David Fizdale tried to preach patience during the Grizzlies’ ongoing losing streak, a demoralizing stretch made worse by raw feelings over his unusual decision to bench Marc Gasol, his only healthy star, down the stretch of a loss to the Nets. “It’s a long season,” the Memphis coach told the Commercial-Appeal on Sunday.
Not anymore. For Fizdale, the season ended Monday.
The Grizzlies abruptly fired the 43-year-old Fizdale early in his second season, less than halfway through the four-year deal he signed in 2016. In his first season as a head coach, after spending more than a decade as an assistant, Fizdale led the Grizzlies to 43 wins and a playoff appearance that he memorably punctuated with the famous “Take that for data!” rant.
Ironically, a coach who oversaw career years for both Gasol and Mike Conley in 2016-17, and who rose to prominence nationally by passionately backing his players against alleged unfair officiating during the postseason, was canned just 24 hours after his first major public dispute with one of his centerpieces.
Losing streaks, like Memphis’s current eight-gamer, are ripe for over-analysis. A counterintuitive coaching decision, like ignoring Gasol in the fourth quarter to ride a hot lineup, deserves to go under the microscope. Same thing with a cold shooting stretch, like the one Gasol has been riding for five games now. And same thing with pointed comments from a star towards the coach, like the ones launched by Gasol, who said that he “didn’t like [sitting down the stretch] one bit.”
But there’s little mystery to Memphis’s recent woes. The Grizzlies are a team in transition with a talent-deficient, patched-together roster that relies heavily on two players. One of those players, Conley, is out with an Achilles injury. With Conley, Memphis is 7-5. Without him, 0-7. It’s hard to draw a straighter line than that.
To be clear, the Grizzlies have serious fundamental issues, and most of them can be traced to the front office. Their Big 3—Gasol, Conley and Chandler Parsons—are on the books for a combined $74 million this season, making it difficult to build out a proper rotation. Their ceiling caved in once Parsons’s career careened off a cliff. They are asking a lot from a long list of cast-offs – Mario Chalmers, Tyreke Evans, Ben McLemore—with injury issues or deep warts. And, despite Gasol’s evolution as a shooter and his exceptional two-man chemistry with Conley, their core is swimming against the pace-and-space tide.
The Grizzlies must win now because Gasol is 32, Conley is 30 and Parsons is 29, but they haven’t been able to reinvent themselves well enough to do so. Fizdale took intelligent steps towards modernization, encouraging Conley and Gasol to shoot more threes and breaking up the Gasol/Zach Randolph big ball tandem. But Gasol’s presence has ensured that Memphis plods along at one of the league’s slowest paces, and putting greater emphasis on the three can only carry a team so far if it lacks quality wing shooters. Memphis is slowly sinking in quicksand: forward steps in strategy and approach have staved off a full teardown and salvaged a seven-year streak of playoff appearances, but they haven’t resulted in real progress.
When a mediocre team falls apart without one of its best players, it says a lot about the player’s value and even more about the people who put the roster together. The Grizzlies’ struggles over the past two weeks have reinforced for the umpteenth time that Conley’s impact far surpasses his acclaim. They’ve also revealed roster weaknesses that most everyone knew were there all along.
By contrast, a freefall caused by a lost star often doesn’t say much about the coach. Here, Fizdale had no reasonable method for coping with Conley’s absence because his best remaining ball-handlers are Chalmers, fresh off an Achilles injury that cost him all of last season, and Tyreke Evans, whose playmaking is limited by the blinders permanently affixed to his head. This is a good time to mention that the Grizzlies used their 2016 first-round pick on a point guard, Wade Baldwin, who somehow couldn’t even make this year’s roster.
Could Fizdale have better communicated his fourth-quarter plan with Gasol? Definitely. Could he have simply played his best player, like most coaches, and lived with the result? Yes. But those are relatively minor sins, the type of thing that should be sorted out behind closed doors. Even with the eight-game losing streak and the drama, though, it’s hard to argue that the Grizzlies, who are still just 1.5 games out of the West’s 8th seed, are truly underperforming.
Owner Robert Pera, who has now parted ways with three coaches since 2013, and his front office treated an extended slump initiated by an obvious triggering event like it was a full-blown crisis. Now it is one. To dump a solid coach at the first sign of public discontent is to misapply the blame, to set up interim J.B. Bickerstaff for failure, and to move Gasol’s name to the front of the trade rumor mill.
“Feels like my man [Fizdale] was a fall guy,” LeBron James wrote on Twitter after the firing was announced. It sure does.