Can the Grizz Evolve Beyond Grit and Grind?
- One of the NBA's longest-standing cores looks to reinvent itself under a new head coach. Can David Fizdale transform the grit-and-grind Grizzlies into a pace-and-space contender?
Before David Fizdale could win over the hearts and minds of the Memphis Grizzlies, he first turned his attention to the decor. Long, blue tunnels throughout the interior of the FedEx Forum were painted white with basic styling. Words of drive and encouragement appeared on the walls of various facilities. When the Grizzlies come into work, they now walk halls lined by those to whom they are accountable; to make it to the heart of the arena means passing photos of Marc Gasol, of Tony Allen, of Vince Carter, of JaMychal Green.
There is a symbolism behind every aesthetic choice and the Grizzlies themselves have taken note, down to the now-uniform practice undershirt and the coaching staff’s identical polos. “Nobody's different,” Mike Conley said. “Everybody is held to the same standard.” Already there are rules and there are consequences. Fizdale is far from a coaching authoritarian but he invests in organizational consistency. Memphis had found its lasting identity by way of a long-standing core and an organic catchphrase. Grit and grind had its time. What’s now under construction is the team’s cultural architecture—and God, as was said by German builder Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is in the details.
Grizzlies players have met with sleep specialists, invested more heavily in sports science, and overhauled the menu of the team chef to cut down on sugar. The ever-picky Conley is reeling—adjusting to a life of plain oatmeal and simple, lean proteins. “We’re all hunting for some chicken fingers and french fries somewhere,” Conley said, “but can’t find it around here at all.”
This kind of regiment originates with the Heat, where Fizdale spent his last eight seasons as an assistant coach. Erik Spoelstra maintains strict organizational standards in Miami. Among his highest priorities, however, was making the team facility an environment that players would be loathe to leave. The look and feel of the place matter. Even the offerings of the kitchen contribute; it might not satisfy every player’s palate, but professionals tend to respect those organizations that respect them and their bodies. Team operations in Miami—and, by model, in Memphis—are structured to provide education and resources to players on even minor factors related to their performance.
“That’s what he has come in with and is trying to implement in your mind,” Gasol said of Fizdale. “The little things in every part of your life and every facet of your life matter.”
Trust can build naturally when players believe that their coach sincerely has their best interest at heart. The Grizzlies have been polite since parting ways with ex-coach Dave Joerger this summer but the vibe around the team is palpably different. Some of that is the preseason ease of a group that has yet to be put to the test (the search for a grumbly, hopeless NBA training camp is forever ongoing). The arrival of Chandler Parsons, even through his rehabilitation, gives the Grizz a lighter element and real prospects. Even a conservative timetable to return from multiple knee injuries could not sour the excitement of the biggest signing in franchise history. Gasol’s spry movement since recovering from a navicular fracture in his right foot has also lifted spirits. Positivity is to be expected under the circumstances, but it means something that the Grizzlies—to a man—will mention Fizdale holding every player to the same basic criteria. It means something that when Gasol is asked of his first impressions of of his new coach, he responds simply: “He does what he says.”
Infer from that what you will. For Fizdale, that kind of statement suggests he already has some capital with the leaders of this group. There is faith in his follow-through. He’ll need it.
These days, the motivational speaking circuit features regular stops in NBA training camps. Many teams bring in outside voices for inspiration: an Olympic medalist, a renowned survivalist, a retired general. The Memphis Grizzlies invited a dog.
Navy SEAL teams deployed to particularly dangerous areas will often go accompanied by an expertly trained dog and its handler—in some cases without any established relationship with either. The SEALs have trained together. They’ve scrambled for their lives together. They’ve broken bread together and shared in the horrors of war together. Then they are asked to trust their lives, immediately and completely, to a German Shepherd. That bond can sometimes be all that stands between the SEALs and the concealed explosives their companion has been raised to detect.
