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Grizzly losses put Dave Joerger in crosshairs

Memphis Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger has seen his team absorb some punishing defeats already this season. Steve Dykes/Getty Images

It’s a popular early November exercise for those in the oddsmaking business, whether they’re operating in Las Vegas or offshore.

Who will be the first coach fired in the NBA this season?

Our buddies at Bovada.lv pumped out a mass email posing that very question earlier this week, along with their forecast for how to best answer it going off an eight-deep list of names to consider.

Somehow, though, Bovada didn’t even include the man who, according to NBA coaching sources, might just occupy the league’s warmest seat given the shaky start his team has endured and a fresh round of rumblings in circulation about in-house tensions.

A mere 11 days into the season, I fear we’re forced to keep our eye on the Memphis Grizzlies and the status of coach Dave Joerger.

An undeniably brutal schedule has contributed to the Grizzlies’ 3-3 launch. Those three defeats were inflicted by the Cleveland Cavaliers (in Memphis), Golden State Warriors (in Oakland) and the Portland Trail Blazers (who were in an absolute offensive zone on their home floor). Worse yet, Memphis still has two games left on a five-game trip against Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers on Saturday and Sunday.

Yet it’s the manner of the three defeats, sources say, that has led to fears within the organization that owner Robert Pera won’t wait long to make a drastic change. The Grizzlies lost their home opener to the Cavs by 30, got blitzed soon thereafter by Cleveland’s conquerors in the NBA Finals by an unfathomable 50, then fell behind by 26 points in the Pacific Northwest before settling for a 19-point defeat to the Blazers.

To put it another way: Memphis has already trailed by 20 points or more for 62 minutes this season ... compared to 88 minutes for the whole of 2014-15.

Those lopsided scores, just six games in, suggest a worrisome level of non-competitiveness that inevitably put the coach -- any coach -- under the microscope. We've seen precious little of that signature grit or grind from this group so far.

The on-the-record quotes coming out of the Grizzlies’ camp are rather alarming, too, with star guard Mike Conley responding to the Portland shellacking by saying “we’re not on the same page defensively," after Joerger responded to the Golden State humiliation with this damning admission: “There are times when we look a little bit old.”

Joerger then repeated that lament after the loss to the perky Blazers, who are getting good production from a young big man (Ed Davis) that Joerger never had much use for in Memphis.

To pin the struggles all on Joerger, for as many questions as such comments raise, wouldn’t be fair. Conley and the handsomely re-upped Marc Gasol have started the season well shy of top form, while the Grizzlies’ plummet to No. 26 in defensive efficiency as of Friday morning reads like a misprint that even Small Sample Size Theatre can’t explain.

But there’s no ignoring the whispers we’re hearing about finger-pointing between the bench and management. Pera, I’m told, wants to see young guard Jordan Adams get an opportunity and hasn’t forgotten that Hassan Whiteside got cut twice by the Grizzlies before Thanksgiving a year ago before going to Miami and emerging as one of the league’s young breakout forces. Dismay around town about the Grizzlies' substitution patterns and lack of offensive creativity is bubbling anew.

Joerger’s “old” comment, meanwhile, reads like a thinly veiled critique of the recent choices from Memphis’ front-office tag team of Chris Wallace and John Hollinger, from trades (Jeff Green) and signings (Vince Carter and Matt Barnes) that haven’t had the desired effect to the drafting of Adams over Rodney Hood to a longstanding need for more shooting that persists.

The biggest source of vulnerability for Joerger, of course, is the fact that Pera has internally questioned Joerger's leadership in the past and nearly fired him once before, only to patch things up in a stunning about-face in May 2014 when Joerger, deep in talks with the Minnesota Timberwolves, got a new three-year contract. Another potential complication: Pera is known to be a huge fan of Tom Thibodeau, has pursued him before and could be moved to make a run at Thibs before someone else does.

Sources say upper management, furthermore, was the driving force behind the appointment of Jeff Bzdelik as Joerger’s top assistant in July 2014, as opposed to those in the basketball department.

Coaching change or not, there are rival executives out there who believe the Grizzlies will ultimately be forced to look hard at trading Mayor of Memphis Zach Randolph if they want to commission a serious shake-up that leads to a roster infusion of youth and athleticism. As shocking to the system as that would be for many Memphians, Randolph is the player on the roster most likely to fetch a difference-maker in return. So we have to keep a lookout for that as well, should the Grizz decide they need to make a more drastic move than their interest in Mario Chalmers we reported earlier this week.

Yet for now, in the shadows of Graceland, all eyes are on Joerger for starters. Fair or not.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Have to say that I would dispute most of the nominees on Bovada's list, but the Lakers' woes are such that chatter about Byron Scott's job security, like it or not, has also begun. The legit signals we're getting so far suggest Scott is not in any immediate danger, given his status as Laker royalty and his ability to manage Kobe Bryant, ‎but an 0-4 start in what was considered a soft stretch of schedule suggests this won't be easily hushed as a topic. ... Jimmer Fredette will cost San Antonio nearly $1.3 million this season in salary and luxury tax despite failing to make the Spurs' roster in training camp. Fredette had a $507,711 guarantee in his contract whether he made the team or not, which counts for an extra $761,566 in tax, thus hiking the Spurs’ current tax bill beyond the $3 million mark. ... In retrospect, Steph Curry quietly did give us a glimpse of how locked in he'd be at the start of the season despite Golden State's admittedly subpar preseason. I’m told Curry went on a run of 55 consecutive 3-point makes during his daily post-practice shooting route in the days leading up to Opening Night. That's his best run yet of consecutive makes in the 100-shot drill since the famed 77 in a row last season.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Free advice to the aforementioned oddsmakers: Scratch David Blatt and Dwane Casey from the list. The Cavs are going to the NBA Finals and their season won't be judged until the playoffs in any case. Casey's Raptors, meanwhile, actually lead the Warriors in the Team of the Month race as we speak, because no one expected this much so soon from this team, which just swept a difficult back-to-back on the road in Dallas and Oklahoma City to make those of us who tried to be clever and pick Boston to win the Atlantic Division (hello!) look foolish in record time. ... More than 12 percent of Detroit's nearly $77 million payroll is going to players not on the 15-man roster, led by Josh Smith ($5.4 million) and Danny Granger ($2,170,465).