Imagine being a first-year head coach in the NBA and being just a late surge away from a 50-win season. Pretty awesome, right? Now imagine that even if you do get there, you might still miss the playoffs and disappoint your die-hard fan base.
Such is the potential fate facing Memphis head coach Dave Joerger, whose Grizzlies were in a three-way tie for the No. 8 spot in the West heading into Friday's game against the Nuggets.
The other coaching figures in this ridiculously entertaining three-team battle are familiar figures. One is a former All-Star (Suns' Jeff Hornacek) and the other has led his team to an NBA title (Mavericks' Rick Carlisle). Joerger, on the other hand, is a human litmus test for NBA fandom. If you can A) spell his name correctly on the first try, B) pronounce it right on the first try and C) list one thing -- anything -- about his background, then you are either a hardcore fan or you work for the Grizzlies.
Not that you should feel bad about it. In some respects, Joerger (pronounced "YAY-gur") is representative of an ongoing shift in the NBA coaching ranks. Whereas once the league was full of larger-than-life personalities like Don Nelson, Phil Jackson, Pat Riley, George Karl and those lovably self-loathing Van Gundys, the new era of coach follows the Scott Brooks model of personality. Which is to say, he doesn't have one. Or at least not one that he displays to the outside world. So we get the measured, thoughtful, hard-working Erik Spoelstra, and the measured, thoughtful, hard-working Brad Stevens and the measured, hard-nosed, hard-working Mike Malone and, well, you get the idea.
This shift is due in part to the new breed of NBA GM, one who favors analytics and "system" coaches. It's also a product of an ever-increasing focus on star players. Gone are the days when a coach overshadowed a top-10 NBA talent. Today's young coach needs to be adaptable, adept at communication and versed in statistics.
Joerger is all three. He's also an excellent defensive mind (despite the fact that he prefers coaching offense), an elite tennis player (a state champ in high school) and surprisingly affable in person. This last quality came in particularly handy last June.
Perhaps you recall the situation. The Grizzlies won a team record 56 games and went to the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history. After which the team chose not to re-sign the coach who led them there (Lionel Hollins, beloved in the community). Instead, Memphis hired Hollins' young, no-name assistant (Joerger).
It was a daunting situation to walk into, but one Joerger had been preparing for for two decades.
It takes a certain type of 22-year-old basketball player to decide, during his senior year of college, that what he wants is to work for a semi-pro team in his free time. For free.
That's what Joerger did in his final year at Moorhead State, pleading his way into a volunteer assistant gig with the vaunted Fargo-Moorhead Beez of the International Basketball Association.
Growing up in the tiny town of Staples, Minnesota (population 2,981), Joerger grew up marinating in the game. His dad coached the girls team at Staples-Motley High and at night Dave watched VHS tapes of upcoming opponents with this father, a charismatic man with a penchant for both X-and-O's and film study ("I inherited the former and I do the second because it's mandatory," Dave said with a laugh) . That's where Joerger learned the difference between turnovers and forced turnovers, the value of charting deflections and other small but crucial elements of coaching.
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At Moorhead State, Joerger played point guard. A good shooter, his specialty was "(trying) not to make a mistake and then throw the ball to those who could score it." During his senior year he shuttled from team workouts to Beez practices, a scrawny college kid trying to help grown men chase their pro hoops dreams.
After graduating, Joerger networked his way into an unlikely gig for a guy in his early twenties: General manager and assistant coach of the Dakota Wizards, another IBA team. It led to some interesting duties. Sometimes Joerger had to leave in-game huddles to address a sponsorship question, then hurry back to help draw up a play. He sold tickets before games, signed and cut players older than him.
Over the next ten years, Joerger hopped from one semi-pro team to the next as a head coach: the Cedar Rapids River Raiders, the Sioux Falls Sky Force, then back to the Dakota Wizards. Everywhere he went, Joerger succeeded, winning one title with the Sky Force and four with the Wizards (who ended up moving from the IBA to the CBA to the D-League). In all, Joerger had 18 players called up to the NBA and won more minor league titles than Phil Jackson, Flip Saunders, George Karl and Eric Musselman combined.
It was at one of his early stops, roughly a dozen years ago, that Joerger first met Jason Levien, then an NBA agent. During one summer league, Levien overhead Joerger as he tried to sell guys who were making good money in Europe to come play in the IBA. In Bismarck no less. Levien was impressed with Joerger's confidence, and the two ended up sitting next to each other for four days, talking about the game.
From the start, Joerger took the long view. He left the Wizards on purpose, to prove that his success wasn't a factor of the team. Every year, he wheedled his way into NBA training camps to watch his heroes work, men like George Karl and Flip Saunders and his idol, Gregg Popovich. Men who, as Joerger puts it, "I thought had the secret sauce." Joerger didn't look to join just any camp, though. "I tried to go when those guys had not many returnees back," he says, giving an example of watching Saunders when he first had Latrell Sprewell and Sam Cassell in Minnesota. "A coach who's had his team together calls out a drill and everybody goes and does it. But to watch those guys teach and put it all together? That was where you really learned."
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Joerger took notes and looked for the small epiphanies that coaching provides. He describes watching a Rick Carlisle practice. "The players don't really know why they're doing [a drill] but they're working on something, then they move to something else and they really don't know why they're working on it." Joerger pauses. "And then the third thing comes around and it ties the whole thing together, and then the players have that a-ha moment."
It was during one of these training camp visits, in 2005 with the Suns, that Joerger met Mike Iavaroni, then an assistant to Mike D'Antoni. Two years later, when Iavaroni got the Memphis job, he hired Joerger as an assistant. Joerger, by then married and soon to have two daughters, was ecstatic. The family moved to Memphis, intent on putting down roots.