“That's the message I wanted to get across to these guys with all the new faces and me being new,” Fizdale said. “We don't have a lot of time to feel each other out. I'm their sniffin' dog. So I need them to understand: trust me when I'm leading you down this path that I'm gonna look out for you.”
Within weeks of making the comparison, Fizdale would ask a once-elite defensive team to abandon its style, shift a plodding offense to a more modern approach, and move former All-Star Zach Randolph to the bench. The latter is a fascinating development, both in that Fizdale had the juice to make the move before his team had played a single meaningful game and with the way he sold Randolph on the change. “He's embracing that role,” Fizdale said. “I told him, 'Most likely, no one's going to pay you to be a starter from here on out, so let's audition you for what you're going to be for the rest of your career.' And it really clicked with him.”
Fizdale is right about Randolph’s NBA future. He’s also a touch more blunt than one might expect—a factor that shouldn’t be lost given the politics of this kind of decision. Randolph has thus far approached the move with a respectful nod. Anything for the good of the team. Credit Randolph for that much, though talk of sacrifice before there are real stakes has only the merit of a campaign promise. There should be no doubt that Randolph wants to do right by his team. He also, by his own admission, feels that he’s still a starting-quality player. If those views come into conflict—say, with an early losing streak or a poor start by his replacement JaMychal Green—the internal conversation around Fizdale’s decision could become more complicated.
This is where culture pays dividends. It’s also where it helps to have the longest-tenured core foursome in the NBA. This will be the seventh season that Gasol, Conley, Randolph, and Allen suit up as teammates. During that time, Randolph and Gasol have each played on three different contracts. Memphis has made the playoffs in each of their seasons together and climbed out of the first round thrice, including to the Western Conference finals in 2013. The friendship among them is real—spanning years, basketball trials, and even joint family vacations. “We spend a lot of time together,” Gasol said. “We care about each other. We help each other.” And when the time comes, they speak frankly with each other.
NBA team dynamics are fraught with the politics of credit. Everyone wants to be appreciated for their skills, featured, and paid accordingly. Memphis isn’t immune to those influences but is, through the continuity of its leadership, shielded from it. “It's obviously impressive to see how they can say things to each other and not personalize it and just be able to move on,” Fizdale said. Constructive criticism can be issued without the thought of some other agenda. Disagreements can be had without bile or baggage. Even as the Grizzlies evolve beyond grit and grind, the connections forged in that ethos survive in a valuable, progressive function.
The next step is simple: A seven-year core accustomed to a particular, definitive style of basketball must transform everything they've ever know about playing together.
These Grizzlies made their name on blunt force. Randolph and Gasol broke down opponents, pounding the post until they distressed the hardwood beneath their feet. An oppressive defense picked up the moment that bludgeoning—and the ensuing wrestle for the rebound—left off. Allen would invade the personal space of a superstar scorer while Conley hawked the ball. Wherever a possession went, Gasol was there to put his giant frame in the way of its intended destination. Theirs was a deliberate sort of authority—narrow, to be sure, but painfully effective.
Joerger correctly identified a need for change. The NBA had evolved not only into a smaller, faster league, but one uncompromising in its exploitation of limited teams and players. Fluid, versatile defenses could stand up to the Grizzlies’ battery. Smart, free-flowing offenses could strain even their best defensive efforts. So Memphis tried to run a variation of its offense picked up at a faster pace. A few weeks of quick, concerning losses brought Joerger’s experiment to a decisive end. The idea folded with the skepticism of the Grizzlies themselves, who had known success playing a more conservative style.
“When you're in a new system, you can't just commit to it,” Gasol said. “You've got to believe in it. When you commit to something, when things go bad you're gonna go back to your tendencies. 'Let's go back to that, we know that works.’”
And it did work—all the way until the Warriors solved the Grizzlies with speed and matchup control in the 2015 playoffs. It’s fair to wonder whether this Memphis team might go through a similar progression. Fizdale has no intention of walking up the ball into first-option post-ups. During preseason action, he has constantly waved his team forward—reminding Randolph to dive rather than spot-up and prodding guards to attack. Green was made a starter with speed and fit in mind. “Playing Marc and Zach together is not a formula for pace,” Fizdale said. “So why even mess around with it?”
