EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The Nets flew home in the wee hours of Thursday morning after their third consecutive 20-something point loss. Now, head coach Lionel Hollins, working on just a few hours of sleep like everyone else, is sitting in a courtside chair after practice with a baseball cap knocked back on his head, and he is talking candidly about how "at this stage of our development," the 8-11 Nets "are not a very good team."
Why does he say that?
"Look at our record," Hollins shot back. "It's the truth."
Then he calmly went on to tick off the Nets' defensive limitations, their lack of foot speed, how their big men "get whipped" too often when it comes to rebounding, and how his players struggle to accept they need to control the tempo of games more, because, as presently constructed, they can't play at the faster tempo they'd prefer.
The downsizing of expectations by the Nets' latest new coach is not what anyone wants to hear about a club that's had the NBA's highest payroll two years running, was eager to finally get former All-Star center Brook Lopez back this season from his many maladies, and still rolls out a veteran backcourt, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, with max contracts that are hard to move.
Hollins has proven in his short time in town that he didn't leave his no-nonsense logic and biting candor in Memphis, his previous coaching stop. And this has taken some getting used to. Quite often, he's had some explaining to do.
But look: At some point it was inevitable that the focus would shift from who is coaching the Nets' core three -- Hollins is their fourth coach in three years, remember, following Avery Johnson, P.J. Carlesimo and one-year wonder Jason (Get Me The Hell Outta Here) Kidd -- and onto the players themselves. A roster can only be responsible for so many tombstones before someone yelps.
And the Nets are there. It's become clear it's not a question of if roster changes are coming. But when.
Neither Hollins nor Nets general manager Billy King is even taking great pains to deny it.
King, when asked 11 days ago if he still believes Lopez, Johnson and Williams can win together, raised the first red flag when he said, "We'll see." Just three days ago -- boom -- ESPN's Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk reported that the Nets have begun "exploring" what they might be able to get back in trades if they break up the team.
As a league source said Thursday, "If this were a championship team, I don't think Jason would have left. It's a team with some talent. And some deficiencies."
Remember, too, that personnel changes were part of Hollins' M.O. in Memphis, too, which overhauled its roster between his first and second years -- then took off winning after weeding out who didn't fit.
Right now, the Nets could desperately use a quick shutdown perimeter defender and an athletic, physical, rebounding big man to cover for the lumbering Lopez, who is also a poor passer out of double teams. (Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like his game?)
If Hollins is worried how the trade talk will play in-season on a team that's been called "soft" dating back to its playoff series loss to a woefully undermanned Chicago team a few years back, he doesn't let on. "The rumors may be weighing a little on some guys, but I don't even talk about it," he shrugged Thursday.
One of Hollins' former bosses, John Nash, once called Hollins a "man's coach." And that's a good way of putting it. Hollins is often left having to explain himself because, for starters, his remarks often read far harsher in print than when you hear him utter them in person. The truth is, nearly zero of what he says is impulsive or half-cocked.
His basketball knowledge and pedigree run deep. Some things just really are non-negotiable with him. And he will go to the ramparts -- against anybody -- over, say, his bedrock belief that teams win as a group, with everybody "selling out" for the group.
"It's not about any individuals," Hollins insists. "It's about winning."
Once people get that "it's all about the group" with him, Hollins adds, that's when they begin to understand, "When I say something [blunt], it's not to speak poorly about them. I mean, I would never say, 'Oh, he lost the game for us,' or, 'He didn't do his job for us, that's why we lost.' ... But if you get more upset about missing a shot than a guy posting you up and scoring, something's wrong. That's a problem.
"I am combative. I'm not afraid of conflict or confrontation. I am confrontational,'' Hollins adds. "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 rode into town saying he didn't care what anyone asked of Lopez, Johnson or Williams here before. Asked about Williams' reputation as a coach-killer, Hollins joked, "I've been known as a player-killer." Turning serious later, he also said, "I think most NBA players have the capability to do more, especially the more talented ones, and it's just a matter of expecting it versus years past, maybe it wasn't expected.
"Maybe everybody just dealt with what Brook did or Joe [Johnson] or Deron Williams did. My philosophy is totally different. ... I used to say this to a lot of guys: 'Why are you mad at me and getting into an argument with me because of what I say, and yet that guy kicks your ass every night out there on the glass and you don't get into a debate with him? Don't get mad at me! Get mad at him! He's the one you're competing against. I'm on your side!'"
And that attitude, too, springs from a deep place in the 61-year-old Hollins.
As a player, he was coached by three Hall of Famers -- Jack Ramsay, Billy Cunningham and Chuck Daly. He also played alongside some of the NBA's best players ever, winning a title with a young Bill Walton on the Portland club that, to this day, remains almost as romanticized as Red Holzman's great Knicks teams thanks to David Halberstam's seminal book, "The Breaks of the Game."
