Roughly an hour into the Memphis Grizzlies’ recent Media Day festivities, new head coach Dave Joerger walked into the media hospitality room in FedExForum and was immediately met by a throng of reporters, many of whom were eager to find out if he has assumed what they deem a “new voice” since he was named the franchise’s 11th head coach in late June.
Without hesitation, Joerger alluded to his predecessor, former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, whom he admittedly has been extremely supportive in aiding him to make the lofty transition to coaching a Grizzlies team that came within four games of advancing to the NBA Finals last year.
“I love coaching,” Joerger said with a smile. “I really do. To have the opportunity to be an (assistant) coach for 350 games helps me feel comfortable with my voice. And, at the same time, Lionel gave me a lot of latitude to coach the defense, to run drills, to be out on the floor. He encouraged all of coaches to do well. He delegated very well and, as a young guy coming up, that makes you feel confident.”
Whether the 39-year-old Joerger will savor the kind of success he had as an assistant under Hollins the previous six seasons remains a mystery for Memphis, which opens the season Wednesday night at defending Western Conference champion San Antonio at 7:30 p.m. CST. However, given a solid professional coaching resume that includes a number of championships in the minor leagues, Grizzlies majority owner Robert Pera is convinced the organization has found the guy who is capable of ensuring the Grizzlies remain a serious contender to vie for the Larry O’Brien trophy this year and beyond.
“He’s a young guy, he’s hands on,” Pera said of Joerger. “He’s won championships at different levels. When we were interviewing coaches in the summer, I got to know him. And we talked about building a selfless team, a cohesive team with a great culture. We talked about his approach to the great defense he built and also about getting more efficient on offense.”
The Grizzlies, despite enjoying a 2012-13 campaign in which they manufactured the highest winning percentage (.683) in franchise history with a 56-26 mark, was 22nd in the league in offensive efficiency, one of a several notable issues the organization aspired to address after it parted ways with Hollins, whose contract was not renewed after coaching Memphis from 2009-2013. With the key offseason additions of rookie Jamaal Franklin — who will likely back up veteran point guard Mike Conley, former Denver Nuggets big man Kosta Koufos (who was traded to Memphis for Darrell Arthur), and the return of veteran small forward Mike Miller, among others, many within the Grizzlies organization believe the team essentially has upgraded its roster from a year ago.
“We feel this is a team that could do something special,” Conley, the longest tenured Grizzly now in his sixth season, said. “I was telling someone earlier that I think we quietly had a very productive offseason and I think the guys we got fit our team.”
Conley and Co. also believe Joerger is a right fit to steer the Grizzlies. Among the reasons is that as Hollins’ lead assistant
the previous two seasons, Joerger was among those credited for helping Memphis emerge as one of the top defensive teams in the NBA. The biggest question, however, that loomed mostly throughout training camp and the preseason is whether his coaching transformation process will include demonstrating the ability to be unrelenting, let alone challenging his players intensely when necessary.
In other words, does the usual muffled Jeorger have what it takes to rip into this veteran bunch much like his predecessor?
“I think the biggest challenge is him trying to take the lead coaching role,” Conley said. “Sometimes, he’ll have to rip some guys’ heads off and yell at them…something different than what he was as an assistant. He didn’t have that voice as much as Lionel did, but now he has that chance to really go after some guys and challenge some people and we expect him to do that.”
Regardless of how vocal or unyielding Joerger becomes, his players — from the rookies to the veterans — don’t shy away from the notion that he has the respect and full support of his team.
“Coach got the respect from all the players that’s been here,” said 12-year-veteran Zach Randolph, now in his fifth season with the Grizzlies. “Me, Marc (Gasol), and so on. You know, this is coach’s first year, and he knows he’s got a lot of eyes on him. But from a team aspect, he’s not going to have a problem out of anyone trying to disrespect what he’s trying to do. I’m the easiest person to get along with.
“This is a players’ league and we treat everybody with respect. This isn’t about tough love. We’re coachable, so we do
what they tell us to do just like with coach Hollins.”
As the new-look Grizzlies prepare to raise the curtain on what many hope is season in which they overachieve much like a year ago, Joerger relishes the fact that he has been afforded the monumental challenge that awaits him, one that will surely call for him to exhibit his revamped voice now that he’s the main man in charge.
“Well, getting any opportunity to coach any NBA team is a privilege, something anybody would want,” Joerger said. “It’s truly a blessing for me. I think I have a really good group of guys. It’s an easy group to work with. They care about each other. Those things have to continue. We feel like we have some talent. We’re a tough team, a tough out. We’ll play hard every single night. We display passion both home and away. And we hope our home court continues to be an advantage for us.”
Even if he finds himself ripping into players, a component that comes with inheriting the proverbial head-coaching role.