that — but we share information and everybody is rowing the boat in the same direction, from the management to all of the staff. Our front office sits in after games. They sit in before practices. They've got a great feel for what we're doing. We sit in on meetings about players around the league and personnel and all kinds of different things. So there's just a really good feeling organizationally that everybody is pulling in the same direction. That is another thing for me that helps me. ... That part of it is extremely positive.
Q: Well you mention that, and that certainly makes me think back on the dynamics in place when you were hired. Do you feel like you're making your own way and getting out from Lionel's shadow at this point, or does that cross your mind?
A: Um, it's not something that I spent a lot of time thinking about, to be honest with you. It has rolled off me because I wasn't involved in it. You know what I'm saying? I happened to be the guy standing here who gets the job, yes. But that's a third- or fourth-party thing. So I've got a job to do that I absolutely love and guys who I love to go coach every day, so I'm not trying to pass off the question. But really, I have so much stuff to think about that that's not something I haven't given a whole lot of time to think about, to be honest with you.
Q: Fair enough. Looking ahead, what's the message for the group as far as expectations? Do you guys stay in that day-to-day mode or are you already talking about how you can make some noise in the playoffs?
A: Neither. We've got to get in the playoffs. ... For us, it's, "Let's keep playing well, and let's get in the playoffs." I think it's going to come down to the last week. I really do. So for us, the focus is that almost every game is a playoff game for us, so let's go compete our tails off and be playing well and that's the most important thing. It's so difficult, because of the number of games that we've played where we're like, "We've got to get this one."
Q: Last one for you. I know it's down the road, but Zach can be a free agent this summer, and I wondered how you saw that situation. He has said he wants to stick around, but do you feel like you'll be able to convince him to stay or what do you think happens there?
A: It's not something that I spend a lot of time thinking about with 16 games left or whatever we have. But he has been amazing. He has been amazing for me as a coach, and as a first-time NBA head coach. He has a great feel. What Zach does is he reads –he's really, really smart as far as reading body language. He is really into that. Whether he knows it or not, he just feels good body language. We've had a great rapport and just a great relationship. He has helped me a ton, so I hope everything works out for the best.
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THE TRUTH AND PHIL: Jackson says he wants transparency
So about Phil Jackson and that alleged aversion to prevarication ...
The recently named New York Knicks president made it clear at his introductory news conference on Tuesday that he wasn't a fan of fudging on the truth, noting how he might struggle in his new role when it comes to dealing with the media as a close-to-the-vest front-office executive rather than as a candid coach. Yet if our March 1 interview in Boston, was any indication, he should be just fine.
During our extended chat over breakfast at the Four Seasons hotel, he managed to tapdance around questions about his future while not once coming off as cagey. He provided substantive insight and candor throughout while still avoiding the elephant in the room that no one knew was there: his negotiations with the Knicks that we have since learned were already months in the making. And when Jackson asked where this reporter's travels were taking him next as we parted ways near the elevator, little did I know that I should have been demanding to know his itinerary.
As reported Tuesday by The New York Times, that March 1 day which had began with our enjoyable chat ended with Jackson and his fiancée/Los Angeles Lakers executive Jeanie Buss hopping on the private plane of Knicks owner James Dolan for a group getaway in California. Jackson, Buss, Dolan and Knicks general manager Steve Mills flew to Palm Springs, Calif., where the men embarked on an ATV trip that was full of possible symbolism for these fascinating Knicks years to come. (Dolan and Jackson reportedly picked different paths at one point during their rocky-yet-entertaining adventure together.)
Jackson failed to mention all of this at the time, of course, instead skipping to the plans he had to take part in his son's bachelor party in Montana the following week. Prevaricating, it's safe to say, may not be as tough as he's making it out to be.
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PUNCHES OR PUNCHLINES? Gortat-Cousins almost got interesting
When Wizards center Marcin Gortat was the recipient of a verbal jab from Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins Tuesday night, it seemed like the perfect time to bring up his recent suggestion about on-court decorum. Gortat, the son of a boxer and resident tough guy who told ESPN recently that he wished fighting was allowed in the NBA like it is in the NHL, had just been taken out of the Wizards' overtime loss when Cousins came his way.
With 13 seconds remaining, Gortat on the sideline and the Kings' victory clearly in hand, the smirking young star hurled a profane taunt Gortat's way (and out of ear shot from the officials) that the Polish big man could do nothing about. Gortat jumped out of his seat when he heard it, but was stopped by that invisible fence between him and the court and eventually walked off the floor while continuing to look Cousins' way.
But when asked about the incident afterward, Gortat opted against continuing his pro-fighting campaign and instead dodged the topic like it was a left hook.
"Oh, we were just talking about the same sandwich that coach had a problem with," Gortat joked when asked if this was one of those times when he wished the fisticuffs were allowed. "(Cousins) ate a bad sandwich. I had the same sandwich. The same deli screwup."
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MEMPHIS FUTURE: Randolph still at heart of Grizzlies' plans
As Joerger said so many times in our chat, the Grizzlies are living in the moment right now out of sheer necessity. But regardless of how their season ends, their future is even more intriguing than their present.
Because Randolph has the ability to be a free agent, the natural question has loomed for quite some time now whether he'll remain part of their core if they would perhaps look elsewhere for that type of post production. Specifically, the fact that current Lakers forward and brother of Marc Gasol, Pau Gasol, will be a free agent this July led to natural speculation about whether they could make up Memphis' frontcourt for the future.
But a person with knowledge of the Grizzlies thinking said Randolph will be the focus of their free agency affection and that the interest they have in Pau Gasol would be secondary. The relevant question on that front, it seems, is whether Pau would be so interested in reuniting with his brother in Memphis and contending for a crown that he might be willing to play a complementary role behind Randolph and Marc Gasol while accepting a contract that would likely be below market value. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the private nature of such talks.
Randolph, who could still exercise his $16.5 million player option for next season, has made it clear he wants to return. If he opts out, Memphis would have approximately $48 million in committed salary for next season. The salary cap is likely to be approximately $59 million, with the luxury tax threshold likely to be approximately $70 million.
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Longtime Grizzlies starter Tony Allen has been wreaking havoc as a reserve recently, and it's a good sign for Joerger that he hasn't taken to Twitter to express his disapproval. Rest assured, the always-entertaining Allen wouldn't be afraid to speak his mind if he felt so inspired. We learned that much about the "Grindfather," as they call him, a long time ago.
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