Hollins keeps life, NBA in perspective
BY KERRY EGGERS, PORTLAND TRIBUNE
Life is uncomplicated for Lionel Hollins these days.
The former Trail Blazers guard and NBA head coach is working as a studio analyst for NBA-TV and hosts a two-day-a-week NBA talk show on Sirius radio.
“I’ve been so blessed,” says Hollins, whose contract was not renewed by the Memphis Grizzlies after last season. “I get to see my kids more often. Recently saw my grand baby in Arizona. I’m reading books again. Went grocery shopping the other day. I get to spend a lot of time on my charity. Get to support the charities of other people who have supported mine over the years.
“The freedom to not be in a gym, at practice, in a meeting ... I’ve had an opportunity to enjoy what life is all about again.”
Hollins will be in New York City tonight to watch the youngest of his four children, Austin, play what could be his final game for Minnesota. Austin Hollins, a 6-4 senior guard, is the No. 2 scorer and assists leader for the Golden Gophers, who face Florida State in the NIT semifinals at Madison Square Garden. Austin had a career-high 32 points in Minnesota’s 81-73 quarterfinal victory over Southern Mississippi.
“He’s had a nice year,” the senior Hollins says. “I’m excited for him. He’s a good kid. You like to see people who do it the right way get rewarded. It’s not always that way.”
Though Hollins has enjoyed his time away from coaching, don’t get the wrong idea. Hollins would have liked nothing more than to have been on the bench with the Grizzlies when they played Portland at the Moda Center on Sunday. He’d love to be coaching Memphis, or another team, when the playoffs arrive in a couple of weeks.
“Of course,” Hollins says when asked if he’d like to return to the coaching ranks. “I miss coaching. What I miss is the teaching ... the development of the team and the players. ... the players working together and watching them grasp it mentally, and then have them go out and do it physically.”
Hollin pauses, then adds, “Don’t take this the wrong way. I mean no disrespect to Dave Joerger (his successor as Memphis coach). But anybody (the Grizzlies) hire, if he lets the players play the way they want to play, they’re going to win. They know how to win. When I got there, they didn’t know how to win.”
Hollins puts himself in the category of a guy doing it the right way, but not getting rewarded. And he has a point.
When he took over the Memphis job in January 2009, the Grizzlies had lost 126 of 175 games over the previous 2 1/2 seasons under Tony Barone and Marc Iavaroni.
Gradually, Hollins built a winner, from 40-42 his first full season in 2009-10 to 46-36 to 41-25 in the strike-shortened 2011-12 campaign to 56-26 in 2012-13, advancing to the Western Conference finals before being ousted by San Antonio.
Within 10 days, Hollins — who had worked his final season as a lame duck on the final year of his contract — was gone. How could it happen?
Hollins fell victim to a change in ownership and management. Former owner Michael Heisley sold the club to a group led by California tech billionaire Robert Pera, now 36. Jason Levien, an attorney and former sports agent who had worked in the front office of the Sacramento Kings, became CEO and managing partner of the Grizzlies. Levien took over the basketball operations from Chris Wallace, who remains the club’s vice president/general manager in title only.
“It seemed like they had their minds made up when they came in,” Hollins says. “They had an agenda of how they wanted to do things, and what they wanted to spend. I didn’t fit into that.
“I can accept that. It’s their prerogative. But when you look at the big picture, you say, ‘Wow, you’ve had some pretty good success.’ If I were at FedEx, for instance, I wouldn’t fire the employees who made it successful.”
The night the Grizzlies were eliminated from the playoffs, Hollins and his then-agent, Warren LeGarie, met with Levien for 2 1/2 hours.
“When I walked out of there, I thought I was coming back,” Hollins says.
Levien offered no public explanation, issuing only a statement that the club had decided to go in a different direction and thanking the coach for his work with the franchise.
Joerger, who had been an assistant with Memphis since 2007 and had served 4 1/2 years under Hollins, was signed to a three-year contract with a team option for a fourth year at a reported $2 million per season. A coach with the credentials and experience of Hollins — or that of George Karl, who was interviewed for the job to replace Hollins — would have commanded at least twice that figure.
The bottom line is very important to Pera and the new ownership group. Money surely played a part in Hollins’ demise, but there were other issues.
In the weeks that followed Hollins’ ouster, other reasons emerged through “inside sources.” That Hollins couldn’t accept analytics and the advanced scouting metrics that are becoming increasingly in use in pro sports. That he clashed with John Hollinger, the one-time Portland resident who is an analytics devotee hired last season by the Grizzlies as vice president/basketball operations. That Hollins bellyached about the midseason trade that sent small forward Rudy Gay to Toronto for Tayshaun Prince, a deal that save the Grizzlies millions in future salary. That Hollins was having increasing problems communicating with his players.