Everything about this approach grates against years of established tendencies. For their entire careers, Gasol and Randolph have played in systems that called for the first big down the floor to run into the post on the strong side. Fizdale wants the opposite; by running the first big to the weak side of the floor, there should finally be room for Conley, Parsons, and other creators to attack the rim. Getting to that relatively basic point requires conscious adjustment in the way the Grizzlies navigate the court. Learning to run sometimes means learning where.
Yet NBA players, as Fizdale said, “are always hunting for comfort.” That instinct derailed Memphis the last time it tried to play faster. Perhaps it could do the same if this revamped offense doesn’t click quite as intended—a possibility while the Grizzlies find their footing.
Even the staple grit-and-grinders, however, have since been forced to confront the realities of a changing league. Those champion Warriors who outclassed the Grizzlies in 2015 went on to win 73 games the following year and have since added Kevin Durant, veering further into the small-ball zeitgeist. Cleveland upset Golden State in the 2016 Finals not by blunt size, but with agile bigs and positional flexibility. Memphis’s burden of proof might finally be satisfied.
“It made it a lot easier on everybody's mind to accept when you see Golden State, when you see the way Cleveland can play, you see how different teams can play and win championships by playing this way,” Conley said. “We could continue to try to play and win our way, but the league has changed and become a fast-paced, stretched league. We can't continue to try to force our style upon people.”
The build comes gradually—with 2-on-0, then 3-on-0, then 4-on-0 drilling of positioning and function. Everything Memphis does is still best understood as a collaboration between Gasol and Conley. Their dribble hand-offs are a critical engine that has simply been recontextualized; slight adjustments in spacing and tweaked principles of movement will make one of the most dynamic connections in the game all the more impossible. Gasol has a complete game at the elbow: the set shot for opponents who back off, the vision to throw no-look passes against antsy defense, mammoth screens, an emerging three-point game to work the pick-and-pop, and deep chemistry with one of the shiftiest, trickiest off-ball movers in the game.
“The hand-offs that we do—I can read his body,” Gasol said of Conley. “I can read his legs, his feet, and how they're positioned. I don't even need to look at his hands or face. Just by looking at his lower body I know what he's trying to do because we've done it so much. So once I see him slow and kind of take a step one way, I know if he's gonna keep going or if he's gonna stop and pop back or if he's gonna go backdoor.”
The hope is to introduce Parsons, once fully cleared, into a sort of three-man game. Gasol and Conley have rarely had a shooter like Parsons (41.4% from three last season) to balance the wing and have never worked alongside such a fluent playmaker. Those possessions that would dead-end with the Grizzlies of old will now have the resources to develop fully—particularly with Gasol spacing the floor out to the three-point line.
Gasol working beyond the arc, by the way, is more than just training camp fluff. Every year there are stories of some big finally adding that element to his game only to abandon it a few weeks in or shoot threes in such meager numbers that it never really registers. To contrast, Fizdale has installed three-point shooting quotas for Gasol—four attempts a night was the word in camp—and threatened to pull him from games if he passes up looks. The early results are promising; Gasol took 5.1 threes per 36 minutes in the preseason (a rate similar to what Kyle Korver, Marvin Williams, and DeMarre Carroll averaged last year) while making nearly half those shots. There may be a Boshian evolution in him yet. Already Gasol is gunning for Conley and Carter’s records in team shooting games and calling out his makes with the ball still in the air.
Working from the top of the floor is standard for Gasol, but his stepping back to the three-point line allows Memphis to fully explore its options with Parsons. Fizdale wasted no time in comparing his intended role for the 6'10" forward to LeBron James’s utility with the Heat—a connection that was part of the free agent pitch to Parsons in the first place. “I see Chandler as that kind of player,” Fizdale said. “Multi-skilled, can post mismatches, can run pick-and-roll, can set pick-and-rolls, can come off catch-and-shoots, defensively have great versatility.
