Three weeks ago, the Memphis Grizzlies were in the midst of giving soon-to-be-crowned MVP Kevin Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder fits in a knock-down, drag-out seven-game first-round series, helping remind us all that in the Western Conference, there wasn't nearly as much difference between a No. 2 seed and a No. 7 seed as you might think. (In some cases, it's just an unfortunate suspension.) Now, though, what looked like a strong contending team with a talented core, a defined identity, a meat-grinder defense and a promising head coach has become a team in turmoil ... and the next person out the door might be that coach. (So much for promise, I guess.)
Two days after the Grizzlies fired CEO Jason Levien and director of player personnel Stu Lash in a front-office shakeup seemingly born out of a long-developing rift between Levien and controlling owner Robert Pera, Memphis has reportedly granted the Minnesota Timberwolves permission to interview Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger for the coaching vacancy created when Rick Adelman stepped down last month. The interview will "probably [happen] by the end of the week," a league source tells Jerry Zgoda of the Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Joerger grew up in Staples, Minn., and goes way back with Wolves president of basketball operations Flip Saunders.
Joerger as a young coach nearly 20 years ago often attended Flip's Wolves practices at Target Center and took notes. [...]
Bottom line, according to the source: Joerger wants out and Grizzlies ownership wants him out, but Joerger doesn't want to leave the rest of his multi-year contract on the table and the team doesn't want to pay him off.
Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski reports that Joerger and the Wolves will meet "within [the] next 24 hours."
Whether due to the pre-existing relationship with Saunders or not, the Wolves' interest in Joerger apparently predated Memphis' reshuffling, according to Grizzlies sideline reporter Rob Fischer.
The 40-year-old Joerger is a coaching lifer who's been on benches in one form or another since 1997, winning five championships in seven seasons as a head coach in the minor leagues of American basketball (including the D-League) before joining the Grizz as an assistant in 2007. In that role, he's been credited with helping develop the stifling scheme that has made Memphis a top-10 defense in each of the last five years.
When "major philosophical differences" led the Grizzlies' new ownership, with Pera leading the way, and front-office group, with the trio of Levien, Lash and former ESPN.com writer John Hollinger at the helm, to move on from Lionel Hollins after a franchise-record 56 wins and Western Conference finals berth in 2012-13, they elevated Joerger to the top spot, handing him a four-year deal reportedly worth nearly $8 million. After a rocky 13-17 start to his first year as an NBA head coach that saw the Marc Gasol-and-Zach Randolph-led Grizz struggle somewhat to adapt to the faster tempo at which Joerger wanted the team to play, Memphis finished strong, working through injuries to key contributors Gasol, Quincy Pondexter, Tony Allen and Mike Conley to finish with 50 wins and a fourth straight postseason berth.
While it's true that the Grizzlies won six fewer games and exited the playoffs two rounds earlier under Joerger than in Hollins' final year, it's also worth noting that Gasol played 80 games in 2012-13 and just 59 in '13-'14, thanks to a late-November sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee. Memphis went 40-19 with Gasol on the court this past season, a .678 winning percentage that would've placed them fourth in the brutal West over the course of the full season, and had the NBA's second-stingiest defense after Gasol's mid-January return to the court. Plus, the offensive tweaks that led to early-season growing pains wound up working — Memphis finished 16th among 30 NBA teams in points scored per possession this season, just south of the middle-of-the-pack Atlanta Hawks, their best finish in four years.
After Monday's firings and reorganizations, former and future Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said Joerger would remain the team's coach and that the palace intrigue had "nothing to do with Dave." Be that as it may, multiple sources — including those talking to ESPN.com's Marc Stein, who first reported the unrest of Monday — have said that Pera considered jettisoning Joerger, at least briefly, amid that subpar 13-17 start. Reports surrounding the unrest in Memphis often reference a possible power play by David Mincberg, who had been the team's general counsel but had reportedly pushed for more say on the basketball operations side of the house and appears to have gotten it. This, it seems, wouldn't bode well for Joerger:
Mincberg and Joerger hate each other
— Geoff Calkins (@geoff_calkins) May 21, 2014
So there's that.
Just how attractive the Minnesota job is would seem to depend largely on how long the Timberwolves will employ All-Star power forward Kevin Love, which, at this stage, seems very much an open question. Still, given roiling chaos that seems to signal Pera's rise as the NBA's newest pound-foolish meddling billionaire and the brand of controlling owner who makes big sweeping decisions that come as a total shock to "the people who own the other 80 percent of your basketball team", the evident establishment of an organizational culture in which job security is a punchline, and a total up-top upheaval that adds even more uncertainty to a franchise already facing major on-court decisions this offseason, maybe it's not entirely crazy to consider the Wolves' gig a more stable prospect than the Grizzlies' at this stage. That, in an of itself, is pretty freakin' crazy.
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