Though considered brash by some in the minor leagues, Joerger put his head down and worked hard with the Grizzlies. When the team needed help with its defense, Joerger volunteered. Though he'd spent his career obsessing over offense -- "I love offense. Defense? I like it," he said -- he was well-versed in D. After all, when you coach in the minors, there are no coordinators.
Steadily, the Grizzlies' D improved, from 25th in efficiency (in 2009-10, the season before Joerger took it over) to ninth (in 2010-11) to seventh (2011-2) to second last season. Memphis' defensive success is due in part to its personnel, in particular Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, but also to Joerger's schemes.
In 2012, Robert Pera purchased the Grizzlies and brought in an old friend, Levien, as his general manager. Levien remembered Joerger, and was impressed by his rise and attention to detail. In June, after a search, he made Joerger the new Grizzlies coach.
Joerger's first season has been challenging. His best player, Gasol, went down 12 games into the season and was sidelined almost two months. The Grizzlies had a tough time adapting to Joerger's revamped offense, too. For most of the season, they looked likely to miss the playoffs. Then, over the last three months, the team posted one of the best records in the league (31-14 since New Year's Day) to enter the postseason hunt. Throughout, Joerger has remained as even-keeled as can be expected.
Sitting on a couch at a San Francisco hotel on a recent weekday, fresh off a 3 a.m. arrival after a grind-it-out win against Utah the night before, and in advance of a game that night against the Warriors, Joerger is surprisingly upbeat for a man working on four hours sleep (upon arriving the night before, he decided to watch the final six minutes of the Utah game again). Or perhaps it's just that he's excited about the massage he has scheduled half an hour hence.
Speaking about the Grizzlies' season, Joerger takes the blame for the early problems with the offense, which asked players to read-and-react, making plays in a motion-based offense designed to be less predictable. "I didn't put in a new offense per se," he said. "I was trying to put in a new atmosphere. San Antonio has such a nice system and the ball moves and they play off of their three guys but all the role players maximize their capabilities. That's what I was trying to do. I thought that if we're going to be an elite team and beat elite teams that have been game-planning for years against Zach and Marc and Mike and know our strengths and weaknesses as a team, we have to make our other two or three guys maximize their abilities."
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The problem was that the ball movement led to players taking too many liberties, which led to turnovers. "We just tried to use it as a tool so we can move, move, move the defense so they can't scheme us so well so that when we do go in there [to the post], which should be every time, they got room to work." Joerger pauses. "Either I didn't sell it well or didn't teach it well, I'll take whatever hit it is. And then we finally get it and -- boom! -- Marc goes down."
That led to a prolonged slump. Worse, the Grizzlies struggled at home at their vaunted "Grindhouse." Joerger was concerned, knowing they'd not only have to make up the wins on the back side of the schedule, but on the road. "We were just trying to survive. There were a couple weeks where it was all low points."
As an assistant, Joerger had earned a reputation for being both well-liked and a positive guy. As the team struggled, some wondered if he was too nice. After all, Memphis had a good group of guys but strong personalities. Tony Allen is gritty but mercurial. Randolph has a huge personality. Tayshaun Prince is a classy guy but on the back nine of his career; a once-brilliant player now mired in a shooting slump. Joerger couldn't afford to lose those guys.
Then, early in the season, Quincy Pondexter, a fiery reserve, got into it with Joerger. Words were exchanged on the bench. Pondexter was mad he wasn't getting enough run. Joerger was at a crossroads. Be the nice guy or lay down the law? In the end, he handled it internally, for the most part. He feels it was a crucial decision. "If I'd been a A-hole about it, it would have been really bad. I did what I thought needed to be done and I did what was best for the team. That's always the litmus test. I could have done something bad if I'd overreacted."
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As the weeks went on and the losses continued, Joerger tried to maintain course. "It was really tough. You just keep reminding yourself that if you're going to come in and be a negative guy, these guys are going to feel that. And it's going to reflect the next 60 games that you spend with these guys. It's really a test [of me as a coach]." His approach, he says, was, We're not great right now but how are we going to get through this and get better? "I don't know if I was good or not, but right now our chemistry is as good as it's ever been, in the six years I've been here. We have good leadership, they like each other, play for each other and I think that I could have gone about wrecking that. If I had would have spazzed out, it could have wrecked all that."
Eventually, Joerger turned the focus back to the defense and, after sputtering early, the Grizzlies were in the top five in points allowed during March (they're now top-ten for the season in points allowed per possession). As Joerger puts it, "Defense is what's best for this team. It's what helps us win. And I know that."
Now, with only a week or so left in the season, the margins are thin. Talk all you want about culture and big picture schemes but these games are all that matter, and they are won by the players, and the coaches.
Joerger knows this. He tries to ignore the criticism. That the offense is too slow. Too predictable. That he's not creative with his play-calling (according to the Grizzlies' internal stats, Joerger is in the top 5 in the league in effectiveness after timeouts).
The goal remains larger. On plane rides, he talks to the front office about continuing to create a basketball culture over the summer. He wants to build something. But he also needs to win now.
So he sits and dreams up plays. His greatest thrill comes, he says, when he can predict what an opponent is able to do. But he also understands outcomes are all that matters now, not process. The night before, against the Jazz, he drew up a late-game play that failed miserably, by most counts. "We didn't' execute it well, I didn't draw it up very well. We've got guys all over the place and then Zach hits a J." Joerger laughs "And nobody remembers that I didn't draw up a very good play."
Which is to say, for now, Joerger is happy to win ugly.