Grizzlies fans, at the risk of stating the obvious, I start with the harsh realities of the NBA: Unless your team plays in San Antonio, sooner or later, your favorite team will be awful. Whether it’s the departure of a star, bad contracts, bad trades or injury, it happens to every team, eventually — unless you’re the Spurs, that is.
And it may well be happening to the Memphis Grizzlies — right now.
Monday’s shocking news that the team had fired David Fizdale was just the most pronounced symptom of the team’s accelerating decline into the NBA cellar. With Wednesday’s 95-104 loss to the Spurs, the Grizzlies’ losing streak now is at nine. Their overall record is 7-13 And at roughly the one-quarter mark of the season, it’s seems about time for a point-by-point report card, starting with the departed coach and his interim replacement, J.B. Bickerstaff.
The Firing of David Fizdale
I hated this move. But honestly, I don’t know what other move was available.
By the time Fizdale benched All-Star Marc Gasol for the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 88-98 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, their relationship had already deteriorated beyond repair. On one hand, I wish the front office had given everyone time to cool off and try to work things out.
Then again, I can’t think of a successful team where the coach and star can’t seem to even speak to each other. If a coach loses his star player, it’s just a matter of time before he loses the whole team (Given how toothless the Grizz defense has been lately, that might have already been happening).
Given a choice between locker room dysfunction and mercifully terminating Fizdale in hopes of salvaging the season . . . Well, to paraphrase Chris Rock from back in the day: I ain’t saying they should have fired him . . . but I understand.
Elevating J.B. Bickerstaff:
Don’t really know much about J.B., so it’s difficult to say what to expect. At 38, the son of former NBA Head Coach Bernie Bickerstaff has an extensive coaching pedigree with family roots. He worked as an assistant coach for his dad back in Charlotte, from 2004-2007, and has made similar stops in Minnesota and in Houston, where he was interim coach for the Rockets after the team fired Kevin McHale in November 2015.
Bickerstaff finished that season with a 37-34 record, but withdrew his name from consideration for the full-time gig after the season. Referring to that stint, Grizz GM Chris Wallace said Bickerstaff was “uniquely qualified to take over at this point.”
Mostly because I’m a fan of continuity, I think Bickerstaff was the right choice — though it could just as easily have been Keith Smart, another former Fizdale assistant who had been a head coach in Sacramento. Here’s hoping Bickerstaff and Gasol and the rest of the team can find common ground — enough to start winning again.
The Front Office:
Let’s put some of the blame for the current status of the team where it belongs: at the feet of Wallace and the Front Office.
If it feels like Fizdale was punished for making the best of the bad hand he was dealt, it’s tough to argue otherwise. Let’s count the ways:
Not only was Fizdale charged with upgrading the team’s style of play to the run-n-gun speed of today’s NBA, he was expected to do so while integrating young and inexperienced players (Andrew Harrison, Deyonta Davis, Dillon Brooks) into the mix. He was expected to do it with key players getting injured (Mike Conley, Brandan Wright) or working their way back from injury (Chandler Parsons, Ben McLemore, Wayne Selden, JaMychal Green).
Oh, and he was supposed to do all this while winning enough games to make the Playoffs. That’s a tall order for any coach, which is why I wish he’d had more time for circumstances to settle.
There is indeed a lot of talent on the Grizzlies bench. But the roster doesn’t seem to fit together in a way that wins games, and most of the responsibility for that belongs to Chris Wallace.
Like his brother before him, Marc Gasol has never sought the spotlight. He’s a purist who prefers nimble team play to individual dominance. Which is ironic, because with Fizdale gone and Conley still out of action for who knows how long, all eyes will be on Gasol to carry the team.
Resist the urge to label Gasol as the bad guy here. I’ve covered him for years now, and I don’t think he set out to get Fizdale fired.
But here’s the facts: Gasol has NOT been playing well during this losing streak, including the third quarter of that Nets game, when Brooklyn built a 19-point lead.
Over the next two weeks, Memphis will face San Antonio, Cleveland, Minnesota, New York, Toronto, OKC, Miami and Washington. I don’t think the Grizzlies will lose ALL of those games.
But to win more than one, I do believe Gasol will have to be the dominant alpha male leader that Fizdale was demanding him to be. Which is truly ironic.
There’s plenty more to unpack with this team, not the least of which is Conley’s prognosis. The team has been disturbingly quiet about the seriousness of Conley’s Achilles injury, but again stating the obvious: The team’s forecast gets much better when (if?) he can return to action alongside Gasol.
Otherwise, as I mentioned in the preseason, I wouldn’t be shocked if this team won 45 games or 25 games. There were too many question marks back then (yikes, not even two months ago), and the team still has more questions than answers — questions that point more toward the lottery than they do the Playoffs.
Can Bickerstaff recapture the team’s defensive mojo? What’s up with Chandler Parson’s knee? How many teammates is Tyreke Evans irritating by not passing the ball? Will Brandan Wright EVER get healthy for more than two hours? How long before Mario Chalmers inflames his own Achilles? Can Dillon Brooks continue to play like a savvy veteran? Will Bickerstaff staple Andrew Harrison to the bench for good? And will Ben McLemore morph into more than a tease?
We’ve seen past Grizz coaches and players overcome this type of adversity before. But sooner or later, the Memphis Grizzlies are going to be bad. REALLY bad, like 23-win bad. It’s inevitable.
Like most Memphians, I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen this season.
GRIND ON . . .