Hollins bringing old school style to Brooklyn

FILEChristian Petersen/Getty Images Lionel Hollins doesn’t have his contract renenewed after leading the Grizzlies to their most successful postseason in franchise history in 2013. His reluctance to go all-in on the analytics movement — Hollins preferred a balance of stats and feel — led to his end in Memphis.

Basketball is played by people, not robots.

This is the attitude argued by Lionel Hollins, and it reportedly contributed to his ouster in Memphis despite all the success under his watch, all the growth of players like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and Mike Conley.

As the management around him — and, to some degree, the entire NBA — was pushing for a statistics-based philosophy in building a roster and playing the game, Hollins was resistant to the movement and, ultimately, replaced by somebody who embraced it.

“I think the whole league is going a little bit overboard with the statistics and you’re still dealing with people and individuals and that’s where Lionel is good — with the players,” said Barry Hecker, who knows Hollins better than most, having worked as his assistant both in the International Basketball League and the NBA. “I’m not saying that he doesn’t look at the statistics at all, but he kind of coaches by the seat of his pants a little bit and gets to know the players and what their strengths are and he builds around their strengths.”

Hecker tells the Daily News that he’s happy that Hollins is back coaching in the NBA and it’s well-deserved, which is no small compliment considering the fallout between the two. As the Grizzlies were making their run to the Western Conference Finals in 2013, Hollins dismissed his assistant in the middle of the second-round series against the Thunder. The reasoning was a confrontation Hecker had with a fan in Oklahoma City, but it was also a signal of a foundation collapsing amidst a rift with ownership.

The Grizzlies won that series against the Thunder without Hecker, and were then swept by the Spurs. It was the farthest the Grizzlies ever advanced in the playoffs. But that was it for Hollins in Memphis. His contract wasn’t renewed. At different points throughout that season, he had shouted at the Vice President of Basketball Operations, John Hollinger, the godfather of basketball stat geeks who invented the algorithm known as Player Efficiency Rating. He openly criticized the Grizzlies for trading Rudy Gay, insinuating that it was both a cheap move by ownership and a regrettable decision based on analytics.

The relationship couldn’t last, and it didn’t. But YES analyst Mike Fratello, speaking to The News on Thursday, said Hollins’ public skepticism of analytics was unfairly used against him.

“I think that may have been blown out of proportion a little bit. I think what happened was, listen, Lionel is not a stupid guy. He understands there’s a place for (analytics),” said Fratello, who was the head coach at Memphis for three seasons while Hollins was an assistant. “There are some valuable things you can gain from that. I think what happened was Lionel was saying, ‘Listen, there’s a time and place that you can look at it and it can be used. Yeah, there is. There is. But that’s not the bottom-line, do-or-die, that’s how it has got to be. There’s also a human factor, the feel part of it, the understanding part of it, the years of experience in the league that you have as a player, as a coach, that go into making those decisions.’

“But you can’t base the whole thing, the whole decision on analytics. He thinks there’s a little more to it, I think the human element should come into a little bit more. I think when he said that, it wasn’t maybe accepted in the way he intended it to be accepted.”

The circumstances also underscored Hollins’ longstanding reputation, and what importantly separates him from the predecessor in Brooklyn, Jason Kidd. He’s the contrast to the flashy hire that bolted at his first opportunity.

The 60-year-old from Arkansas is direct and honest, with dues paid and an appreciation for loyalty.

“He’s no-nonsense,” says Hecker. “You know where he’s coming from. He’s not going to bull—- anybody. He’s going to tell them what he thinks and he’s going to expect them to do it.”


Hollins is arriving on the big stage of New York from the humble beginnings of a small family farm in Las Vegas. There, his mother passed away from kidney disease when Hollins was 13. He lived with his grandmother, the strong matriarch, and two sisters.

Growing up fast was necessary.

“Life’s cruel realities were already taking their toll on Lionel, who had to go to work as early as he can remember so that he could help support his family,” wrote former teammate Bill Walton in a story published for ESPN in 2004. “And with that work, everything else started to suffer. He had to gradually stop playing sports because there was no time. Baseball was the first to go. By the time he was a senior at Rancho, basketball was the only thing left in his life other than menial labor for a few scant pennies.”

Eventually, basketball became his life. Hollins, a scrappy point guard, went from playing in community college to Arizona State to being the No. 6 pick in the 1975 NBA draft. Two years later, he won a title with Walton in Portland. Eight years after that, Hollins’ body was broken down and he retired.

“At 31, it was suddenly all over,” Walton wrote. “The legs and hands just ground up, and he still has the worst-looking deformities to his hands from basketball that I have ever witnessed (from arthritis).”

Coaching for Hollins was a slow process, quite opposite the privileged path taken by Kidd. He worked as an assistant in college and the minor leagues of American basketball, known prior to the D-League as the IBL and USBL.

He had three different stints as head coach of the Grizzlies, before it came together with a hard-nosed group that emphasized defense and kept the pace slow. In his last three seasons in Memphis, Hollins won over 62 percent of his games.

“I think (hiring Hollins) is probably the move that’s the most sensible,” Fratello said. “(GM Billy King) and ownership had to kind of sit down with the Jason situation and say, ‘OK, what are we going to do that our fanbase is going to trust with the move that we’re making now? Are we going to bring in a young guy, an inexperienced guy as far as coaching goes? We gave that guy a chance last year. He started out slowly, we hung with him, they turn it around a little bit at the end, but then he turns around and walks out on us in the fashion that he did.’

“So this gives the people, the fanbase, a sense a security that this guy knows what he’s doing, he’s been here before, he’s not new to the whole thing.”

Hollins has certainly been around, traveling down a diverging road to his four-year, $20 million deal with the Nets. In the wake the Kidd fiasco, it’s good for Brooklyn to know what it’s getting.

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