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Joerger? Good riddance. Which coach should the Timberwolves target now?

David Joerger
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
On Sunday, Dave Joerger ended a whirlwind, weeklong courtship by announcing that he would remain in Memphis.

Let me begin by thanking readers for their forbearance as I took two months off from this column to attend to my father’s failing health and eventual death.

Obviously a lot has happened in and around the Minnesota Timberwolves organization since then. During the offseason I’ll be catching up with analysis of what the 2013-14 campaign taught us about the current pros and cons of next year’s roster, the shifting options in the ongoing Kevin Love saga, and the various personnel changes that will likely begin with next month’s college draft.

But first let’s address the Wolves-related headlines that erupted over Memorial Day weekend — the botched wooing of Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger as a replacement for Rick Adelman, who resigned as Minnesota’s coach in April. On Sunday, Joerger ended a whirlwind, weeklong courtship by announcing that he would remain in Memphis.

After a decade out of the NBA playoffs — a stint pockmarked by questionable hires for the front office and coaching staff alike, leading to wretched judgment in choosing lottery draft picks — it’s understandable for jaded Wolves fans to feel like owner Glen Taylor and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders were played for saps in this process.

Maybe they were. Joerger’s flirtation with the Wolves’ job reportedly yielded a bump in pay from his current employer. And to the extent that the playoff drought and Love’s uncertain status makes the Wolves coaching vacancy unattractive to prospective candidates, Taylor, and to a lesser extent Saunders, is culpable for Joerger’s decision to remain with the Grizzlies.

But for a welcome change, the Wolves were by far the least dysfunctional partner in this ill-fated dance.

Crazy Grizzlies

It was just a week ago today that Grizzlies owner Robert Pera summarily fired Joerger’s patron saint, CEO Jason Levien. Less than a year ago, Levien deposed then-head coach Lionel Hollins after the most successful season in the history of the Grizzlies franchise and installed Joerger, Hollins’ longtime assistant, in his stead.

Various reports have alleged that Pera wanted to fire Joerger a mere six games into his rookie season. Pera reportedly interviewed players behind Joerger’s back during the course of the season, came into the locker room making suggestions about who Joerger should and shouldn’t play, and broached the idea of a Joerger wearing a headset for instructions from higher-ups in the organization.

If all that wasn’t enough, after firing Levien, Pera granted the Wolves’ request to interview Joerger for the Minnesota job.

Throughout the past week, stories were teased out by the Wolves’ daily beat writers that made it seem as if a Joerger hire was both serendipitous and inevitable. Like Saunders, he came up the hard way as a non-NBA player who drew attention through extraordinary results coaching in the minor-league CBA. Indeed, Joerger recalled attending camps and practices run by Saunders and gushed about Flip’s influence on his own coaching style to the Minnesota media.

For the notoriously provincial Taylor, it was noted that Joerger hails from Staples, Minnesota, graduated from the MNSCU system in Moorhead and had a younger brother graduate from Mankato State, where Taylor has been a huge hometown benefactor.

Other factors promised an attractive fit. As an assistant coach in Memphis, Joerger was largely responsible for building the Grizzlies’ top-rated defense, a side of the ball where the Wolves need the most guidance and improvement. Joerger is also a fairly adaptable coach, without a strict “system” or personality trait, which would enable him to adjust to either end of the wildly divergent scenarios of Love staying or being traded from the Wolves.

And while he is just 40 years old, Joerger’s 50-victory season last year satisfies Saunders’ criteria of hiring a coach with “winning experience.”

All this was spooled out while the Wolves and Joerger went through their paces, including extensive individual interviews by the candidate with Saunders and then Taylor on Thursday and Saturday, respectively.

On Sunday, Joerger’s agent dropped the bombshell: He was staying with Memphis after all. Reports filtered out that Pera had reached out to Joerger on Saturday night, sweetening his contract and presumably convincing him that the meddlesome ogre who wanted him gone just six months ago was now fully in his corner and committed to winning.

Some reports have tried to spin this last-minute reversal as a consequence of a squabble over how the Wolves would compensate Memphis for releasing Joerger from his contract. Apparently, Memphis was holding out for a switch in the order of the team’s first-round draft picks, with the Grizzlies moving up nine spots from their 22nd position; or, failing that, receiving one or more of Minnesota’s three second-round picks.

Minnesota quite sensibly wondered why they would pay the Grizzlies anything for a coach widely expected to be fired while being owed millions of dollars for the two years left on the deal. By hiring Joerger, the Wolves would spare Pera that payout. In any case, it seems absurd that Memphis would re-recruit Joerger back into the fold out of spite, given the relatively small stakes involved.

But Joerger’s change of heart is equally absurd.

