NEW YORK -- They seemed like the perfect fit: The coach, Lionel Hollins, unceremoniously dumped just weeks after taking his team to the Western Conference finals a year ago, and the general manager, Billy King, still trying to wrap his head around being coldly end-run by a neophyte coach he hired, defended and stood by throughout a tumultuous season. And it didn’t take long for them to feel the same way. Over a three-hour dinner at a Manhattan steakhouse last week, Hollins and King, flanked by Nets assistant general managers Frank Zanin and Bobby Marks, forged a friendly relationship. The next day, during a five-hour interview at the team’s practice facility, the two found plenty of common ground with their basketball philosophies, too.
“When you threw questions at him, he had answers for them,” King said. “His wealth of knowledge was impressive.”
And so begins a new era of Nets basketball, the Lionel Hollins era, one Brooklyn hopes will be infinitely smoother than the one it just endured. There are still hard feelings between King and recently departed coach Jason Kidd -- about the way Kidd tried to undercut King with ownership, about how Kidd used Milwaukee as leverage, about how Kidd, after a season that began with him looking clueless on the sidelines and ended being badly outcoached by Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, could dump on the team that stood by him -- but King won’t go there publicly. Instead, he looks to the future with the hope that a new coach will be able to harness the fast-fading talent of an aging roster.
In Hollins, the Nets see a coach with obvious strengths. In Memphis, Hollins masterfully managed one of the league’s most challenging locker rooms, controlling oversized personalities and high-maintenance players like Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Tony Allen. Those abilities will be useful in Brooklyn, where the Nets have flooded the roster with veteran alpha males.
More important, King saw something else: a winner. Hollins won at least 56 percent of his games the last three seasons at Memphis, finishing a seven-year run with the Grizzlies -- split over two different coaching stints -- with a 56-win season and a trip to the conference finals. When adversity struck, King saw a coach who got his team through it.
“The one thing that stood out about Lionel and his teams is that they win,” King said. “When Rudy Gay got hurt [in 2011], everyone wrote them off, and they won. When Zach [Randolph] got hurt [in 2012], they won. He reminds me a little of Thibs [Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau] -- no matter who is playing they are going to play a certain way. When you played Memphis, it was going to be a dogfight. If he had to take all the starters out, the guys he brought in were going to play hard. To me, it is a testament to the coach. He has everybody prepared and ready to play.”
Hollins won’t be able to play the same style he did in Memphis, where bulldozing big men Randolph and Gasol dictated the pace. Brooklyn has a quality offensive center in Brook Lopez, but its strength is on the perimeter, where Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Mirza Teletovic spearheaded last season’s three-point-happy attack. Hollins says he wants to see the Nets play a quicker pace and emphasize ball movement in the half-court.
The sting of being let go in Memphis lingered for a while with Hollins -- “It was difficult because the decision wasn’t about coaching,” he said -- but looking back he says he believes the year off was beneficial. He stayed connected to the game through analyst roles with NBA TV and satellite radio. He watched his son, Austin, a senior guard at Minnesota, lead the Gophers to an NIT title. He studied the college and pro games, digesting all the information he could get his hands on.
And in the aftermath of Kidd’s power play, Hollins made one thing crystal clear: He came to coach.
“I’m not here to take Billy’s job,” Hollins said. “A few coaches have more power with the president and coach job. That’s not my goal. My goal is to come in and coach and try to win and to have a partnership with [Nets owner] Mr. [Mikhail] Prokhorov, with Billy, Billy’s assistants and put the best product we can on the court. He trusts I’m going to be in the trenches, working toward that aim.”
King has work to do. Kevin Garnett is contemplating retirement, though the Nets are operating under the belief that the 38-year-old big man -- whom King says approves of Hollins as a coach -- will be back. Free agent Paul Pierce is looking for a two-year deal between $9 and $10 million per season, according to sources. The Nets are optimistic they can flip Marcus Thornton to Cleveland for Jarrett Jack, which would fill the hole created by the recently departed Shaun Livingston, but those talks are in a holding pattern. Brooklyn has limited cap flexibility and a lot of needs to address to truly compete in the conference.
But in Hollins, King believes he has found a major piece to the puzzle. He consulted with Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace and former Memphis executive Jerry West, who both gave Hollins glowing reviews. Throughout last week’s five-hour meeting, King was impressed by Hollins’ basketball strategies, his plans for Lopez and potential use of Croatian small forward Bojan Bogdanovic, the 31st pick in the 2011 draft, who could join the team in the fall after playing in Turkey last season. Hollins reminded King of Larry Brown and Bill Blair, two coaches with strong institutional knowledge whom the Nets' executive deeply respects.
Indeed, as the Nets attempt to move on from the Kidd debacle, to push open a rapidly closing championship window, they do so with a coach they believe shares the same vision for the future.