Grizzlies face rocky future after firing Fizdale

NBA.com Global on Dec 05, 2017 08:27 AM
Grizzlies face rocky future after firing Fizdale
SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 29 : Pau Gasol #16 of the San Antonio Spurs and Marc Gasol #33 of the Memphis Grizzlies looks on during game on November 29, 2017 at the AT&T Center in San Antonio, TX. (Photo by Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

A week later, it still doesn’t make any sense.

No, things were not good in Memphis when the Grizzlies fired David Fizdale as coach. They still aren’t. The Grizzlies have lost 11 straight games entering today's matchup with the Minnesota Timberwolves, the franchise’s longest losing streak since 2009. At 7-15, Memphis is only ahead of the Sacramento Kings and Dallas Mavericks in the loaded Western Conference, and while it’s still young in the regular season, playoff talk is muted in Bluff City.

This is Big Boy Sports. A coach owns his team’s record, for better or worse, and Fizdale must wear 7-12, his team’s record when he was fired. No first-time coach has all the answers, or doesn’t make mistakes, and Fizdale is no different.

But much of what plagues the Grizzlies today is also management’s fault, and ownership’s, and the players’ -- including, but not limited to, Marc Gasol. The 32-year-old cornerstone of the franchise did not get along with Fizdale, and in the end, the team chose the big man over the young man, the veteran over the new guy.

Fizdale had tried to bring the successful teaching and motivational skills he’d learned in with the Miami Heat, as one of the league’s top young assistant coaches, to Memphis. He had endeared himself to the fan base with his infamous, fact-filled, passionate defense of his team after Game 2 of the Grizzlies’ first-round playoff series with San Antonio last spring.

Gasol has earned a certain level of respect and deference. It’s not a stretch to say that he’s surpassed his brother, Pau, as the most important player in franchise history. And it’s not coincidence that his arc as a player mirrors the success of the franchise. He’s the franchise’s all-time leader in blocks and is second in rebounds and points.

Nonetheless, the optics of dismissing Fizdale after just 19 games this season were, and are, awful. People around the league are still scratching their heads about who’s running the franchise -- especially considering this is the Grizzlies’ third coaching change since 2013. That 2013 firing didn’t make much sense, either, with Lionel Hollins getting sacked after winning 56 games in the regular season and leading the Grizzlies to the Western Conference finals for the first (and, so far, only) time in franchise history.

Gasol, who has a close relationship with majority owner Robert Pera, said last week that he did not demand Fizdale be fired, after Fizdale benched him for the fourth quarter of last Sunday’s (last Monday, PHL time) bad home loss to Brooklyn, when Gasol had a plus-minus of -17. It turned out to be Fizdale’s final game as coach. But Gasol clearly did not object. Even privately, among the players themselves, Gasol hasn't said anything while his teammates fumed about Fizdale’s ouster.

Yet the Grizzlies are adamant that the franchise isn’t in turmoil, and that firing Fizdale was the right thing to do, even though he didn’t have his best player, guard Mike Conley, for the last two weeks of his tenure because of a sore left Achilles. Other players like Wayne Selden (right quad), who was penciled in to start this season at guard, and Chandler Parsons (knee), were among many players in Fizdale’s rotation that were on minutes restrictions at the beginning of the season as they returned from injuries, further hampering his ability to find a regular rotation.

“I can see where people of the outside could question that a little bit,” Grizzlies General Manager Chris Wallace said Sunday (Monday, PHL time). “But we had just not played well and all of the signs had not been trending well since our (5-1) start … we’d been going down before Mike was hurt. We didn’t have JaMychal [Green] and Seldon and [Ben] McLemore when we built the record up early. We as an organization have had success holding on when we had significant injuries in the past.”

True. But many of those years came with Gasol at or near his peak years -- think 2012-13, when he was the Kia Defensive Player of the Year, or the following season, when he was first in the league among centers in Real Defense Plus-Minus (5.23). Gasol’s offensive numbers are still strong and he made his third All-Star Game last year. He’s still a load when he’s on his game. But he’s dropped off considerably at the defensive end from his best seasons.

So far this season, per NBA.com/Stats, Gasol ranks 25th in Defensive Rating among centers who play 20 or more minutes per game (106.8 points allowed per 100 possessions).

“He’s gone from Defensive Player of the Year level to starter level,” said one veteran pro scout, who thinks Gasol is a good team defender who can protect the paint, but who was helped by the slower pace of play favored by former Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger, and who was aided by having an elite wing defender in Tony Allen on the floor with him.

“As [Gasol] has gotten older, he is slower and has to guard quicker players out on the floor as (the) game has become more perimeter based, [and] he has to go out on the floor away from the rim,” the scout said.

