If Jeff Bower were doing Stan Van Gundy’s employee review at the end of last season, SVG might have been canned.
And it wouldn’t have been without merit. The team took a step backwards, players didn’t progress, the offense made little sense. It wasn’t his best coaching performance. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable for Bower to figure the team could benefit from a fresh face.
But while Van Gundy’s seat may have been pretty hot to start the season, his job was never in immediate jeopardy as a result of the disappointing year. That’s one of the perks of being the boss. There’s fewer weak people over you looking to use you as their scapegoat.
That’s not the case if you’re the head coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and you’ve got Chris Wallace as a boss.
About a year and a half ago, I wrote a similar piece to this one. Chris Wallace had just fired Dave Joerger for not being committed enough to the Grizzlies, considering other offers. Kind of ironic, considering how committed Wallace is to his coaches.
Wallace fired Joerger’s replacement, David Fitzdale, on Tuesday after a slow start for the team and Fizdale butting heads with Marc Gasol. Wallace said about the move:
"There were bigger trends than just the relationship between the two of them. It just hasn't been going well for us after a good start. And there was no indication that it was going to change magically any time soon."
"Unfortunately, we are underperforming, [by] even the lowest of preseason expectations" Wallace said. "We are an organization of high expectations for our team, so a change had to be made."
Well, he’s right about one thing. There is a bigger trend in Memphis. It’s a downward spiral to irrelevance. After a five-year run as one of the teams you really don’t want to face in the Western Conference Playoffs, the Grizzlies jumped onto the mediocrity treadmill. And they’re only fading from here.
It’s not the coach. It’s that Wallace is an incompetent general manager. Hey, let’s look at what’s happened since he fired Joerger.
He drafted Wade Baldwin with a first round pick, who he waived after just one season. He traded a 2019 first round pick of the Clippers, which is looking like it’ll probably be pretty solid, for a second round pick to draft Deyonta Davis. Who has played a whopping 317 NBA minutes so far.
He paid Chandler Parsons $94 million, which hasn’t gone great. He made Mike Conley the highest paid player in NBA history. Which, I like Conley, but highest paid player in NBA history.
His moves over the summer to get the Grizzlies back on track were signing Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans from the Kings and Mario Chalmers from his exile on the island of Elba.
Dillon Brooks is second on the team in minutes played. Do you know who Dillon Brooks is? I don’t know who Dillon Brooks is.
I don’t know anything about Fizdale’s background in personnel, contract negotiation, in his expertise of the CBA, but I have absolutely no doubt he could have done a better job in adding talent than Wallace has.
This isn’t to be a hit job on Wallace. Rather that the obvious problem in Memphis is personnel, not coaching. Chris Wallace is responsible for personnel. Chris Wallace should be the one getting fired, not the guy tasked with trotting out his horrible decisions.
And this is regularly a problem. Crappy GMs fire their coaches to cover their own tails. Wallace does it. Ryan McDonough does it. Rob Hennigan did it. Larry Bird did it.
And the Pistons have been there. It didn’t work. There are times when it does, sure. Danny Ainge has done a great job as general manager in Boston and managed to land a top-tier coach in Brad Stevens. Bob Myers has been cool with Steve Kerr being the face of the franchise in Oakland. But it’s rare.
The President of Basketball Operations is basically the franchise CEO. Who does it make more sense to have as the franchise CEO: the guy being hired because of his knowledge on the intricacies of the game or the guy being hired because of his knowledge of the collective bargaining agreement?
And it only makes sense for the guy putting the players on the court to have his players in his scheme. Just imagine if Tom Izzo reported to his lead recruiter.
It’s paying off for Detroit. Stan Van Gundy is now the longest tenured head coach the Pistons have had since Chuck Daly retired in 1992. And he’s only in his fourth season.
It’s as difficult to assess credit to a coach as it is to assign blame, but is it that stability that helped SVG recognize the opportunity in the team’s revamped offense this year? Was it a mutual trust that led to Drummond reeling in his post ups after being given the green light by the same guy before? Regardless of how deep Van Gundy’s impact runs, he’s clearly having a much better season coaching.
But also maybe Marc Gasol wouldn’t be so quick to clash with his coaches, especially ones that keep him relevant after his best days have past by turning him into a stretch big on offense, if Fizdale had the same ability to get the trade rumor mill working the way that SVG did with Drummond.
Before the season, Tom Ziller wrote that Stan Van Gundy should be the next coach after Doc Rivers to surrender his joint GM-coaching duties. Ziller is awesome, but in this take he was incorrect.
The biggest benefit of the joint GM-coaching role is the clear definition on where the buck stops. The Clippers had been no better under Rivers than under Vinny Del Negro. Which means that Rivers should have been fired rather than demoted.
That’s proving to be true this season as the Clippers look poised to follow the Grizzlies into mediocrity.
Which goes to show that both structures can fail, just in different ways. But teams are much better off when they find a smart, talented coach and give him as much control of the franchise as they can.
There may come a time when SVG has run his course in Detroit. But partnering with Bower, they’ve shrewdly handled tough personnel decisions, have improved the win total, and kept a stable locker room.
Meanwhile in Memphis, it’s a mess. It was a mess the last time we visited this topic and it’s only going to get worse.
The Grizzlies would be wise to follow Tom Gores’ lead: fire the crappy general manager, get a premium head coach, and hand him the keys to the franchise. It may not be the standard organizational structure in the NBA yet, but it will be.