It’s been an eventful two months for Lionel Hollins. Michael Heisley, the Grizzlies’ longtime owner, sold the team to Robert Pera and Jason Levien (among others), and the new group almost immediately overhauled the team’s front office. The new regime shifted Chris Wallace, the team’s GM, into more of a background role, and empowered newcomers such as Stu Lash (a former agent) and ex-ESPN.com analytics guru John Hollinger. The changes prompted Hollins to question the prominence of analytics in coaching decisions. Hollins told reporters in January he wanted Rudy Gay to stay, but the new front office dealt Gay anyway in a deal that brought back Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince. The Grizz lost three of their first four games after the trade, prompting another clever Hollins quip about small-market realities and general panic among the pro-Rudy portion of Memphis’s fan base.
But then things calmed down. Memphis is now in the thick of the most exciting postseason race — not the “who can lose the least number of games?” limp-fest for the no. 8 spot, but rather the ultra-competitive race for the coveted no. 3 slot between Denver, Memphis, and the Clippers. Hollins visited with Grantland this week to talk about life in a post-Rudy world, Tony Allen’s defense, my man-crush on Marc Gasol, and everything else Grizz.
Things seemed to have calmed down a bit after the post-trade uproar. Are you feeling good about the team after all the initial drama?
No doubt about it. We’ve responded well. We’ve lost a couple of games lately, but we have a winning record since the trade. Guys have blended in, and developed a similar mentality and attitude to what we had already been playing with. So it hasn’t been seamless, but it works.
These things are never seamless, right?
Life isn’t seamless.
Watching you guys, it seems as if you have shifted a lot of the offense to Marc Gasol facilitating at the elbows. Do you guys track elbow touches? Was that part of the plan?
We did that before the trade. People say all that, but we haven’t changed the way we played.
Really? Not at all?
We have not changed the way we play. We’ve always run a lot of pick-and-roll. People think of us as a post-up team, but we post up out of the pick-and-roll. A lot of teams do that — it forces a defender to help and then try to scramble back when you throw it into the post. It’s hard to double-team, and it’s hard to front. I mean, Tayshaun is not getting 20 shots per night that Rudy would get, so that increases the possessions the ball moves to someone else. That’s probably a bigger key than us changing how we play.
Ah, I got it. So there hasn’t been any stylistic change, but you have sort of naturally redistributed some possessions to Gasol at the elbow and other things that were already in your game.
Yeah, we started that at the beginning of the year — playing more and more through the elbow. When you’re together a long time and teams scout the way you play, you have to make adjustments. We went into this season and we decided to run very little secondary or early offense. We play out of a flow more, because it’s hard to scout. There’s no rhyme or reason to what you do, and I think our guys picked up on it, and they’ve become effective doing it.
What do you mean by not running secondary offense? Does that mean you run one set action and just sort of improvise from there?
In the past, usually we’d try to score in transition, before the defense is really set, and then you go into an early offense when you pass the ball into the post, and then you do this, and then you do that. We’ve gotten away from that more, and we play more pick-and-roll, double pick-and-roll, all of that stuff we haven’t done as much in the past.
You guys milk the shot clock maybe more than any other team. You’ve been up near the top in terms of percentage of shots that come in the last four seconds of the shot clock. I almost get frustrated watching sometimes on TV — “come on, get going, there are only nine seconds left!” Is it just part of controlling pace?
No. We’d like to get up the court quicker, but we just don’t. We have guys that don’t. And then we play until we get a good shot. We may pass up a half-good shot until we get a better shot for somebody else, and the clock keeps running down. And when we play defense, we force the other team to have to go to their third, fourth, or fifth option. Frankly, when you play good defensive teams, you don’t get the first shot. So you are naturally going to go down in the shot clock.
Working for a good shot is one thing. But I’m more talking about those possessions where you guys walk it up, and there are like 10 seconds left on the shot clock before you’ve even started an action.
Oh, I know what you’re talking about.