Pera is a brash, youthful billionaire accustomed to getting what he wants — and being directly involved in his business enterprises. That it merely took a couple of “heartfelt conversations” to flip Joerger — the current spin is that his patron saint Levien was actually a barrier to he and Pera getting to know each other and building a trustworthy relationship — indicates that he is either a conniving careerist who was two-faced in his ardor for the Wolves’ job with Saunders and Taylor, or naïve about the promised perks and leverage he’ll enjoy remaining in Memphis. Neither trait makes him a good fit for the travails of leading the Wolves over the next few years. Good riddance. 

A potentially damaging uncertainty

As stated earlier, although Joerger and Pera were the ringmasters of the dysfunction that engulfed the Wolves’ coaching search over the past week, the franchise is not without blame or consequence. After all, Joerger is a promising young coach who was dared to walk away from an unsupportive job environment, had seemingly cordial and productive interviews with Taylor and Saunders, and yet was too-easily sweet-talked out of coming to the Wolves once it was time to make the decision.

One large potential stumbling block in any conversations with a prospective coach would be indecision over what to do with Kevin Love. Purposefully leaked reports of Love’s determination to exercise his option and become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season puts pressure on the franchise to formulate contingency plans.

Right now, reading the tea leaves, it seems clear that Taylor is resistant to trading Love anytime soon, while Saunders and perhaps other members of the front office fear the consequences of letting Love walk without getting anything in return. That type of indecision over one of the top five or six players in the game would make most any coaching candidate leery about the solidity of the organization he is entrusting with the next stage of his career.

Who should be next?

If I were conducting the coaching search, I would envision their performance on a team without Love.

I would want someone with enough stature or connection to the franchise to command respect from the players, someone who pays more than lip service to playing quality defense, and someone who embraces the value of analytics and supplements it with quality scouting and a commitment to teaching. I’d want a coach who can open up the floor for Ricky Rubio while demanding that he work on the mechanics of his shot, with a pronounced emphasis on three-pointers. The coach would be a disciplinarian unafraid to levy warnings and then deprive minutes in response to bad habits, be it Corey Brewer’s shot selection or Kevin Martin’s disgusting defensive effort.

There are a number of coaching candidates who fit enough of those criteria to merit consideration. Three haven’t been mentioned too often, if at all, in other media.

Without having a clue as to their availability or desire to take the job, they include current Clippers assistant and former Suns and Clippers head coach Alvin Gentry; current Toronto assistant and former Wolves assistant Bill Bayno; and current Chicago assistant and former Wolves assistant Ed Pinckney.

I was very impressed with the job Gentry did in Phoenix, especially getting Amar’e Stoudemire to play the best two-way basketball of his career. Gentry has been rumored to be under consideration for the Lakers job.

I have been accused of over-promoting the job Bayno did with the Wolves defense two seasons ago, but he has the trust of both Nikola Pekovic and Rubio arguably the two keys to defensive improvement on the existing roster for next season. The glitch is that Bayno has said that a head coaching job might burn him out or steer him back toward chemical dependency. Pinckney is known for his exceptional preparation and has the kind of quiet, strong demeanor that would fit with this roster.

Who will be next?

Those who assiduously cultivate sources within the Wolves brain trust are in a consensus that the current favorite to succeed Adelman is former Toronto coach and original Timberwolf player Sam Mitchell.

Mitchell was the NBA 2007 Coach of the Year after engineering a 20-win improvement for the Raptors in his third season on the job. But his reputation as a coach is also heavily weighted by confrontations with his point guard, Rafer Alston, which reduced Alston to tears.

Mitchell gradually, but not dramatically, improved Toronto’s defense, although with relatively the same personnel the team plummeted to last in defensive efficiency two years in a row after he was fired.

Probably of most concern is that Mitchell hasn’t been a head coach in five years or worked an NBA sideline as an assistant for three years. His regard for analytics is unknown, but given his old school proclivities, I wouldn’t expect a hearty embrace of advanced numbers.

Mitchell is a disciplinarian, however, and personally close to both Taylor and Saunders. The Joerger fiasco may, if anything, make Taylor even more provincial in his hiring decisions — if you can’t trust a kid from Staples with a Mankato State diploma in the family history, you can trust someone you have known and liked for decades, a peer of the Saunders-McHale era.

The other candidates most often mentioned include Hollins and former Bucks coach Scott Skiles. Both are stern taskmasters, something that is obviously a high priority for Taylor, who told me that he believed Adelman was too easy on the troops last season. But will Hollins, who had an informal interview, accept another inquiry in the wake of the flirtation with Joerger, with whom he sparred after Joerger succeeded him in Memphis?

As for Skiles, he is a poor man’s Tom Thibodeau type, a brilliant motivator and defensive specialist who, unlike Thibs thus far, tends to wear out his welcome after a few seasons.