There is some truth to all of this. Hollins is an old-school coach, a strong personality who has developed a coaching style through the years based on a high level of expertise and intuitiveness about his players and how to put together a team. There was an incident with Hollinger at practice, during which Hollins loudly objected to his interference with a player. Hollins says he spoke with Hollinger afterward and that both men apologized to each other. (Hollinger did not return a pair of phone messages.)
“I have no problems with John,” Hollins says. “I have no problems with analytics. The only problem I have is with the idea there’s just one way to do things. You look for every advantage and whatever tools you can utilize to help your team be better. Part of that is having relationships with the players I have to deal with every day.
“It’s not just numbers. I’m dealing with emotions and egos and sensitivities and insecurities. It’s easy to say these guys need to play so many minutes and this group is the best group to have on the floor at the particular time. It’s not cut and dried like that.
“I want to be perfectly clear, I have no problems with analytics. I expressed that to management here. If there is a sophisticated mechanism to help us win, I’m all for it. But there has to be a balance. I don’t think basketball is as numbers-oriented as baseball, for instance. A coach knows who he can count upon at different times during a game. It’s why I trusted Zach (Randolph) to walk up there and make free throws at the end of a game. It’s a feeling that has nothing to do with numbers. The experiences a coach has cannot be discarded completely.”
Hollins played for the great Jack Ramsay in Portland.
“I once asked Jack how he decides to choose somebody to run a play for at the end of a close game,” Hollins says. “He said, ‘I look at everybody’s eyes when they’re coming toward me (for the timeout). The player looking me in the eye and wants the ball is the person I’m going with.’ I played with players who could have great games, but when it comes down to the last shot, they don’t want that weight.”
Hollins was against the trade of Gay, an important piece to the Grizzlies’ success.
“But I didn’t speak out on the trade,” Hollins contends. “I was asked a question. I said I hated to trade Rudy. We were winning, and it was the best team we’ve had, with him on the floor. With (Pera and Levien), it was economics. I understand small-market economics. Champagne taste, bare budget. They chose to go that way because it saved a lot of money.
“If you want to make a decision, be up-front and tell everybody why. That’s fine. But don’t try to say it’s because of a young player’s inefficiency. That’s not why you traded him.”
It would appear Pera and Levien were uncomfortable with Hollins — a man nearly twice their age — and more comfortable with Joerger, 39. And also more comfortable with the salary he is making.
“Again, that’s OK,” Hollins says. “But don’t put out there that they got rid of the coach because he doesn’t communicate well, he’s too hard on players, that they want to create a friendly culture. That’s all propaganda. Just say, ‘His numbers were too high for what we wanted to pay.’ “
Hollins is reluctant to speak on the subject. Only with prodding from a reporter he has known since 1977 is he willing to reveal such thoughts.
“For a while, it was very hard to accept,” he says. “For a while, I was in a depressed state. When something like that happens, you blame yourself. You wonder what you could have done differently.
“At some point, you come to grips with it. It had nothing to do with me. They made that decision because that’s the decision they wanted to make.”
Hollins says he has found himself pulling for the Grizzlies as the season has moved on.
“I’m happy for Zach, Tayshaun, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen,” he says. “All those guys I’ve coached, I’m excited for them. I would be wrong to root against them having success. I would even be wrong to root against the Grizzlies to have success. I’ve been fired before. Life is too short to be miserable.”
After being fired, Hollins interviewed for vacancies with Denver and the Los Angeles Clippers.
“With the Nuggets, I don’t think I was high on their radar,” he says. “If Doc (Rivers) had stayed in Boston, I think I’d have been the Clippers coach. Doc was the better fit, and he’s a great coach. They made a good hire there.”
Hollins says he chose not to pursue an assistant coaching job in the NBA. “I’ve been a head coach the last five years,” he says.
Would he take a head coaching job in college? “It would have to be a really good opportunity,” he says.
Does Hollins think he’ll get another NBA head-coaching job?
“I have no idea,” he says. “I think I will, but with certainty? No. I have confidence I will, yes. But we’re in a crazy business.”
Hollins has a new agent, Steve Kauffman, and a portfolio that merits another head-coaching job.
“I’ve had several coaches I know ask, ‘How in the world can Lionel not have a job?’ “ Kauffman says. “It’s the hardest thing to predict, because you don’t know how many jobs will be open. There could be as few as two or three. Among the veteran coaches — nothing against the other guys — Lionel is generally rated a more desirable commodity. If a team goes in that direction, he has a very good chance to get a job.”
Hollins is one of the bright minds in the business. Yeah, he’s old-school, but so are Karl and Gregg Popovich and Rick Adelman. Hollins knows how to win, and there’s an owner out there who will want his expertise and know-how and be willing to pay it.
My bet is, Hollins’ life is about to get complicated again.