On Lionel Hollins: How He’ll Fit & His Biggest Questions

Lionel Hollins
On how Lionel Hollins, the new Nets coach. will fare. (AP)

Lionel Hollins
On how new Nets coach Lionel Hollins will fare. (AP)

So, that didn’t take long, did it? One week after the Bucks and Jason Kidd had their first “contact” *ahem*, Kidd’s not only gone as the Nets head coach, but they’ve already got a new guy in place. That new guy? Lionel Hollins, he of three separate stints in Vancouver/Memphis and the steadily increasing record. The Nets will officially introduce Hollins Monday, but announced that the two sides had an agreement “in principle” the same day that Kidd obfuscated his way through his introductory press conference.

Hollins and the Grizzlies split after the 2013 season citing “philosophical differences,” which is the pretty way of saying “the Grizzlies just hired John Hollinger and Lionel Hollins is not about analytics.” The Nets are not one of the league’s most analytically inclined teams; they do employ a statistical analyst and have a few eyes on analytics, but they’re hardly the Houston Rockets.

Hollins’s lack of forward-thinking aside, he’s known as a motivator and a teacher with a keen basketball mind, and someone who commands respect from players. He’s a no-nonsense coach, and his teams follow the same paradigm. He first instilled Memphis’s “Grit & Grind” defensive philosophy in 2010-11 as the Grizzlies both led the NBA in steals per game and points in the paint. He ran a snail’s pace at the end of his tenure in Memphis due to his personnel, and they ranked as a top-10 defense in each of his last three years there.

Lionel Hollins
Hollins, suit pressed. (AP)
If it’s not a perfect fit on the court — and it could be pretty good — it’s a great fit for the Nets organization, who suddenly have to sweep up the ashes following the organizational tire fire Jason Kidd left behind. But that’s precisely where Hollins fits in: there’s no worries that Hollins will suddenly try to usurp Billy King’s job or steal Mikhail Prokhorov’s many rubles: he’s there to coach, in all his impeccably dressed glory, and he’s going to coach his players, not wage war with everyone who stands in his way.

There’s a good chance that most of Kidd’s staff is gone: Eric Hughes and Sean Sweeney are already on the way, and there’s rumblings that Joe Prunty and John Welch may follow. As the coach, Hollins will get a chance to tinker and pick his guys, but one intriguing possibility: the Nets currently have Lawrence Frank under contract for five years at $1 million per year, but banished him to “daily reports” after infighting with Jason Kidd. Considering Frank’s commitment to defense and work ethic, he might jive a lot better with Hollins than he ever did with Kidd: Frank’s role would be solely as assistant coach and not as “mentor,” which led to the fracture, and Hollins could use a defensive guru with a similar affinity for grit-and-grind players at his side.

That said, Avery Johnson’s teams in Dallas also performed well defensively, and the Nets were a mess even with Frank’s system in the first month. Sometimes it’s about having your Tyson Chandler, not your coach.

That makes the most fascinating part of Hollins’s job how he’s going to use — and mesh with — the goofy rickety wunderkind Brook Lopez. The last center Hollins coached was the instinctual and surprisingly quick Marc Gasol, who was the Defensive Player of the Year in Hollins’s final season. Lopez has never been the fulcrum of an elite defense: though he’s strong and proved himself to be one of the league’s better rim protectors, he’s not a bruiser with a grit-and-grind mentality and can’t offer anything outside of the paint on the defensive end. Having the plodding Lopez in the middle means Hollins will have to find ways to hide Lopez’s lack of quickness, which he never had to do with Gasol. He’ll have to find a way to keep Lopez close to the basket, which may be difficult when teams run pick-and-rolls at him over and over again.

Hollins also has an abrasive style, detailed well by Jonathan Abrams in this Grantland piece. Just look at how he treats Hamed Haddadi:

“I’m tired of your bulls—t, Hamed,” Hollins says. “I’m tired of your laziness. Come on. You can be mad at me all you want, but I don’t give a f—. Be mad at me, but do what you’re supposed to do.”

