The ole' Twitter machine got thrown into a panic yesterday when it got out that the Timberwolves intend to interview Mark Jackson, he of the lesser Warriors and even lesserer TV analogy, for the vacant head coaching position. What are we Timberwolves fans, so new to competent procedure, to make of this?
Well, I'm not going to consider myself qualified enough to make an actual attempt at discussing affirmative action in the NBA, other than to say that if that is what's going on here, I'll gladly volunteer to be the token Asian interview to move this locomotive along. What I will say, however, is I think this means the hiring process isn't going to be quite as quick as we initially thought.
Which actually makes sense, to be honest. We can probably safely assume search firm Korn Ferry has been doing due diligence for a few months now, but it stands to reason that this whole thing wouldn't be made public just to do a faux interview with Tom Thibodeau and hire him three days later without talking to other candidates. That's not to say Thibs isn't the hire here - he is still, by all accounts, the clear frontrunner and best candidate on the known list - but if the team's going to spend the kind of money and public good will on this process, then it makes, I think, to let it be a process.
That brings me to a possible candidate that's intrigued many of us for a few years now: Memphis Grizzlies' coach Dave Joerger. Pronounced YAYgrrrr. Like
LI...huh? Oh, where was I....
I think I've made it clear that, of all possible possibilities, my #1 candidate is Mike D'Antoni. Nothing will get the most out of Rubio and Towns than pick-and-rolling them together incessantly. D'Antoni has his faults, certainly, but his offense is a beyond-proven commodity that maximizes point guards with court vision, big men with touch, and any wing with a halfway decent jump shot. Simple and straightforward.
That said, the way Bryan Colangelo hired on D'Antoni immediately after signing on with Philadelphia, then deftly maneuvered Sam Hinke out, leads me to believe that Brett Brown's days are numbered. I think Colangelo has intended to replace Brown with his good buddy Mike all along; he's just waiting for the right excuse.
So, here's what I like about Dave Joerger: I think he can bring a lot of the same things as Thibs in a more, mmm, flexible (?) package. Energetic? Creative? I'm not sure exactly how to define, it, but the description goes something like this.
Without question, Thibs would be fantastic hire for the Wolves. He's not just a master of NBA defense, he very literally invented the way it's played today. Every team that runs hedge/blitz pick-and-roll and any ice sets owes a great deal to Thibodeau's work with Boston and Chicago. His team has played defense at a level rivaling the Tim Duncan/David Robinson era Spurs, and against offenses that are much faster and more dynamic than anything the Twin Towers ever faced. Thibs won at least 45 games each of his five seasons coaching the Bulls. Three of those seasons were 50+ wins, and one of those seasons was 62 wins. And all while dealing with a constant string of injuries to his best players.
My first concern, though, is that it can be argued that Thibs caused many of those injuries. At the very least, he didn't help prevent them. Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler both played multiple seasons of near-40 minute/game under Thibs. Derrick Rose most certainly would have as well, had he remained healthy. Joakim Noah's minutes were more reasonable, for the most part, but he also came into the league older and bore the brunt of Thibs' defensive system, resulting in a lot of mileage. Pau Gasol, at 35 years old, had his highest minutes average in three seasons last year under Thibs. I don't think it's coincidence that those players all experienced persistent-to-disasterous injuries since Thibs was hired.
That includes this season as well. Critics rightly have pointed out that Fred Hoiberg has not managed minutes much differently than Thibs did. But I also thinks it's fair to say the Bulls are still reaping the whirlwind of Thibs' tenure even with him no longer on the sidelines. Damage doesn't disappear overnight - it takes time to recover, and that's made doubly difficult when talking about physical injuries. The players aren't getting younger.
