April 25, 2016

SHATZMAN | Thoughts on Dave Joerger and the NBA Playoffs

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I became a fan of Dave Joerger’s after his ESPN interview with sideline reporter Israel Gutierrez during a November 2014 matchup with the Thunder. The then 40-year-old second-year coach took that moment to appreciate the name etched across his players’ uniforms: Memphis — the city in Tennessee that has been home to the Grizzlies since the team moved there from Vancouver in 2001. Joerger told Gutierrez, “We’re so excited to be on national TV… We got a great community and a lot of positive things happening in Memphis that we want the world to see, the country to see, what’s going on in Memphis. So we take a great deal of pride in playing on national TV.” Despite Memphis’ small-market status — and with that the stigma that it is therefore an undesirable free agent destination — the Grizzlies have achieved consistent success over the past decade with their defensive-minded, grind-it-out style, having made the playoffs every season since ’09-’10. So I appreciated that Joerger chose to forego the robot-like answers typical of in-game interviews — “we need to move the ball”, “we need to play with more energy” — and instead recognize the Memphis community in his lone chance to do so on a national stage. I had visited Memphis the previous year, and my friends and I agreed that the locals were noticeably engaging and friendly. Perhaps Joerger’s words resonated with me more so because of that, but regardless, his decency showed in that brief interview.

The Spurs completed their series sweep over Joerger’s Grizzlies on Sunday in a 119-95 thumping. Three of the four games in the series were blowouts. But it would have been unfair to expect anything more from Memphis. All-Star center Marc Gasol suffered a broken foot in February that ended his season. Point guard Mike Conley Jr., a lockdown defender and underrated overall player, injured his foot in March and missed the rest of his season. After Conley’s reliable backup Mario Chalmers ruptured his Achilles the same month, the Grizzlies signed Jordan Farmar who spent the year playing professionally in Israel. Farmar was the Grizzlies’ starting point guard versus the Spurs. Before the injuries, the Grizz were hovering fourth place in the Western Conference. After Gasol and Conley went down, veterans Zach Randolph (34), Vince Carter (39), Matt Barnes (36) and Chris Andersen (37) were relied on to carry the team on both ends of the floor. Players from the D-League like Xavier Munford were called-up to fill rotational roles. Despite the makeshift roster, the Grizzlies held onto the seventh seed in the West.

At the podium after being eliminated in game four, Dave Joerger broke down. Talking about the effort of his veterans, Joerger said, “For what we’ve been through, I’d do anything for those guys. They embraced every guy who came in, no matter what their history was … These guys fought. I can’t tell you enough how proud I am of every guy that is in that locker room … This season’s been hard. It’s been really hard”. He wiped away tears as he commended his team’s resilience. These were heartfelt tears. It’s easy to understand his emotion. Had the Grizzlies fallen out of what was a tight playoff race earlier this month, they would have been spared the Spurs’ domination. With Conley facing free agency this summer, plus aging veterans, this was perhaps the final go-around for this core group of Grizzlies.

Joerger himself has been subject to scrutiny since he was hired in 2013. There were rumors earlier this season that he would be fired before the New Year. Joerger’s seat was hot when he got the job. It seems probable, though undeserved, that Joerger will be fired before next season. He’s done a tremendous job in Memphis (three seasons, three postseasons) and will likely be a top candidate for head-coaching vacancies if the Grizzlies don’t retain him. NBA player-coach relationships can seem disingenuous — like Byron Scott’s attempt at balancing youth with Kobe Bryant, or David Blatt’s odd stint in Cleveland. A high-five requires no sincerity, but one cannot fake the emotion he showed on Sunday, or in the 2014 interview on ESPN. Coaches like Joerger are more often seen at the college level — think Tom Izzo after his Spartans were upset, or watch the late Rick Majerus’ press conference after Saint Louis was eliminated from the 2012 NCAA tournament. It’s good to care. I respect those who take pride in what they do. The NBA needs more coaches like Dave Joerger.

And now some rambling on the NBA Playoffs:

Earlier this year I began to write a column titled “Why is Corey Brewer Shooting Threes?” Brewer is a career 29% three-point shooter. No player shooting below 30% from deep takes nearly the amount of threes Brewer takes. He has missed his last 23 three-pointers. The fact that he is still taking threes after missing 23 in a row describes the Houston Rockets.

I was listening to Philly sports radio this morning and the hosts all but crowned the Spurs champs because of Steph Curry’s injury. Relax. Wait until there is an official diagnosis. The Warriors’ without Curry are a competitive team.

Isaiah Thomas carried the Celtics to back-to-back victories over the Hawks to even the series. He followed a 42-point effort in game three with a 28-6-4 line in game four. Those making more money than Thomas this season include Kosta Koufos, Tiago Splitter, and yes, Corey Brewer.

It’s easy to forget how amazing Chris Paul is because of his lack of post-season success. If Blake Griffin can establish dominance in the paint, the Clippers will be a tough matchup for any team – Warriors and Spurs included.

Kawhi Leonard has won back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year awards. He averaged 21 PPG and shot 44% from deep for a 67-win team. He was born in 1991. Sheesh.

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