Lopez had his occasional clashes with Avery Johnson and P.J. Carlesimo, who both had grating, loud coaching styles. Whether or not Lopez and Hollins buy into each other may decide either’s fate come Lopez’s free agency in 2015 or 2016.

(This is, of course, assuming Lopez comes back fully healthy, which is not exactly guaranteed for a giant seven-footer who’s had multiple foot surgeries in two years. But let’s pretend he’ll be fine, because that doesn’t send anyone into crippling despair.)

Hollins’s offenses, like most in the NBA, tend to reflect the personnel he has to work with. He spoke with Zach Lowe of Grantland when he was still a coach about his adjustments:

Watching you guys, it seems as if you have shifted a lot of the offense to Marc Gasol facilitating at the elbows. Do you guys track elbow touches? Was that part of the plan?

We did that before the (Rudy Gay) trade. People say all that, but we haven’t changed the way we played.

Really? Not at all?

We have not changed the way we play. We’ve always run a lot of pick-and-roll. People think of us as a post-up team, but we post up out of the pick-and-roll. A lot of teams do that — it forces a defender to help and then try to scramble back when you throw it into the post. It’s hard to double-team, and it’s hard to front. I mean, Tayshaun (Prince) is not getting 20 shots per night that Rudy would get, so that increases the possessions the ball moves to someone else. That’s probably a bigger key than us changing how we play.

Ah, I got it. So there hasn’t been any stylistic change, but you have sort of naturally redistributed some possessions to Gasol at the elbow and other things that were already in your game.

Yeah, we started that at the beginning of the year — playing more and more through the elbow. When you’re together a long time and teams scout the way you play, you have to make adjustments. We went into this season and we decided to run very little secondary or early offense. We play out of a flow more, because it’s hard to scout. There’s no rhyme or reason to what you do, and I think our guys picked up on it, and they’ve become effective doing it.

What do you mean by not running secondary offense? Does that mean you run one set action and just sort of improvise from there?

In the past, usually we’d try to score in transition, before the defense is really set, and then you go into an early offense when you pass the ball into the post, and then you do this, and then you do that. We’ve gotten away from that more, and we play more pick-and-roll, double pick-and-roll, all of that stuff we haven’t done as much in the past.

Hollins is reportedly talking to the team’s stars sooner rather than later about how he hopes to utilize them. That could mean a couple of things, good and bad. On the one hand, Deron Williams is a tailor-made pick-and-roll guard when healthy (read: when healthy), and Brook Lopez can dominate a lot of centers in one-on-one situations and on off-ball cuts. But that also might mean a lot of ugly, slow isolations for Joe Johnson, who to his credit is one of the best isolation players in the league. This Nets team isn’t constructed for excitement, and Hollins is the kind of coach that’ll motivate them to the best at what they’re best at. But what they’re best at might not be what’s best for the team.

There will certainly be tangles. This is new ground for Hollins: he’s never coached any player on the Nets roster at any level, and there’s an onus from the organization to put together wins ASAP. But no coach is going to fix the aging and injury process, and the Nets haven’t upgraded their talent beyond a few late draft picks in this offseason. Shaun Livingston is gone. Andray Blatche won’t be welcomed back. Deron Williams is 30 and just had surgery on both ankles. Paul Pierce might be gone, and if he’s not, he’s 37. Kevin Garnett could barely get off the floor by the end of last season. This is a roster with a number of question marks, and they might struggle to reach 44-38 again on talent alone.

But that’s the worst-case scenario. The other side is imagining a fresh start, with a healthy Deron Williams and a healthy Brook Lopez tearing defenses apart. Joe Johnson and Hollins seem oddly made for each other, and Andrei Kirilenko will have a lot to prove with his health issues. There was a lot that didn’t go right in Brooklyn last season, and they still made it to the second round on talent and fumes alone. If Hollins can push the right buttons, this can work out famously for a franchise desperately seeking stability — and wins.