I think that after several seasons (we'll say four, as Thibs' first season with the Bulls was a clean slate for them both) consistent injuries stop being freak accidents and start being a pattern. I'm not saying Thibs is solely responsible for the injuries that plagued his team, but I am saying he bears some of that weight. The fact is he played his favorites too many minutes, played key guys late in blowouts, and compounded the problem with long, difficult practices between games. It's something that I think needs to be considered more seriously than just a sidebar. Ricky Rubio has had several leg and ankle injuries already. Pekovic is basically a retired gimp. The last thing we should want is to risk seeing Towns 30 years old, hobbling and sad the way Pek is these days. My feeling is this issue is being too quickly dismissed simply because we want Thibs to coach here so badly.
Also tied into this is the infamous Luol Deng incident. This admittedly may be saying more about me than Thibs I guess, but yeah, this thing scares the hell out of me. And I think it gives a glimpse into Thibs' thought process when it comes to injuries.
Long story short, in May 2013, Deng became so sick he was hospitalized and had a spinal tap performed on him. Complications from the spinal tap nearly killed him. Yet that very night, Thibs listed Deng as a "game-time decision", then told reporter afterward Deng had "flu-like symptoms".
The flu. Death. They're basically the same thing, right?
The situation stank of the old "rub sand on it" philosophy Kevin McHale used to employ here, and got so out of hand that Deng was forced to defend himself on Twitter because the Bulls wouldn't tell the truth about what happened and wouldn't publicly defend his absence. This, to me, would be like Bosh telling Spoelstra about his blood clots, and Spo replying with "forget the doctors, come warm up for an hour and I'll decide if you're good to go." Then blaming Bosh's inevitable absence on a lack of inner character.
Hopefully this all falls under that category of "things I've learned from" that Thibs has spoken about with Bill Simmons and Zach Lowe.
Now, no coach is free from making mistakes regarding how they handle their players. Joerger came under fire this season for playing Marc Gasol through an injury he should have been ruled out for. And Memphis as a whole isn't any healthier this year than any of Thibs' Bulls teams.
That said, no Grizzly has averaged more than 36 minutes/game under Joerger (and only two did in the four seasons prior under Lionel Hollins - Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo, neither who are still with the team), which is a downright Spurs-ian approach. And until this season, only two of his key players missed more than 20 games in a single year: Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. Memphis plays just as grinding of a style as Thibs' Bulls (their war cry is Grit'n'Grind, for cryin' out loud) but their health outlook has been much more positive.
The other Thibs concern I have is his offense. This may or may not actually end up being an issue, but the fact I don't think we can say one way or the other is a red flag to me.
Because of their defensive style, the Bulls under Thibs were regularly one of the slowest teams in the league, ranking in the bottom 5 in pace in four of the five seasons he coached there. While they (for the most part) maintained high efficiency, we've already seen from this past season that the Wolves need to play fast. Balancing that while maintaining a high defensive efficiency isn't easy, but it can be done (Warriors, Pacers, Hawks). This team simply doesn't have the personnel to grind it out in the halfcourt, particularly with Rubio (bless his magical unicorn heart) as such an unreliable scoring threat at the point guard spot.
Tied to this is Thibs' habit of building his offense specifically for the point guard to score. This was not only something he did with Derrick Rose, as you'd obviously want to take advantage of his superior talent, but also something he did without Derrick Rose, when he was hurt.
In 2012, Nate Robinson was third on the team in field goal attempts per game despite playing just 25 minutes/game. In 2013, DJ Augustine was fourth in FGA/gm as a Sixth Man. In 2014, Aaron Brooks was fourth in FGA/gm despite playing just 23 minutes/game, and Rose being healthy for two-thirds of the season. Per36, a point guard under Thibs led the Bulls in FGA/gm all but one season, with three season seeing a point/combo guard also second in FGA/gm (the list expands to include John Lucas III and Jimmer Fredette under these conditions)
This is obviously simply not an option with this Wolves team. The only ways this can happen are:
- Tyus Jones replaces Ricky Rubio as the starter and straight jacks up shots
- Ricky Rubio is traded
Neither of those options will produce better basketball than simply letting Ricky do what Ricky does.
