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.
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.