I mean, people — fans, other writers just chatting — bring it up all the time: “Why do they do that?”
Well, ask Marc and Mike [Conley] and Zach why we walk it up the court.
Running up and down the floor is really hard for big guys, right? Is it just not something they can really do for big minutes every night?
Especially not at this time of the year. Sometimes, early in the game we’ll run, and as the game carries on, we tend to slow down. And I’m out there imploring them to keep the pace up.
It’s amazing watching you guys generate spacing without much 3-point shooting. Even Tayshaun, he’s often spaced just a step or two inside the arc instead of really in that corner or above the arc. You guys just have to be so precise in your cutting and interior passing to beat defenses. Is that stressful? Are you constantly thinking about ways to generate more and better spacing?
I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage that it’s a game of inches. That’s just sports. But, you know, before there was a 3-point line, spacing was generated. People make more out of it because we are not a big 3-point shooting team. But we shoot enough and we make enough. We try to move the ball around and get people scrambling, and put the ball on the floor, drive by people, throw it out to another person. That creates spacing as well.
You’ve been posting Tayshaun here and there, which is something the Pistons did as well. But do things get too crowded when you do that and both Gasol and Randolph are on the floor? They both have to kind of scurry to the opposite block when Tayshaun posts.
Well, both of them are good free-throw line shooters, so one can go down and one can go up. It always presents a problem when you have a [small forward] that’s a big post-up man, but we do it when we feel like we have a favorable matchup.
What really makes this defense hum? I watch you guys a lot, and I don’t really see anything that stands out, in terms of X’s and O’s, from what other teams do. What’s the secret to grit and grind?
Well, the book of Ecclesiastes says there’s nothing new under the sun. So we are doing what a lot of teams do. But we’ve committed to it, to a man, and the second and third effort we put into it is probably something that makes our defense exceptional.
I’ve touted Gasol as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and probably the favorite. Am I nuts? Or is he really as good as Tyson Chandler, Joakim Noah, a healthy Dwight Howard?
I think he is, with what he brings to our ballclub. I think he should be on the All-Defense team for sure. And I think Tony Allen, as well, and Mike Conley, as well. Tayshaun has only been with us a limited time, but he also has a defensive mentality. The more players you have that are willing to get in a stance and guard, and also leave their man and go help — that’s as big a key as guarding your own man, helping, and making the effort to anticipate the next pass and actually being there. And then making the offense make another pass, and another pass, and then somebody has to cast one, or someone is going to travel, or someone is going to throw it out of bounds because he’s not a good passer. Or the shot clock is going to run out.
So it’s a combination of things. How we got to be here is a process that started after my second year here [2009-10]. My first year [2008-09], we tried to get through the season and find out what we had, and also to find who could play, and who wanted to play, and who wanted to commit to how we wanted to play. The next year we jumped to 40 wins. I think we had a 16-game turnaround. We were a much better scoring team. But I felt in order for us to get into the playoffs, because the West was so tough, we were going to have to make a defensive commitment. And we have from that point on, and we’ve just kept getting better.
Tony Allen is an elite defender, but he’s also going to do stuff that is just outside of your scheme — gambling for steals, jumping passing lanes. Coaches like order. Was it hard to accept that? Do you just have to live with talented players stepping outside of that order now and then?
As a coach, there are players, both offensively and defensively, that do that. If they’re effective, you learn to live with the two or three times he gets burned. He gets more steals, and he’ll get back to his man most of the time. The players understand what Tony does, and sometimes they’re on the same page and they’ll cover for him. And sometimes they aren’t and they don’t cover for him. But you live with that kind of stuff. Mike [Conley] will do the same thing. He’ll gamble and give up a layup, but the next time he’ll get a steal, and the next time after that he’ll get another steal. It’s just part of letting players be players and not trying to control them.
Speaking of Tony Allen: Do you guys still play cards on the plane?
They do. I don’t.
Back to the Rudy Gay trade: Were you informed every step of the way? Or did you just generally know this was happening?