Now, likewise, Joerger's Grizzlies have not been a run-and-gun team either, ranking only slightly ahead of the Thibs' Bulls in pace and usually well behind in efficiency. The efficiency part is understandable, since Memphis' front office has been three-point averse is a way that would make Flip proud. But the pace part becomes a very interesting discussion in light of a great article Kevin Arnovitz published yesterday about the double-edged sword that is Grit'n'Grind, which included this fascinating bit:
Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger is among those who abide by the idea that Grit 'n' Grind is more spirit than scheme, but that hasn't stopped him from outwardly questioning the composition of the roster. During the first weeks of his tenure, in the fall of 2013, he set out to jump-start the Grizzlies, employing more early actions like drag screens, thinking about static post sets more as contingencies and less as first options.
Sources say that players grumbled and the Grizzlies' two primary big men couldn't be cajoled into running the floor -- it's just not who they are. After three weeks, Joerger pulled back on the turbo. The Grizzlies finished his first season as head coach last in the league in pace.
"We wanted to create a system where the ball moved," Joerger says now. "Pick up our pace, make two passes by 19 on the shot clock. We didn't have the playmakers on the perimeter to make it work. And I either I didn't sell it well or didn't teach it well."
This is very interesting for a couple of reasons.
First, it shows Joerger is a coach who rolls with the punches, which is something I'd hazard to say Thibs is not. Nate was a hawk about this, for good reason. Changing your roster is really damn hard. Adapting your system is easier. The best coaches put the players they have in the best situations for them to succeed.
(This is also a huge reason why no one should want Mark Jackson here)
Thibs has talked a few times about how, as an assistant with the Celtics, the coaching staff there adapted their offense to account for Rajon Rondo's poor shooting. Which, for the most part, they did. But at the same time, Doc Rivers was the head coach there, and Thibs' own work as a head coach has been less convincing of this. When faced with the loss of his high-volume point guard, instead of changing his offense to maximize Deng or Boozer or Butler or Gasol, he went and trolled free agency for a replacement high-volume point guard.
The second reason the above is interesting is it shows that the style Joerger is coaching is not ideally the style he wants to coach. Joerger wants to go fast. And the change from the Thibs pace the Wolves started this season at to a more D'Antoni-ish style and pace helped the team close out the year on a massive positive upswing. Again, this is what this roster is really built for.
Finally, while this not a huge deal (and more of a personal impression), I believe Joerger has a personality much better suited towards working with young players. I worry that Thibs crosses the line from strict and challenging into dictatorial and sometimes unfairly arbitrary at times, particularly once he's settled on "his guys" (PREPARE TO MAX CONTRACT KIRK HINRICH)
My feelings vis a vis a comparison of Joeger to Thibs is that while Joeger isn't quite the tactical mastermind Thibs is, he's still more than capable of instilling a strong defensive philosophy and sense of structure in a team, and comes with fewer notorious vices that give me pause. He's less old-school and more player-and-media friendly (look, John and I have to talk to the coach. And I think he'll agree that that was sometimes a very negative experience with Sam when his sense of being offended was tripped (for seemingly no damn reason at all)) On a personal level, give me a coach who will laugh about my iPhone beating me at Chess.
The Grizzlies are toast this postseason. They're without four of their five starters, playing against the freakin' Spurs. They'll be done Sunday. And now with reports saying Mike Conley won't return to the team, they're probably done for good. Grit'n'Grind, you were such a beautiful dream.
Joerger was nearly fired in December. He's on the hot seat now, with seemingly every reporter in Memphis convinced he'll either be fired or walk to try and land here. ESPN reported Joerger is indeed on the Wolves' list, and Glen Taylor has already approved his hiring before, so there's a level of familiarity there.
Obviously there's a lot of moving parts going on here. Thibs wants this job, but that doesn't mean he won't take a different one. Maybe it turns out Joerger isn't leaving Memphis at all. And if Thibs accepting now is what it takes to keep Mark Jackson out of the Target Center, then I will drive the damn contract to Tom's front door myself this instant.
But I like Joerger. Honestly, probably just as much as Thibs. And I think, with the end of Grit'n'Grind almost certainly in five days, it's worth waiting an extra week to see if Joerger can get another look here.