One final comment about the next coach: He will have very interesting shoes to fill following Rick Adelman. There is no question that Adelman’s Hall of Fame credentials are legitimate, or that he is (was?) an offensive mastermind who also, on balance for his career, was underrated as a defensive tactician. In terms of reputation, of speaking with the authority of past accomplishment, Adelman will be hard to replace.

But Rick Adelman did not have a good year of coaching last season. He was distracted by his wife’s health, worn down by the travel and tired of the losing, which occurred more often than his teams in Portland, Sacramento and Houston.

More specifically, Adelman lost the knack of substituting by intuition. For most of his career, his ability to come up with the right bench component provided an unexpected elixir to his troops. Last season, his stubborn decision to ride with J.J. Barea, especially at crunch time and in the fourth quarter, was an unmitigated disaster on many levels — and his determination to play Love throughout the third quarter and rest him early in the final stanza only added fuel to that fire.

Adelman didn’t practice enough, especially on defense, and it showed during games. And Taylor is right in that he didn’t challenge his players enough.

For all of these reasons, the next coach has a shot at improving on last year’s performance. But there is a long way to go before the opening tip of the 2014-15 season. It will be fun contemplating — and writing about — the changes as they occur this summer and early autumn. 

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Comments (9)

Tough position for Wolves

No one we can hire will have the pedigree of Rick Adelman. No coach is going to stop Kevin Love from leaving, or stop the Wolves form getting pennies on the dollar for him. Yet the optimist in me knows that a fresh outlook can create something beautiful with our seemingly mismatched color palette. Even without Kevin Love, whose all-around play I will sorely miss, there are plenty of bright spots for this team. A good coach should be able to capitalize on strengths and gloss over disadvantages; both Joerger and Lionel Hollins did this very well considering the Grizzlies' starting swingmen for the last two seasons were 30+ and couldn't shoot.

As for potential coaches, I also think the Wolves braintrust is going to lean toward Mitchell, though I'm not completely sold on him. I just don't see Saunders reaching too far out of his comfort zone to get a head coach, which was why it seemed too good to be true that Joerger was falling into our lap. I'll admit that Mitchell did some great things with middling personnel in Toronto, but I don't know enough about his style to say whether he'd be a good fit here. The potential aversion to advanced analytics is also a negative here, though not a deal breaker.

My preferred candidates? I'd actually start by considering the only decent TV playoff commentators in Mark Jackson and Jeff Van Gundy. I didn't really understand the Jackson firing, and JVG has coached 11 seasons and only missed the playoffs twice. (I assume that JVG has no desire to coach, or he'd have taken a job long ago, right?) I'm also open to Lionel Hollins as well as Fred Hoiberg.

Obviously the next coach of this team is going to have an impact on the personnel and vice versa, and I'd like to have a coach that can put our players in a position to succeed without relying on a superstar to carry the load. I think Indiana has proven that it's possible to win by asking the right things of the right players, and I think that's a system that can work here too.

My condolences

I lost my mother just a year ago to ovarian cancer, and there isn't a deadline I wouldn't have missed to have spent more time with her.

You were missed, but family is more important.

Welcome back

Flip's logic (veteran coach but no contact with George Karl, college coaches and guys out of the league for 3 years are better candidates than current assistants) baffles me. I get that adding a name coach may have been to sway Love into staying, but that's such flawed logic, since getting a great coach (regardless of experience) who gets the team to win would be much more important to keeping Love if they have a chance and want to do so. Also, so many promoted assistants have been good right away and brought understanding of how the game is best played today. Their best chance of getting a potentially very good coach who would actually take the job and could stand the post-Love lumps this franchise will take is by giving the job to a great assistant.

Because I have a history of Staples from high school, I have a natural distrust of it, but Joerger (someone I saw play, along with his brothers) was the one name who gave me hope that they'll recover from trading Love because his credentials far outweighed any favoritism.

I am very concerned about what a Mitchell hire would do. It's the one guy I didn't want them to hire the last time around (with this and taking Shabazz, it's like they're trolling me) because it's a strong sign of the infamous "country club" mentality. There's no sense that he's anything but a mediocre "old school" coach with none of the success of guys who could justify being that way (Phil Jackson, Adelman, Karl, even Flip) who would seemingly have a longer rope than other coaches in a similar situation.

Though I appreciate the way Taylor handles the arena situation and the fact that the team's still here, it's amazing that he's learned little to nothing from past mistakes. He's a well-liked, open person, but hearing his opinions and based on hearsay in other areas, I don't know if he's delusional or truly isn't good at figuring out how be a successful franchise on and off the court.

Glen Taylor

I don't know if it's the case here, but I do wonder if Taylor's peculiar ways of running this organization played any role in Joerger's abrupt about-face Saturday night? Did Taylor want to control Joerger's staff (i.e. hire Sam Mitchell)? A low-ball contract offer? This feels a bit like the Dennis Lindsey situation, where he bolted in a hurry after seeing the operation up close. One can only hope this doesn't lead us to a David Kahn-like downgrade in the quality of person ultimately hired.

