Scoggins: Defensive-minded Joerger is just what Wolves need

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 24, 2014 - 12:37 AM
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Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Joerger yells to his players in the first half of Game 6 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Thursday, May 1, 2014, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Photo: Mark Humphrey, DML - ASSOCIATED PRESS

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Dave Joerger has won preaching defense, and his profile seems very Flip-friendly.

Forget for a moment that Dave Joerger is one of us, if that’s even possible, since unabashed provincialism binds Minnesotans as much as our ability to withstand unusually cruel winters.

Joerger hails from Staples, Minn., and played college basketball in Minnesota and now, it seems, he’s close to becoming the next Timberwolves coach.

Joerger reportedly will meet with owner Glen Taylor at some point this weekend and, unless Joerger makes some ill-conceived wisecrack about wedding invitations or newspapers (pending), the 40-year-old likely could get an opportunity to coach his hometown NBA team.

Homecomings make for neat stories, but Joerger’s résumé, not his roots, are what matter here, and the limbo coach of the Memphis Grizzlies fits the mold of a coaching profile that should be attractive to Wolves basketball boss Flip Saunders.

Joerger preaches defense. He is relatively young and ambitious. He has head coaching experience. He has guided a team to the playoffs. He loves up-tempo offense. And did we mention he preaches defense?

As Saunders set out to find Rick Adelman’s replacement, my wish list began with former Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, a straight shooter who made toughness the backbone of his operation.

Under Hollins, the Grizzlies played hard-nosed defense and were tougher than a Rottweiler’s chew toy. They displayed an unmistakable grit and tenacity that made them an uninviting matchup for any team, and they won at a high level, reaching the Western Conference finals in 2013.

The Wolves could use some of that spit-in-your-eye bravado.

This is not a particularly tough team, especially when it comes to defense. The Wolves ranked near the bottom of the NBA in scoring defense (104.3 points) and field-goal percentage defense (47.1) this past season. Hard to win that way, no matter how efficiently an offense functions.

The three-point line has transformed basketball, but the best teams still know how to buckle down defensively. Three of the top six teams in scoring defense this season are playing in the conference finals right now (Indiana, Miami and San Antonio).

Toughness manifests itself in other ways, too. This season the Wolves lost their first 11 games that were decided by four points or fewer. They had a 4-32 record when tied or trailing after the third quarter.

Those figures further illustrate the Wolves’ lack of overall defensive accountability. Saunders put that deficiency high on his list of offseason objectives, which makes Joerger an intriguing candidate.

Joerger oversaw the Grizzlies defense as Hollins’ top assistant. In football parlance, he served as Hollins’ defensive coordinator.

The Grizzlies led the NBA in scoring defense two seasons ago at 89.3 points per game. They finished third this season at 94.6 points. They make teams look like they’re swimming in oatmeal on offense.

Hollins, who endured a messy divorce from the Grizzlies after the 2013 season, insinuated in a radio interview last summer that Joerger received too much credit for the Grizzlies’ defensive success. Those comments can be brushed aside as sour grapes, but it is worth noting that Memphis is blessed with elite defenders.

Center Marc Gasol earned NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2013. Tony Allen is one of the league’s premier perimeter defenders. Mike Conley is a thief in terms of creating steals.

The Wolves can’t match that collective acumen, but scheme and want-to remain hallmarks of any good defense. If hired, Joerger should be able to make the Wolves at least respectable in that area.

He’s not just a defensive coach, though. That’s probably an inaccurate label. Joerger, like Saunders, might even be classified as an offensive coach at heart.

Joerger prefers a fast tempo on offense, not the grind-it-out approach that Hollins favors. The Grizzlies’ personnel dictated a slower pace, but there’s little doubt that Joerger and Saunders share similar offensive principles.

Let’s be honest about something else, too. Saunders likely sees himself in Joerger: a coaching gym rat who worked his way up from the minor leagues. Saunders probably still has a hankering to coach and likely views Joerger as a kindred spirit he can share ideas with and help mold in ways that he couldn’t with a veteran coach.

We could know in a few days if Joerger is the hire, or if Saunders has somebody else in mind. The local guy returning home would be a nice story. The fact that he has a keen appreciation for defense is even better.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com

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