Yet Memphis still believes that Gasol is an elite player -- or at least one worth backing over the coach. The Grizzlies could have moved Gasol in the last couple of seasons, gone the Boston Celtics’ route of trading experienced talent to teams looking to make a push in exchange for Draft picks. (In fact, they probably could have done such a deal with Boston, at least before the Celtics signed Al Horford in 2016.)

The “Core Four” of Gasol, Conley, Zach Randolph and Allen carried the Grizzlies through their most successful era in franchise history -- seven straight postseasons dating back to 2011, and the “Grit-N-Grind” style of play that was so synonymous with the city’s toughenss. But they also covered up numerous drafting whiffs during that same stretch, spanning different top managers.

Since 2010, Memphis has used first-round picks on Xavier Henry (taken 12th overall), Dominique Jones (25th overall in 2010, traded to Dallas), Greivis Vasquez (28th overall in 2010), Tony Wroten (25th overall in 2012), Jordan Adams (22nd overall in 2014), Jarell Martin (25th overall in 2015) and Wade Baldwin (17th overall in 2016).

Of all those players, only Martin has played more than two seasons with the franchise. The Grizzlies have already waived both Baldwin and their second-round pick from ’16, forward Rade Zagorac. There is hope for Martin, as well as Green, who re-signed with Memphis late in the summer, and forward James Ennis, who came to the Grizzlies with guard Mario Chalmers in a 2015 trade.

Memphis folk bristle at the notion that Fizdale changed the culture of their organization, giving Hollins the lion’s share of the credit for making the Grizzlies into a tougher, more focused group mentally. But Fizdale did change a lot of things in his short stint there.

Grizzlies’ practices were regimented and timed to the minute, with players split among several stations -- film, lifting, agility and shooting. They were graded daily on attitude and work ethic. Nothing was left to chance or taken for granted, and players across the board -- including Gasol (19.5 points per game last season), Conley (20.5) and Green (10.8) -- had the best offensive seasons of their careers under Fizdale and his staff. The Miami culture of “plug-and-play” -- developing young guys to transform themselves physically and taking on bigger roles -- was said to be perfect for Memphis.

Fizdale was charged with making the Grizz into a more modern offense. They were 29th in three-point shooting (.331) and 27th in pace (95.65) the season before Fizdale was hired (2015-16). They wanted to play faster. That wasn’t just a talking point, either. The feeling was it was hard enough to attract free agents to Memphis without playing a sleepwalking offensive style.

Fizdale benched Randolph in order to help space out the starting lineup. (This in and of itself is telling; Z-Bo never publicly complained about Fizdale changing his role.) And he challenged Gasol to lose weight and come to camp in better shape, to expand his range to include more three-pointers.

Gasol did so, shooting 268 three-pointers last season after shooting just 66 total in his previous eight seasons. The hope was that Parsons, signed in 2016 for four years and a whopping $94 million max deal, would step in at the four and stretch the floor further, allowing Conley to more opportunities to attack earlier in the shot clock and more space to operate.

Parsons was slowed by injuries again, but Memphis was nonetheless much better offensively last season, rising to 17th in three-point percentage and shooting almost 10 more three-pointers per game than in 2015-16. (The Grizz actually dropped to 28th in pace last season, at 94.74.) The Grizzlies weren’t a juggernaut, but they were going in the right direction in terms of offensive diversity. They were excited about Selden, the former Kansas star.

And they crossed the Rubicon, so to speak, when they didn’t opt to re-sign either Allen or Randolph this summer -- the defensive and offensive embodiments, respectively, of the “grit-and-grind” era -- and let Vince Carter walk, too. There’s no doubt that the city got its jollies from watching its team snuff out opposing offenses -- “it’s a fan base that gets more excited about a shot clock violation than a dunk,” one insider notes. But Randolph connected with the fans during his eight seasons in Memphis as much as any player.

He not only made two All-Star teams there, famously battling Blake Griffin and the LA Clippers seemingly every year in the playoffs. He was also the one bludgeoning the Spurs in the Grizzlies’ first-round upset of San Antonio in 2011. But, he also was active in ingratiating himself into the community. There were coat drives and food drives and the like, but also unique touches -- donating $20,000 a year for local families who couldn’t pay their utility bills in winter. They loved him; he loved them. Moving on wouldn’t be easy, but the franchise made the painful choice to do so.

And yet, a month into the season, they cashiered the guy who brought about so many of those changes.

