Lionel Hollins is proud of the zinger he just delivered. (Rocky Widner/NBA/Getty Images)
The Oklahoma City Thunder put a 17-point beatdown on the Memphis Grizzlies on Thursday night, riding a white-hot start (32 points on 12 for 15 from the floor in the first quarter, including 11 on 5 for 6 by Russell Westbrook) and dismal Memphis shooting (13 for 51, 25.5 percent, in the first half) to a 24-point lead at intermission that, save for a pair of post-Westbrook-freakout third-quarter runs, was never seriously threatened. There are plenty of reasons why OKC blew Memphis' doors off — chief among them being that this is what OKC does when Westbrook hits jumpers, because Kevin Durant's reached "doesn't really have off nights anymore" status — but some talking heads pointed to the absence of Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies' leading scorer, who was traded Wednesday night to the Toronto Raptors in a three-team deal. (Not having the three players Memphis received in return — Tayshaun Prince, Ed Davis and Austin Daye — available to play didn't help matters, either.)
There's been plenty of debate as to Gay's relative value and just how big an impact his departure will have on the Grizzlies' chances in the Western Conference playoffs, but one thing that's not up for debate is that Gay's max-level contract — which will pay him $37.2 million over the next two seasons — was the driving factor in moving him. A luxury-tax averse team in a relatively small market like Memphis needs to maintain both fiscal discipline and financial flexibility in its roster construction, which is hard to do when you're paying Gay, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol eight-figure salaries, so they made a deal.
Everybody gets that, including Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins ... and, in a pregame interview with TNT's Craig Sager, he sure didn't seem to like it, as the Oklahoman's John Rohde noted:
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins explaining why the Grizzlies traded away five players, including leading scorer Rudy Gay: “When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market."
As many (including me) joked when TNT aired Hollins' comments, this makes it seem like the coach is unaware of the existence of Miller High Life, The Champagne of Beers, which seems like a shame. Beyond that, though, this also makes it seem pretty clear that the coach is very unhappy with losing Gay, a player whom he called "a big part of my success as a coach here and I feel I was a big part of his success." That certainly tracks with the tack he took three weeks ago, as relayed by Mike Monroe of the San Antonio Express-News:
Here’s what he told reporters before sending his team out for its dramatic 101-98 home victory over the Spurs:
“I like my team. We’re 23-10. Why would I want to break up a 23-10 team?”
Then came the none-too-subtle threat.
“If they break up the team and get rid of everybody, I’ll coach them until the season’s over,” he said. “Then I’ll make a decision about what I’m going to do.”
As others, like SB Nation's Mike Prada, have noted, that 23-10 mark was built largely by the Grizzlies' hot 12-2 start, after which they went a not-exactly-scorching 17-13 before the Gay trade. Plus, there's a pretty strong argument to be made that Memphis' top-four-in-the-West record has much more to do with a defense tied with the Chicago Bulls for second-stingiest in the league behind the Indiana Pacers (a defense anchored by Gasol down low and the pairing of Mike Conley and Tony Allen up top, not Gay) than its bottom-10 offensive unit, on which Gay scored the most points by taking the most shots, despite making a touch under 41 percent of them. Viewed through that lens, trading Gay — as well as the likes of Marreese Speights, Wayne Ellington and Josh Selby — might not necessarily constitute "breaking up" the team. (It's also maybe worth considering that the most successful stint in Hollins' career — Memphis' run to the Western Conference finals two years ago — came with Gay out of the lineup.)
That said, we get what Hollins is saying, because emotion exists in sports (just ask Westbrook) and so does loyalty, and Hollins has had Gay throughout his entire career. But the "beer budget" line, plus the comments from San Antonio, plus last month's swipe at statistical analysis-driven decision-making, which came on the heels of Memphis adding the most famous statistically focused basketball writer in the world to an organization that's beefed up its analytics focus as part of a shifting front office approach under new owner Robert Pera ... it's all coming together to make some — including Straight Outta Vancouver's Kevin Lipe — wonder if Hollins, who is in the final year of a three-year deal he signed in April 2010, "is trying not to get a contract extension."
The ramped-up rhetoric could be sound and fury signifying nothing, but it's also likely "not endearing to those who still have a coaching decision to make for next season," as the Memphis Flyer's Chris Herrington writes:
There are so many factors in play in that decision: Can Hollins and the new regime have a good working relationship going forward? Will new ownership be willing to give Hollins the kind of raise he's arguably earned if he's retained? Does this team need a new hand at the wheel to refashion its offense? Can the organization really risk parting with a proven winner and strong locker-room leader and venturing into the unknown? Remember, Marc Iavaroni once looked like a great hire.
From the outside looking in, the prospects of Hollins' return certainly look shaky. Having Gay traded after a public plea-of-sorts to keep the team together and then responding in a nationally televised setting in a way that seemed critical of the new regime isn't necessarily a determinative act. But it certainly casts more doubt where there was already plenty.
As Herrington goes on to note, it also affords the opportunity for Hollins and his players to ease a lot of tension and resolve a lot of issues by winning some games. As soon as all the players involved in Wednesday's trade pass their respective physicals, they'll be eligible to join the team, which will fill out Memphis' bench and should give its rotation a boost; getting five of six at home heading into the All-Star break should help, too, as should a February schedule that includes eight sub-.500 teams and just three prospective playoff squads. But if the Grizzlies' offense continues to sputter even against the league's lower lights and Hollins' dismay at the dismissal of Gay persists, even more changes could be coming soon to Memphis.