“The only difference,” Fizdale said, “is that LeBron is a Greek god and Chandler is a high-level athlete.”
Inverting the floor in this way—by bringing opposing centers out of the paint with Gasol and working Parsons inside—provides a fulcrum for position–less basketball. Fizdale is a believer as much on philosophical grounds as strategic ones. A traditional, top-heavy team structure is isolating to both the central creators (who regularly face double and triple teams) and those players hidden away as afterthoughts. A more fluid, position–less system, by contrast, sacrifices some accessibility to activate all five players on the floor. “When you know that the offense isn't just predicated on one guy and that every movement you make gives you a chance to be a part of the action, to make you a weapon, it’s empowering,” Fizdale said.
Consider this in the context of a player like Allen. The game within the game for Memphis over the past few seasons was finding ways to camouflage the least-threatening scorer on the floor. Allen’s shooting presents a liability that can’t be left static; any moment that Allen stands still is an open invitation for his defender to leave him. He has to screen, he has to cut, and he has to distract—all of which are more feasible if the Grizzlies can open up the floor with their pace and shooting. The current plan is to have Allen also assume more ball-handling responsibility for the Grizz this season, a development born of the need to make him a live threat and the team’s lack of a proven backup point guard. Shifting into that kind of role also opens up some different possibilities for Conley to work off the ball.
The goal is to move the players on the floor around in such a way that they’re allowed to flex a more complete game. Allen doesn’t need to be able to break a defense down off the dribble. He simply needs to help maintain the momentum of the system and move things along from one option to the next. “He's been so upfront with me,” Allen said. “He's telling me what he expect out of me, he telling me what he wants improve, he's keeping me engaged with the game itself. I like that.”
Fizdale has cited a variety of influences for his offensive approach but clearly honed in on one coaching tree in particular: the minds behind the 2011 Dallas Mavericks. As an assistant with the Heat team that lost to those Mavs in the Finals, Fizdale saw in agonizing detail what their flexible system could accomplish. “I respect the people that I lost to,” Fizdale said. Rick Carlisle and Terry Stotts, now head coach of the Trail Blazers, are among his most immediate influences. Jason Kidd, head coach of the Bucks and and point guard on that title team, spent time with Fizdale in Chicago this summer going through the ins and outs of the offense. Dwane Casey, current head coach of the Raptors, lent Fizdale his counsel as well.
Similarly, Fizdale combed through film of teams with Spurs lineage: the Hawks under Mike Budenholzer, the Jazz under Quin Snyder, and San Antonio itself. “Their systems are all predicated on man movement and ball movement,” Fizdale said. “They also caused me a lot of pain.”
He hopes to pay it forward. The full nuance of those kinds of systems takes months—if not years—to develop. Memphis will need time. Yet already the Fizdale Grizzlies made more threes in a single preseason game (17) than in any game in franchise history. Already they’ve climbed into the top 10 in preseason pace after four straight seasons plodding through the muck. And already they’ve begun to assume a new identity, even before the marquee acquisition of their summer logs a single minute.
Changing the structure of the Grizzlies’ defense was, in some ways, an even taller order. Since the core four assembled in 2010, no team in the league has won more games while scoring 90 points or fewer than Memphis. Some of that is pace. Most of it is defense.
Fizdale looked at that system—the very same that once made the Grizzlies a contender and helped turn Gasol into the Defensive Player of the Year—and saw a relic of a passing era.
“You can't just be a paint team anymore,” Fizdale said. “You can't just sit back and think you're gonna pack the paint in and win games. You've gotta guard that three-point line. You've gotta limit the number of attempts that teams get from the three-point line cause these guys are shooting the hell out of the ball now.”
