Lionel Hollins doesn’t pull any punches.
The 61-year-old coach is a bit like the grandpa at a family party. When one of the teenage grandkids walks in with a pink Mohawk, ol’ Lionel calls it like he sees it.
About halfway through his first year in Brooklyn, Hollins has treated the Nets the same way. And there have been a lot of pink Mohawks.
If Brook Lopez is playing soft, Hollins says so. If the Nets can’t hit a shot, Hollins says so. If he thinks Mason Plumlee can play better, Hollins says so.
The coach’s blunt -- but for the most part, true -- comments have rubbed some people, both players and fans, the wrong way. The result? Tension, pouting and losing and then, possibly, maybe, a change, an epiphany.
Until very recently, Brooklyn was stumbling through yet another regular season, falling out of eighth place in the East as losers of five of its last seven.
Then, to make this more complicated, an ESPN report published on Jan. 26 suggested the Nets have been doing some in-season "evaluating" in the midst of a massively disappointing year.
Here’s a tidbit from Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.com:
Sources say locker room tensions between the outspoken coach and some of his players are rising as the Nets continue to falter, with sources telling ESPNNewYork.com's Mike Mazzeo that Hollins' public criticism of various players this season, such as (Brook) Lopez and fellow big man Mason Plumlee, has rankled ownership.
Other outlets -- and the Nets front office -- have refuted the report. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix tweeted this that same day:
Internally there is a strong belief that the Nets mess isn't due to Hollins tough-love style; it's the players resistance to it.
— Chris Mannix (@ChrisMannixSI) January 27, 2015
Ah, there it is. The refreshing, ice-cold truth. Or is it?
These are grown men literally paid to play ball, and paid well. It’s time to question the very trait that has held this franchise back since it lost to the Chicago Bulls in the first round of the playoffs two years ago: Softness.
Deron Williams says Hollins is unique, at least in his experience.
"He's different than any coach I have had, that's for sure," Williams said. "I played for Jerry Sloan, who was old-school. That is what they say with [Hollins] but [they're] different personalities, though -- more blunt."
Does "blunt" equate to too harsh? He’s tough, yes, but this is a guy who will tell you he knows what he’s doing.
"I am combative. I'm not afraid of conflict or confrontation. I am confrontational,'' Hollins said on Jan. 12. "As a leader, you have to be. I mean, what do you get out of people if you just sit back and let them do what they want to do, without any confrontation? My feeling is there can be no change without confrontation. You go back through history, every change had some kind of conflict before there was change. Nobody is doing something different because they want to. It's because somebody creates conflict that makes them."
Hollins isn’t perfect. It appears that he botched the handling of veteran forward Andrei Kirilenko. He hasn’t really given spring-load-legged Markel Brown much of shot. Plumlee’s playing time was oddly sporadic early on.
Over the course of the season, some players just don’t seem to have a concrete role. Bojan Bogdanovic opened the year as a starter but averaged 6.4 minutes per game from Dec. 29 to Jan. 7. The Croatian has since bounced sporadically between 25-plus minutes and less than 15. In the last five games, though, as the sixth man, he's shooting 10-of-22 and playing a smart game.
He admits that for a while, he lost Hollins' confidence.
"In the beginning of the season I was a starter and played a lot of minutes, but then coach lost some confidence in me and I also lost confidence in myself so he put me on the bench," Bogdanovic told NetsDaily. "Now, again, I play a lot of minutes so I found my spot on the team and I hope that I can show to everybody that I can play even better than I am now."
Sergey Karasev has had similar problems. He barely got in early on, played crazy minutes (over 27 per game) from Dec. 10 to Jan. 7…and now barely plays again as Bogdanovic takes his minutes. He's the mirror image of his fellow European.
Outside of the lack of set roles, Hollins’ clashes with Lopez have been one of his biggest challenges thus far. Lopez is a highly skilled big fella, but he just can’t seem to shed his reputation as being a tad on the soft side.
"I still don't think we get along very well," Lopez said three days ago, smiling all the way. "But we are figuring each other out."
Hollins insists that it’s not personal. He says he’s just as tough on Lopez as he is on everyone.
"Everybody, listen," he told beat writers "Brook -- I am stressing out with everybody. But everybody was asking me about Brook every day, asking me about Mase [Plumlee] every day. But I stress out with everybody. It is a part of what we are trying to do as a team."
And whether this has helped Lopez turn his -- and the team's -- season around is a big question.
When he coached the Memphis Grizzlies, they were seen as a tough team that played in an arena nicknamed the "Grindhouse." Memphis is still fierce today, so it clearly wasn’t all coaching -- having good players is more than half the battle. But those Grizzlies would throw themselves on the floor if there was even a faint chance of corralling the ball. Defense created offense. They feared no opponent (just ask Kevin Durant). What they lacked in skill they made up for in heart and grit.
Hollins had hoped to bring some Grizzliness to Brooklyn. But as David Gendelman of The New Yorker wrote on Jan. 15, the Nets don’t have that type of roster.
Whereas the Grizzlies team was young and aggressive, the Nets team Hollins inherited is, at its worst, old, slow, and injury-prone. [Deron] Williams, 30, has been hampered by ankle injuries over the past two seasons…[Joe] Johnson is 33. Lopez is only 26, but he sometimes moves like he’s 62.
Age isn’t really much of an excuse. Kevin Garnett could be 80 years old and would still consistently show more hustle than some of his teammates.
After Jarrett Jack drilled a buzzer beater to lift Brooklyn over the Los Angeles Clippers earlier this week, Hollins seemed encouraged with where the team was headed.
"Our spirit has come back," he said. "We are scrapping, scratching and clawing."
The Nets are going to need a whole lot more of that in order to crawl back into playoff contention. One thing that's not likely to change is Hollins' style, as he told ESPN Radio Thursday.
"I don’t think Popovich sugar coats. I don’t think Jerry Sloan used to sugar coat. I don’t think Thibodeau sugar coats. I don’t think Van Gundy sugar coats, nor did his brother sugar coat. I think all coaches -- maybe there are some that don’t -- but I know and admire and respect that they just say what is. It’s not like I’m out to browbeat anybody, it’s not that I’m out to put somebody down…they’re just obvious answers."
- Lionel Hollins Interview (Audio) - ESPN Radio
- Hollins humbled by Nets’ resilience - John Torenli - Brooklyn Daily Eagle
- Nets: Old-school Lionel Hollins seeing better results - Andy Vasquez - The Record
- The Nets are figuring out the quirky Hollins, and it shows - Brian Lewis - New York Post