As a coach, Hollins' Memphis teams won 50-plus games in the rugged West his last three years, upset the Oklahoma City Thunder, and went to the 2013 conference finals before he left over "philosophical differences" with the management team that the Grizzlies' new ownership put in place. One of the many irritants? A day Hollins saw the club's new VP/stats guru had decided -- uninvited -- to run a player through a drill on his practice court. (Incoming!)
The result of all those influences is Hollins sees himself as a crucible-toughened coach. At this stage of his career, he thinks he knows a few things for sure -- about winning. About players. About what all great teams share.
"I've been coached my whole life," he says, "and no coach ever said, 'Oh, that was a good shot,' when it was a bad shot. And nobody's ever said, 'Oh, hey, it's OK about that turnover.' You know?" Hollins laughs. "You've got to execute. Because if you keep making those turnovers or losing plays, we're going to lose."
What that means in practice for the Nets is, for starters, there are no sacred cows.
Johnson has already had to shoot down rumors that he had a strained relationship with Hollins after the 33-year-old shooting guard publicly complained his teammates played selfishly after a game against Orlando, and the Nets promptly lost six of their next seven.
Williams has been good but not as great as he was back when the Nets made him the centerpiece of their rebuilding effort. He's said the Nets have played like "zombies" at times -- ironic coming from someone long criticized as being too passive for a franchise cornerstone, even before the need for double-ankle surgery this past offseason robbed him of his old explosiveness.
Lopez -- a bit of a piñata for Hollins early on because he'd like to see the oft-injured 7-1 center play a more well-rounded game -- has had to deflect similar rumors that Hollins chaps him. Even reserve forward Mason Plumlee said "whatever" after Hollins delivered a dissatisfied critique of a game Plumlee had a few weeks ago.
"I am combative. I'm not afraid of conflict or confrontation. I am confrontational. 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."Lionel Hollins
But sitting here now, Hollins is willing to address all of it. Head on.
If you ask Hollins about calling out young Plumlee or his unsparing critiques of Lopez's game, Hollins says, "You know, if they ask, 'How is Mase playing?' and I say, 'Not very well.' That's just the truth. What does he need to do? He needs to play better -- at everything. I'm looking at everything. ... Same with Brook.
"If you go back, Brook has averaged 20 points a game. Now, you could be happy with that. But at 7-foot, we don't get rebounds, we don't get shot blocks, we don't get charges. That is as important to winning than just 20 points. It's not just the rebounds, and it's not just the points, and it's not just the charges. It's all of that."
Hollins says what he's attempting here is nothing less than a culture change. Some players already here will survive it. And some will not.
"The culture part of any team is hard to change, and especially with players that have been in the league, because they've had success doing this or that, and then it's, 'Well I've been on winning teams before, and I've still been able to do this,'" Hollins adds.
"I say, 'Well, where are your aspirations? Just being on a winning team? A winning team is 42-40, you know,'" Hollins scoffs.
Practice has been over for nearly an hour. A public relations man drifts over and says Plumlee, who is sitting alone at the far end of the gym, is still waiting to talk to Hollins about something. Before going, Hollins -- the King of Candor -- gives a surprising answer when asked if, given his emphasis on the integrity of the group, he was happy when Johnson piped up and said the team was playing selfishly.
"No," Hollins said.
"He's entitled to his own opinion," Hollins explains. "But I don't think that was the best way to do it. I mean, we have a locker room. You can call out your teammates in the locker room. You can call an individual out. It would've helped more if he had done it that way, and if he called out whomever the individuals were that he thought were being selfish.
"It's like, last year I was doing radio for Sirius and there was a big Kevin Love controversy because he called out guys on the bench [in Minnesota]. They said, 'Why would he do that?' and I said, 'Well, is he trying to take attention away from he just went 4-for-15? [Instead] it's, 'Oh, we got guys that don't want to play.' Well, what are you doing? Where's your leadership?
"I can understand if he said, 'Hey guys, get in the game and go do what you're going to do.' [Kevin Garnett] would do that. He wouldn't go to the media and say these guys don't care or don't want to do anything or their attitude sucked. Go tell your teammates. That's more leadership than telling the media. When you tell the media, that just tells me you want to deflect attention away from you. My personal opinion is, that Joe probably was overestimating us as a team and thinking we shouldn't have had a close game against Orlando, and we shouldn't have had to play small to win the game."
Telling someone to keep things in-house would seem to be a rich contradiction for Hollins. But is it? Hollins' unhappiness with Johnson could also be explained this way: Johnson's complaint was a not-so-veiled public finger-pointing at a teammate -- Lopez -- since Lopez was, after all, the player Hollins kept on the bench at the end of that win.
And coincidentally enough, unbeknownst to Hollins as he spoke Thursday, Johnson stood not 40 feet away from the practice court chair where his head coach sat, offering up another take on Lopez. He told reporters that the Nets' offense has to figure out how to flow better when the team isn't trying to "force-feed" Lopez when he's on the court.
Is it any wonder the trade winds are blowing? Moving any of the Nets' big three is going to be hard. But count on this: Under Hollins, some kind of change is going to come.