Of course, of course. People made it seem like I didn’t know, or that I was upset. I wasn’t upset. Somebody asked me a question: “Would you want to do the trade or not?” And I said I would not. But I also voiced that to management before the trade was even made, because they asked me.
They asked about the specific package — Davis and Prince?
Oh, yeah. On every package.
So you were pretty plugged in as this all unfolded, then.
Exactly. I don’t think there’s a coach that doesn’t know. They asked me my opinion, and I’d say, “I’d rather take this over that,” or, “I’d rather not do this until the end of the season.” But that’s what they get paid to do — to make those decisions. And I’m not sure that if I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t have made the same trade. Maybe not that trade, but trading Rudy, or trading Zach, or trading Marc. I probably would have been in a position where it’s, “Well, we’ve got to do this.” But as a coach, you’re thinking about right now, and so your mind-set is different.
Interesting. There are some GMs who will tell you that on some trades, especially around the deadline, there just isn’t time to get everyone in on every offer and every detail.
That’s bull. You never pick up the phone and somebody says, “We’ll trade you so-and-so, you have five minutes to make the decision.” Because the next thing is, I need to go talk to my people, meaning the coach, the owner. You gotta get approval. General managers just don’t make all the decisions without running it by the owners. So if they run it by the owners, they’re certainly going to run it by the coach.
So just to be clear: You knew the Rudy trade was a three-way thing that was also going to bring back Prince — that it wasn’t only going to be the Toronto package?
Yes. I knew everything, like I said.
Are we ever going to see Darrell Arthur at small forward again in those super-big lineups?
No. That was only because we had injuries.
Have you thought about how crazy a first-round matchup with Denver would be — just almost from a funny contrast-of-styles perspective?
Oh, no. Every time we’ve played them, the game has been in the 80s and 90s, so … I’m just trying to get through the rest of the season, and trying to get our guys healthy and hopefully fresh as we go forward. Whatever matchup it is, you just have to go deal with it.
You know, around the Rudy trade, there was a lot of debate about whether your team is a real title contender — a legit contender, a fringe contender, not a contender at all, etc. What do you think? Can this team win the title?
I think we can. There are a number of teams that have the same goal. There’s not one dominant team, though Miami is playing the best right now.
Yeah, turns out they are pretty good.
That’s why I’m saying — they’re playing the best right now. But there have been times in the season they haven’t played well. I don’t think that they’re a superteam. I don’t think San Antonio is a superteam.
I’ve heard that you think players in the 1970s were better than players today.
I never said that.
OK: So, what did you say?
The question to me was whether the players today are better, and whether the players in the 1960s and 1970s couldn’t have played now. But I think there’s a lot of guys now that may not have been able to play then. There was a lot more structure, and a lot more movement of the ball and of players. There are a lot of bad defensive players in the NBA right now who probably would have been taken advantage of a lot more.
Yes, because the offenses were all movement. Now it’s a lot more isolation, isolation, isolation.
Don’t you think that’s starting to change now, with the way the rules allow for zone and all those Tom Thibodeau–style overloads — that teams have to put in motion and misdirection, and swing the ball all over the floor?
Of course, it’s starting to. But if you have shooters on the court it’s hard to overload, because you just skip the ball, and the guy shoots the ball. And there were guys like Fred Brown and Lou Hudson, and I could name a number of players, that would stand on the weak side and hope you would leave them open. And the guy who had the ball would hope you’d come help so they could just throw it to them. Today, we don’t have as many guys who are as willing to pass the ball quickly to an open man as there were then. The whole emphasis is on the iso, and one or two guys scoring all the points.
So perhaps it’s fair to say you think the game then was better, but maybe not the players?
The depth of athleticism now is better. The depth of basketball IQ, of competitiveness, of manliness, was better then.
Oh, there are a few men still in the league now. But guys then were playing for their living — playing for their families and their livelihoods. There are guys in the league now who don’t even care if they ever play, if they ever get off the bench.