The only way to do that is to supply constant pressure, even in those situations that past Grizzlies teams tended to approach more conservatively. Going under a ball screen will not be generally allowed. Dropping—where the big man defending a pick-and-roll steps back to protect the paint—will be kept to a minimum. Fizdale wants the Grizzlies playing up and into their opponents on the perimeter to the point where they’re more concerned with the defender in their face than the operations of their offense. These are huge changes requiring mental rewiring. All of the rhythms and timing that Memphis worked for years to perfect become obsolete with this kind of development.
“There's going to be a lot more switching required, just like all the NBA is doing. We just need to be prepared," Gasol said. "Obviously you can adapt, game to game, so you want to have as many tools in your toolbox as you can. So whatever the game plan demands on that day, you have the tools to do that.”
Overhauling a system on this scale is an investment. Memphis is giving up a way of defending that’s proven to work in the most general sense for greater leverage in the matchups that matter. The only chance the Grizzlies have of containing the most dynamic offenses in the league is to meet them on their terms well beyond the arc. Such a change is feasible because Allen, even at 35, and Conley are a scourge to a live dribble. Toggling between pick-and-roll coverages could pan out because Gasol, Green, and Brandan Wright are all so light on their feet. Parsons, Carter, James Ennis, Andrew Harrison, and rookie Wade Baldwin can all contribute something with the range of positions they could plausibly cover. Depth and injury are looming issues, but a healthy Grizzlies defense has the functionality to work.
Gasol will be entrusted to make sure that it does. Fizdale appointed the fiery Spaniard as the sole captain of the team to establish the importance of his leadership. The position, Gasol admits, comes with a personal learning curve. “I have a tendency to get frustrated with guys sometimes because they don't do the right thing or they make too many mistakes,” Gasol said. Stable veterans are easy. Clueless rookies or oblivious role players, on the other hand, have drawn Gasol’s ire to the point where he will physically reposition them at times while barking orders.
“I take defense very serious,” Gasol said. “I know that defense has a lot to do with attention, paying attention to details and being tied together to the next guy and all that. So when a mistake on that happens, I know you're not concentrating. I don't allow that.”
Actually leading this team will demand that Gasol process that emotion. His frustrations have never been especially discrete; when good and pissed, the All-NBA center defaults as forthright. Memphis will need him tempered as it grooms its young point guards, establishes its systems, and integrates new full-time starters at both forward spots. Fervor and composure needn’t be mutually exclusive. There is a time and a place for each, and it’s up to Gasol to delineate the difference.
“I’m working on it,” Gasol sighed.
No team in the Western Conference has a fate so variable as the Grizzlies. For all that’s been done to improve Memphis’s prospects, its absolute floor is a cold, dark place—a reckoning of the three consecutive max contracts given to veterans with real injury history. Conley takes a beating over the course of a season. Gasol has Grizzlies fans so spooked about his foot that he now tweets Biggie GIFs and Joker memes to calm them. Parsons, whose addition could prove transformative, has still yet to be fully cleared seven months after his second straight season-ending knee surgery.
These hazards are implicit in the team’s construction, as was the choice to spring for a single top free agent this summer rather than make plays for youth or depth. Memphis moved in with Parsons, injuries and all, because this franchise was much better positioned to strive than to submit.
“Sometimes,” Fizdale said, “you've gotta take a risk.”
Fizdale recalls Grizzlies owner Robert Pera telling team officials not to hesitate if they thought they could land Parsons. That they ultimately did is a tribute to what Memphis had in store: veteran talent, real opportunity, and the pitch of a coach who told Parsons he could do more.
There is no ecosystem in the NBA quite like this one. Veteran players are learning entirely new approaches while breaking out solutions for themselves mid-practice. Film sessions have become dialogues among peers while coaches quietly preside. A star point guard was given the reins to coach actual preseason play down to the lobbying of officials. Memphis has unreservedly pushed in its chips and still finds room for its players to take ownership of their process. This is culture at work—the kind that can only be drawn out of old friends, so long on the cusp, finding for themselves the joys of something new.