No one in Memphis denies that the deteriorating relationship between Fizdale and Gasol was a significant factor in the decision to let Fizdale go. (Okay: Wallace calls it a “contributing factor.”) But they insist that wasn’t the only reason. There were the eight straight home losses at FedEx Forum, where the team had had a significant home court edge, and the Grizzlies’ 7-14 finish to the regular season last year. (The 4-2 loss to the Spurs in the first round, in which Memphis gave San Antonio fits, is not part of this narrative.)

“What happens is when you’ve been through this a while, you just get a sense when you look at the objective, and the eye test, the performance on the floor, and you just get the feeling that we’re going to have to make a change,” Wallace said.

Fizdale and Gasol began drifting apart last year, less than two months into the season. A particularly rough patch came after Memphis had lost three straight home games in December, when Fizdale went hard at Gasol in a subsequent film session. Fizdale noted that Allen, who’d won a ring with the Celtics in 2008, was the only player on the team who had won a championship, and that everyone else -- including Gasol -- needed to understand exactly what was required from players to win at that ultimate level.

Gasol responded in the next game, at Detroit, with one of his best performances of the season, scoring 38 points against the Pistons on 14-of-17 shooting from the floor in a Grizzlies win. But it was a marker.

Gasol was up and down all season. He had a -1.1 plus-minus rating in January, a +1.6 plus-minus in February and a -2.6 plus-minus in March. (By contrast, during that same stretch last season, Conley was +4.9 in January, +3.9 in February and +1.7 in March.)

But after playing for Spain in EuroBasket in September, Gasol came to the Grizzlies’ camp in great shape, at just seven percent body fat. Yet he’s one of many who’ve nonetheless struggled to get themselves going this season, shooting just 42.1 percent from the floor. (Only Tyreke Evans, having a career rebirth in Memphis as the Grizzlies’ sixth man, has played well all season, averaging 17.9 points per game off the bench and shooting 43 percent on three-pointers.)

The on-court problems have not been helped by the off-court drama surrounding the team’s ownership. Pera is almost never in Memphis for games, leaving many uncertain of his day-to-day stewardship of the franchise.
 
Pera owns roughly a quarter of the team, which he bought in 2012 for $377 million from the late Michael Heisley. But Pera had to quickly bring in minority investors shortly after buying the team, including venture capitalist Steve Kaplan and Daniel Straus, an owner of several health care businesses. Kaplan and Straus each bought about 14 percent of the team when they came aboard.

They also were given what is called a “buy-sell” provision, allowing each, five years after the sale and every three years thereafter, a window in which either can attempt to buy controlling interest in the team. During the window, they can set a price for the team, after which Pera must either buy their shares at that valuation price or sell his share of the team to one or both of them.

The Athletic reported last week that the buy-sell window was activated, though it is not clear whether it was Kaplan or Straus who did so. The process is expected to drag out during the entirety of the two-month window, with no decision imminent. (History also teaches that before anything involving ownership of a franchise gets too squirrely, the league usually, quietly, intervenes, and finds a single buyer with the scratch to write a single, gargantuan check to settle the matter.)

In the interim, the Grizzlies gave the interim job to J.B. Bickerstaff, who unfortunately (a) is one of Fizdale’s best friends; the two have known each other for two decades, and (b) has experience in this type of situation, having had to take over for Kevin McHale in Houston in 2015 after the Rockets fired McHale just 11 games into the 2015-16 season.

“Just a couple of years ago, he basically did the same assignment,” Wallace said. “He came in with a team that got off to a slow start. He coached 70-plus games with that team, with real high visibility, veteran players, and got them in the playoffs, basically provided stability, and the team turned around. To have someone who’s been through this has been a huge benefit for us.”

Wallace says Bickerstaff will get a real and fair shot at keeping the job permanently, and that’s probably true, especially considering the Grizzlies are still on the hook to Fizdale for $3 million. The hope is that Conley will be back sooner rather than later, and that Memphis can take a run at a playoff spot in the second half of the season.

Bickerstaff is trying to incorporate the faster pace and increased movement and three-point shooting that Fizdale incorporated, while also making sure Gasol is fed. Saturday (Sunday, PHL time), Gasol scored 27 points on 12-of-23 shooting in the Grizzlies’ 116-111 loss to the Cavs -- a better performance all-around, to be sure. But, still, it was another loss.

“Marc is still one of the elite big men in the league, and you can make the case, the most versatile,” Wallace said. “He had a hell of an offseason with the Spanish national team, got in great shape, has come back from the injury two years ago and not looked back. We think his window is very much open.”

They have bet a lot on their big man, their biggest and best man, along with Conley, in whom they invested $150 million in 2016. If there is to be a “grit-and-grind” 2.0, a hybrid of what came before and what Fizdale was trying to incorporate for the future, Gasol and Conley are the ones who’ll have to fight both Father Time and a still-ravenous West to make it so.

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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