David Fizdale is gone, and now the Grizzlies have to decide who they want to be

Ball Don't Lie
David Fizdale had his issues in Memphis, but the issues with the Grizzlies run much deeper. (AP)
David Fizdale had his issues in Memphis, but the issues with the Grizzlies run much deeper. (AP)

When the Memphis Grizzlies hired David Fizdale in May of 2016, Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace hailed the respected longtime assistant as a man with “an abundance of personal qualities and experiences, which make him uniquely prepared to lead the Grizzlies into the future.”

“David brings a championship vision with a detailed plan of how to get the Grizzlies to the next level,” Wallace said. “[…] He is a uniquely qualified coach who can lead our team now, tomorrow and deep into the future.”

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Fizdale spoke about the “open, honest and energized” conversations he’d had with the players he’d inherited, from core veterans like Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen to the youngsters dotting the Grizzlies’ rotation, about what he perceived as exciting opportunities ahead. But he also acknowledged the inevitability of things changing.

“I mean, come on — it’s always exciting in the beginning,” he said with a laugh. “They’re not going to like me at some point. I’m already ready for that. I get it, because I’m going to have to be that guy.”

Over the course of 18 months, Fizdale became that guy, delivering messages that — clearly — resonated more with some Grizzlies than with others. That, plus Memphis’ longest losing streak in eight years, is why Fizdale is no longer the head coach of the Grizzlies, a decision that stunned and angered many, and left plenty wondering what exactly can be expected of a coach entrusted with succeeding today and building a path to tomorrow while working without the raw materials needed to ensure quality construction.

“You think — as a young assistant, going over there, moving cities to a new organization that’s transitioning — you’d think that it would be about the long game,” said Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, with whom Fizdale walked every step of the road from the Heat’s video room to winning back-to-back NBA championships. “To have patience and to be able to work through that transition to be able to create something new. And that takes time in this league, and that’s what was so disheartening about it.”

Fizdale didn’t get that time. He got 101 regular-season games and one playoff series. He got less than one-fourth of a second year, one in which he worked with what remains of hoped-for max wing facilitator Chandler Parsons for only 20 minutes a night, and worked without starting power forward JaMychal Green for 12 of 19 games, without expected starting two-guard Wayne Selden for 17 of 19, without lottery-ticket wing addition Ben McLemore for 11 of 19, and without star playmaker Mike Conley for seven of 19. (And, if we’re being honest, without The Real Mike Conley for all of it, as the linchpin point guard rarely resembled his best self while hobbling around on a haunted left foot.)

Fizdale — who has had no compunction about making and standing by unpopular lineup decisions in the past, even if they didn’t bear fruit (and, often, they didn’t) — shook things up in search of a combination that would reverse Memphis’ losing streak. It failed, and it failed in an awkward and uncomfortable way.

“Yes, they’re going through a tough stretch right now, but this league is uncomfortable,” Spoelstra said. “It is when you lose, and when you get challenged as an organization, when you’re going through those stretches. But on the other side of those stretches, often times, are the greatest benefits, when you get through that adversity together.”

Grizzlies brass, following the unpleasantness against Brooklyn, decided that this group couldn’t make that journey. There were reports that Gasol had delivered “no ‘him or me'” mandate to management after he spent the final quarter of Memphis’ most recent dispiriting loss on the bench. There were also no shortage of post-mortems indicating that the unfiltered coach and the proud 7-footer had been bumping heads, and hadn’t been on the same page, for quite some time.

Wallace confirmed as much in a Tuesday press conference with local media. He praised Fizdale for the “positive impact” he made in the organization and in the Memphis community, but also insisted that what happened Monday didn’t happen only because of what happened Sunday.

“Obviously, it’s no secret there was tension between the two. This is a factor, but it’s not the overriding factor,” Wallace said. “As I said, the trends have not been positive. We’ve been heading in a bad direction for quite some time, and we need to turn this around. We talked to Marc basically in real time, about the same time as I was talking to Coach Fizdale.”

Gasol offered a similar version of events:


Throughout the presser to bid farewell to Fizdale and say hello to new interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff, who’s navigated these waters before when he took the reins from Kevin McHale following his “you can’t fire the players” ouster in Houston a couple of years back, Wallace steered the conversation away from Gasol’s influence. Instead, Wallace pointed toward the troubling “trends” that had come to mark Memphis’ performance: eight straight losses, seven straight defeats at the Grindhouse, a sub-.500 record dating back to last season.

“Unfortunately, we are underperforming even the lowest of preseason expectations, and we’re an organization that has high expectations for our team, so a change had to be made,” Wallace said. “[…] Going back to last year, we’re just 14-26 over our last 40 regular-season games. So, the trends were not positive, and we had to make a change in course at this time, early in the season.

“These decisions are never easy. They’re always difficult, particularly in-season. But this is a production, bottom-line business, and a change was warranted, and it had to be made.”

