With only two head coaching vacancies left in the league, the Los Angeles Lakers’ and Cleveland Cavaliers’, the opportunities for former Memphis Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins to make a return to the sidelines are dwindling. Hollins has interviewed with a handful of teams since being let go by the Grizzlies last summer despite leading them to their best season in franchise history, but continues to get passed over.
Hollins boasts a career record of 214-201 overall and an 18-17 mark in playoff games, highlighted by a trip to the 2013 Western Conference Finals. He’s one of the most proven and experienced head coaches on the market. Yet, since he’s become a free agent, 12 coaches with no prior NBA head coaching experience have been hired.
“It is [weird],” Hollins said to Basketball Insiders at adidas Eurocamp, where he is volunteering, when asked about still being without a job. “You would think with the success that I’ve had that something would have happened already but it’s just part of the process. There are a lot of other guys that are out there that aren’t even interviewing. I look at Scott Skiles and I look at Vinny Del Negro, guys like Jeff Van Gundy who is still sitting out there, George Karl who’s still sitting out there. There are a lot of people that have had much success and aren’t even getting calls to be interviewed. It’s kind of a crazy and wacky world right now.
“Unfortunately a lot of teams have filled their positions and there are only a couple left and hopefully I’ll be the number one guy for somebody as we go forward. Everywhere I’ve interviewed I’ve felt like it was an organization that I would want to be a part of and a job that had some prospects. Obviously it’s up to the team and the person making the call on what they want and whether or not they think you fit what they’re trying to do.”
Hollins has already interviewed with the Cavaliers and the Lakers and is still in the running for both openings. The Cavaliers have scoured the college ranks for Mike Brown’s replacement so far and actually negotiated with Kentucky head coach John Calipari before he ultimately decided to stay where he is at. The Lakers still seem to be weeks away from hiring their next head coach at best, seeming content to go into the draft and free agency without replacing Mike D’Antoni. They’re going into the offseason with aspirations of hitting a home run in free agency and they feel like leaving their options open at head coach could help them in that aspect.
Based off of the way that the Grizzlies played under him, Hollins has the label of being a defensive-oriented head coach who prefers to slow it down in the halfcourt. However, his philosophy was actually the opposite when he initially took over.
“We had a plan and we sold it and we worked it,” Hollins said. “We adapted a system around a group and they wound up having an identity of how they were going to play. I laugh because it wasn’t my thing to come in and play the way we play. It was the system that fit the personnel that gave them the best chance to be successful; that’s what we went with. We tried to run but we had two big guys who were very efficient in the post so we changed from doing that to pounding the ball inside, playing a lot of high-low, playing a lot of pick-and-rolls and the post ups; it was very successful and we had an identity. The part of the identity that was mine was that we were going to be tough, aggressive and physical and we were going to never give up. We were going to play hard every night and we were going to play together and the rest of the identity as far as style of play was really just about the personnel and what was effective for them.
“I don’t want to be known as a defensive coach, I don’t want to be an offensive coach. I think you have to know offense, you have to know defense you have to know how to put a team together for chemistry wise, developing relationships, how to be tough and when to back off. I think coaching is all of that and I’m just about winning.”
Being flexible to his personnel is going to be important for Hollins’ chances at either the Lakers or Cavaliers job, since Cavaliers GM David Griffin wants to play an up tempo style and the Lakers don’t have enough players under contract to play some offseason three-on-three even if they wanted to.
If they go in different directions, Hollins, who will turn 61 years old this October, faces the possibility of being out of the league for a second-straight year, but he’s still not to the point where he wants to consider going the route of Alvin Gentry or Nate McMillan and try to work his way back up to a head coach as a lead assistant.
“I would have to consider it if I want to stay in the league and there were no head coaching opportunities,” Hollins said. “It’s not something that I think about. It’s not something that I want to think about. My focus is on trying to be a head coach. I don’t want to go back to being a lead assistant and be a lead assistant for the next seven, eight or nine years and then they tell me that I’m too old to be a head coach.”
It’s tales of how he clashed with the new management and ownership in Memphis that have worked against Hollins more than any doubt about what he’s capable of on the court. Their relationship was testy at times and there may have been a lack of mutual respect between the two; Hollins also wasn’t embracing of their movement toward the expanded use of advanced statistics or the trading of Rudy Gay, but as abrasive as he can be, he does have a way of connecting with his players. He got the most out of the Grizzlies and earned their respect most importantly. He’s the kind of coach who you have to let do things his way, because it’s proven and he’s willing to adjust when he sees necessary.
“When you ask what was the key to my success, I think being flexible and recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of my players,” Hollins said. “I think that being a guy that’s honest, a guy trying to help them develop as people as well as players and letting them know that I care about them and it’s not about me it’s about them having success. I don’t need to be Coach of the Year, I don’t need any accolades. I want you guys to be successful and I want you guys to have the same success that I had as a player and experience what I experienced when being a part of winning. Selling them that the more we win, the more everybody gets the accolades.
“I don’t think we were the most talented team in Memphis, we certainly didn’t shoot the ball great but we played to our strengths, we led in points in the paint and second chance points with the offensive rebounding. Defensively, we got a lot of turnovers and we scored points off of those turnovers and we made the other team shoot a low percentage. We played to our strengths and we were successful. When I was in Memphis we didn’t have a huge collection of shooters but we made enough shots and we did enough to keep the floor spaced and we played and did things that took advantage of teams where they couldn’t just load up on our post guys consistently. When you get to the playoffs teams take away what you’re trying to do and make you play to your weaknesses.”
Make sure to check out the NBA PM on Thursday for more from our exclusive interview with Lionel Hollins!