If George Karl is interested in the Wolves job, I'm not sure why you wouldn't at least talk to him.

One point

that I think a lot of people miss - when push came to shove - Joerger really has no choice in this matter. He is under contract. Fully enforceable. He could only come if Pera let him. And, when it became clear Pera had changed his mind, Joerger did the only logical thing. Lock in as much money as he could when his owner had a change of heart.

Because, deep down, I'm sure Joerger knows he is going to be fired - far more likely sooner than later. Might as well maximize what he can get now so he can take his time in his next HC job.

Replying to everybody from yesterday

Hey folks--

Thanks as always for the feedback. As you know, I crave intelligent commentary and responses in the comment section always make my day and inspire me to write more often. Yesterday was crazy, so this will have to do a day-late, lengthy reply.

Jackson didn't seem like a "team player" with management. The fact that he was a pass-first point guard may be beneficial with Rubio, but not sure he'd be overjoyed with Wolves after stint in talent rich (especially shooting rich) Golden State. JVG may be too far gone from the sidelines to be effective; he also doesn't seem analytics-friendly.
Mark--I in turn am not sorry, but empathetic, with your loss. After my mother died, I found some of my most pang-filled grief occurring many weeks and months after her passing, and I'm sure you experience these moments as frequently now as I do over my dad, where things are still very fresh and numb-inducing. But thanks for the sentiments--I share your priorities.
PSR--I like Karl a lot but knowing both of them a little bit I don't think he and Taylor are a good match. It doesn't surprise me that he's not in the mix. Karl is a little too free-wheeling and carefree for Glen's mien. The "country club" thing is certainly a shadow on Mitchell among longtime Wolves-watchers. The clubbiness doesn't concern me as much as Mitchell being such an old school straight arrow. That said, I think the pro-analytics crowd is pushing back too hard on him--he was one of the smartest players back in the day, wringing the most out of his ability in a variety of ways. That doesn't always transfer, and Mitchell can be prickly, but aside from Chris Bosh, he had nothing to work with in Toronto. He obviously isn't my first choice, but I don't think he's the devil's spawn either. As for Taylor, I see and appreciate the flaws. I have a soft spot for the guy anyway, in part because I've gotten to see a lot of live basketball because of his intervention, because he has generally been willing to underwrite attempts to improve the team, and because he has a knack of providing me with wonderfully candid material whenever I interview him.
Sean and Tim--Your responses present two sides of the coin and both have some merit. Yes, Sean, it is possible that either Taylor or Flip said something that gave Joerger great pause. Or, I suspect, the lack of consense or indecision on the Love situation was the red flag. As for Joerger's hands being tied, Tim, I'm less convinced about that. Remember, Pera said he wanted to make sure Joerger was 100% committed to Memphis. Joerger could have told him to stick it when they talked, that he was tired of the meddling and wanted to move on, then dared him to keep him on for two more years anyway. Put simply, I think Joerger could have forced his way out if he really wanted. But he really didn't, and thus must see what awaits him in Memphis.

Not sure if you have any info on this

4 years ago, they interviewed Dennis Lindsey (formerly a Spurs lieutenant and now the top decision-maker in Utah), who apparently pulled himself out of the running because his suggestions for changing the front office weren't warmly received. Jerry Zgoda tweeted a few years ago that the reason Kahn was hired was mainly because he was willing to trade Jefferson, which seems like a decision that should be left up to the guy paid to make them. Basically, what I see is a guy willing to pay up for established players when it'd lead to success but unwilling to develop an infrastructure that would help them find cheap talent and properly develop that talent into productive players, which would not only be cheaper than paying $5 million per to guys like Brewer and Budinger but also make success easier to achieve in the first place and easier to sustain. Again, I'm glad the Wolves are still here and that he's kept this team around; I just want to have a higher standard for management than that.

Long Forgotten Point

I've not heard this mentioned but Joerger is a second year coach, IF he were to jump ship to MN, in three years, he most likely goes from a successful young coach to a retread with a horrible W and L record in the Wittman mold. This is a story with a lot of different angles and interests, but this cannot be overlooked. How many of you would take such a professional risk?

Mr. Sonic

Another name I'd like them to consider is Nate McMillan (currently an assistant with the Pacers). I think he'd check a lot of key boxes for sevaral people (Taylor, Flip, fellow kleptomaniac guard Rubio, hell, even his time with the London USA team could maybe help with Love, though probably not).

And of course, as a guy who had a hand in building Portland into a near-model franchise after the Jailblazer days, he's proven he can handle roster rebuilds and culture re-boots.

He's very sharp, very respected. Plus, during his sabbatical from the league last season, instead of going on cable tv, he traveled abroad with his wife. In my book, that makes him more interesting than most.