Grizzlies are a mess despite Joerger's unexpected return
On paper, the Grizzlies look good. They are coming off a second straight 50-win season and are just one year removed from a trip to the Western Conference finals. They have the NBA's most enviable front court combination in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol and an underrated point guard in Mike Conley who gets better every year. They have a basketball-crazed owner in Robert Pera with deep pockets and a willingness to dig into them.
Sounds great, right? Well...
In truth, the Grizzlies are a mess. They have a coach, Dave Joerger, who wanted to be the coach, then didn't want to be the coach, then wanted to coach Minnesota, then, on Sunday, decided to come back and coach Memphis. They have an owner that hired Joerger, then wanted to fire him, then let him interview with Minnesota, then welcomed him back. They have no CEO, no assistant general manager and the front office is being run by a GM, Chris Wallace, who has not been involved in the day-to-day operations of the team for more than a year.
You got all that?
The genesis of the Joerger-Pera problems, according to league sources, dates back to last September. Pera -- who fancies himself a pretty good player -- challenged Tony Allen to a game of one-on-one. Allen, on Twitter, accepted. Pera, a Silicon Valley billionaire who bought a small controlling interest in the Grizzlies in 2012, poured tens of thousands of dollars into producing the matchup. He invited the media and instructed the public relations staff to issue a press release promoting the event.
The problem? Allen had lost interest. Joerger, a first-year head coach, didn't like the idea of the game -- like many in the organization he found it goofy and unbecoming of a professional team, according to sources -- but it was Allen's indifference that caused it to be called off. Yet Pera directed his frustration at Joerger and, according to a source, directed upper management to fire him.
Said a source familiar with the situation, "He absolutely wanted Dave out."
It was the first of several early season clashes between Joerger and Pera. When the Grizzlies opened the season 2-3 -- including double-digit defeats to Dallas and New Orleans -- Pera flew to Memphis and held individual meetings with players, sources say. He began offering bizarre suggestions. He suggested Mike Miller, a longtime Grizzlies player who was re-signed in the offseason, could become a player-coach. He brought up the idea that Joerger could wear an NFL-style headset and take instructions on the sideline. When the Grizzlies faced Golden State in early November, Pera insisted that Joerger give significant minutes to fourth-year power forward Ed Davis. Davis played just one. Again, according to sources, Pera insisted that Joerger had to go. Only after it was explained how dysfunctional the franchise would look if it fired a first year head coach six games into the season did Pera back down.
At the end of the season -- a season that conceivably could still be going on had Randolph not taken a swing at Oklahoma City's Steven Adams and been suspended for Game 7 of the Thunder-Grizzlies first round series -- Pera granted Joerger permission to interview for the Minnesota head coaching job, a clear sign that the relationship was fractured. You can't spin that, though the Grizzlies certainly tried. In a now infamous radio interview with longtime Memphis host Chris Vernon last week, general manager Chris Wallace, who was reinstated into a position of power after Pera fired CEO Jason Levien, said, in effect, that Joerger was being allowed to interview in with the Timberwolves because he was from Minnesota.
"Poor Chris," said an Eastern Conference G.M. "That couldn't have been his idea. If I asked my owner to interview for the same job in the city I grew up in, he would tell me to fu-- off."
So why is Joerger coming back? Depends on who you ask. Officially, two days of conversations between Pera and Joerger settled their differences. Pera declared on Twitter that he thinks Joerger is "a great coach." Joerger, in an interview with the Memphis Commercial-Appeal, said he and Pera "understand each other a lot better."
"What's between Robert and I now is like 'Wow.," Joerger told the paper. "This is how it's supposed to be. There's interaction and you talk about anything. This feels good."
Unofficially, there are several theories. Most prominent: The issue of compensation. The Grizzlies made it clear to Minnesota that they were not going to let Joerger go without compensation, according to a source, and the Timberwolves, well aware of the dysfunctional relationship between Joerger and Memphis, never believed the Grizzlies would welcome Joerger back. Another theory is that Joerger, perhaps leery of the rebuilding job a post-Kevin Love Wolves would be, thought two more 50-plus win seasons in Memphis -- well within reach if the team keeps the core intact -- would lead to better opportunities down the road.
Of course, bringing Joerger back only solves part of the problem. Memphis still needs to hire his boss. By deposing Levien and Director of Player Personnel Stu Lash, the Grizzlies are rudderless, relying on Wallace to prepare the team for the draft. Levien is an easy target. He ruffled some feathers in his days as an agent and made his share of enemies during failed plays for power in Sacramento in Philadelphia. In Memphis, his unceremonious dumping of franchise mainstays Tony Barone Sr. and Tony Barone Jr. irritated some people, as was his decision to push affable Wallace into a reduced role.
Yet Levien's dismissal was surprising. For two years, the relationship between Levien and Pera appeared to be solid. Levien was responsible for recruiting locally based minority owners in 2012 when stock in Pera's networking gear company, Ubiquiti Networks, plummeted, lowering his net worth from $1.5 billion to $850 million, according to Forbes. The decision to part ways with Lionel Hollins last year was controversial, but it's hardly unusual for a new top executive to want to hire a new coach.
It's unclear what specifically caused the rift between Levien and Pera. The relationship began to get chilly during the season, sources say. But Levien -- along with Lash and Vice President of Operations John Hollinger -- were with Pera at the predraft combine in Chicago. Levien represented the Grizzlies at the general managers meetings and, along with Pera, interviewed prospective draft picks.
From there, things deteriorated quickly. When Levien returned to Memphis he was asked by Pera, through a lawyer, to resign. According to a source, Levien was asked to say he needed to spend more time with his family and focus on DC United, the MLS franchise of which Levien is a part owner. When Levien refused, he was fired.
Pera -- who did not respond to a request for an interview by SI.com -- said on Twitter that the search for a new top exec would begin immediately, and that Wallace, incredibly, would be among the candidates considered. David Mincberg, an attorney with the team, has risen to an influential position in Pera's inner circle, according to sources. Ironically, during the Grizzlies early season skid Mincberg strongly advocated replacing Joerger, sources say.
This is Pera's mess to clean up now. There is a lot to like about Pera. He's a passionate owner who badly wants to win. But he lacks an understanding of how to run a team. Pera wants to have a more hands on approach with the Grizzlies going forward, but he won't have an easy time finding a competent GM willing to accept that. Mark Cuban is the NBA's most visible owner but Cuban has a strong top executive in Donnie Nelson and an elite head coach in Rick Carlisle. Cuban has input -- as all owners should -- but he empowers the people he hired to do their jobs.
The Grizzlies have some critical decisions to make. They have the 22nd overall pick in a talent-rich draft and a desperate need for perimeter help. They need to a scoring guard to supplement Courtney Lee and a small forward to replace Tayshaun Prince, who has one year left on his contract. They may need to negotiate a long term deal with Randolph, who can opt-out of the final year of his contract this summer. Memphis is at a crossroads, and more than anything the team needs a strong, experienced voice to lead them.