The relationship between an NBA head coach and his players in 2016 is a delicate one. More than ever, it seems like the overarching goal of an organization that possesses at least one superstar is to keep said superstar in his current uniform, and keep him happy. This puts the coach in a precarious situation, at once needing to lead, teach and discipline his team while simultaneously bowing to his superstar.
No coach-player relationship reflected that dichotomy more than the Cleveland Cavaliers with David Blatt and LeBron James. Their marriage was frigid from the start, and James seemed to go out of his way to establish himself as higher up in the pecking order. He avoided crediting Blatt for, well, anything. He ignored him on the sidelines. He dismissed his play calls. Eventually, though the organization would never admit it, he played a part in Blatt’s dismissal from his leadership position.
That type of power struggle makes Memphis Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger’s press conference all the more touching. The Grizzlies were swept in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs by the San Antonio
Warlocks Spurs, though the Grizzlies were working with a JV roster. All-Star point guard Mike Conley was out for the season. All-Star center Marc Gasol was out for the season. Brandan Wright. Jordan Adams. Jarrell Martin. All hurt and unable to play. The Grizzlies were a skeleton of their former selves, yet they played the Spurs as hard as they could. So when Joerger broke down in tears at the podium when the series was all over, it was as surprising as it was endearing.
“Those guys fought and I can’t tell you how proud I am of every guy that is in that locker room and has come through that locker room this season,” Joerger said. “This season has been hard, it’s been really hard. They could have quit, could’ve not made the playoffs, and every day they came out and fought like crazy.”
The love, passion and connection Joerger felt for his team spilled out onto the table for all to see, and one can only assume his emotions were reciprocated by the Grizzlies players as they got dressed in the locker room and prepared themselves for the off-season ahead. In an NBA culture that prioritizes superstars, relegating many head coaches to figurehead status, it is a pleasure to see, if just for a moment, a coach and player relationship that reverts back to its purest form.