Marc Gasol wasn’t happy about spending Sunday’s fourth quarter on the bench. (AP)
Marc Gasol wasn’t happy about spending Sunday’s fourth quarter on the bench. (AP)

It had to be made because the Grizzlies — with Gasol nearing age 33, Conley just over 30, and Parsons at 29 with wheels twice that old, all locked on lucrative long-term deals that vaporized Memphis’ cap space — want to win now. (This, ironically enough, was the draw for Fizdale, who’d waited a long time for a first head coaching gig, and wasn’t about to waste his first chance on a years-long rebuild.) The Grizzlies have made the playoffs for seven straight years and aren’t interested in back-sliding, and when that’s where you live, desperate measures can be the only kind of measures you’re interested in.

It’s a change Wallace has made before, moving on from Marc Iavaroni midway through the 2008-09 season in favor of Lionel Hollins. He’d go on to lead the Grizzlies to three playoff berths in four years, including a 56-win 2012-13 campaign that ended in a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals.

What did Hollins get for the best season in franchise history? Let go, and replaced by Dave Joerger, who won 50 and 55 games before piloting the Grizzlies through the worst plague of injuries the league had ever seen and into the 2016 playoffs … only to be fired that summer, leaving the vacancy that Fizdale filled, and a perception of organizational instability that sure doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.



“We are the Memphis Grizzlies. We always get through adversity, and emerge on the other side of adversity and have success,” Wallace said. “[…] We needed to have a change to try to save the season.”

It’s a note Wallace struck multiple times: that these are The Memphis Grizzlies, that there’s a version of “The Memphis Grizzlies that our fans deserve” and that what Fizdale was producing wasn’t it, and that he’s confident Bickerstaff will get them back to being “The Memphis Grizzlies that this city and our fan base have grown to love over the last seven years.”

And yet … well, wasn’t Fizdale brought to town for the explicit reason of changing what “The Memphis Grizzlies” meant? Wasn’t the point that those in power saw the writing on the wall — Randolph and Allen entering NBA dotage, an offense that routinely ranked among the NBA’s least efficient, least explosive and slowest, a team perennially bereft of shooting and spacing with a style that hadn’t gotten the Grizz over the hump in the Western Conference — and brought in the guy who helped Spoelstra design the pace-and-space Heat to create something more modern in Memphis?

Of course nobody wanted the Grizzlies to stop being a hard-nosed defensive team, and of course nobody wanted the Grizzlies to all of a sudden start trying to be beautiful at the expense of being good. But 18 months ago, the goal was to empower someone who’d been to the top of the mountain to use his “championship vision” to guide a franchise that hasn’t into a bold new tomorrow, “and deep into the future.” Now, though, Fizdale’s gone because tomorrow doesn’t matter as much as today … or as yesterday.

“I’ve seen this happen before, when a change is made in-season, and you get a positive bounce out of it,” Wallace said Tuesday. “Not just on the short term, but over the course of the whole year.”

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No matter how hard you fight it, though, today becomes tomorrow. Under Wallace’s leadership, the Grizzlies have done a pretty staggeringly bad job of preparing for sunset to turn into sunrise, as summed up by Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer:

Fizdale didn’t sign Chandler Parsons for $94 million. Fizdale didn’t add retreads like Ben McLemore and Mario Chalmers. Fizdale didn’t trade first rounders for rentals (Ronnie Brewer, Shane Battier, and Jeff Green). Fizdale didn’t draft Kevin Love and trade him for O.J. Mayo. Fizdale didn’t draft Hasheem Thabeet, Xavier Henry, Jordan Adams, and Jarell Martin. Fizdale didn’t draft Wade Baldwin and Rade Zagorac then cut them both one year later. That was all Wallace’s doing.


And yet, Wallace attributes the Grizzlies’ current and ongoing failings less to lacking personnel and more to a lack of what the team used to have … even though, again, that was kind of the whole point of changing course.


The Grizzlies very well might improve. Teams often get a dead-cat bounce after a coaching change. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect Gasol to stop missing 60 percent of his shots. Just-off-the-injured-list players like Green and McLemore could improve as they get back to game fitness and knock off the rust. Healthy returns from Conley, Selden, Parsons (who left Sunday’s game with tightness in his troublesome right knee) and reserve center Brandan Wright (out with a groin injury) would help, too. Memphis can’t fundamentally change what it is right now, but this year’s model can’t yet be confined to the dustbin of history.

“We started out the year playing very good basketball. So it’s here. It’s in this group,” Bickerstaff said Tuesday. “What we’re going to try to do is get back to doing more of those things we were doing when we were successful.”

Bickerstaff didn’t necessarily set the world on fire during his interim stint in Houston, but after taking over the 4-7 Rockets from McHale, he did get a dysfunctional team to 41-41 and into the playoffs. With damn near every team in the West’s Nos. 6 through 12 spots dealing with major injuries or persistent problems, perhaps he can similarly land the plane here in Memphis, and extend that playoff streak.

Even if he does, though: then what? The Grizzlies’ underlying issues are multifaceted, as detailed excellently before Fizdale’s firing by Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer. Squeaking out another first-round exit won’t change that.

Bickerstaff said Tuesday that the Grizzlies right now can only “tweak a few things” and make “simple adjustments” aimed at getting incrementally better game-by-game: “It can’t be, you know, grand-scheme things because you just don’t have time.” At some point, though, the organization has to make the time.

The Grizzlies became one of the NBA’s best stories and most beloved entities by knowing exactly who they were. For them to return to the ranks of the league’s success stories, ownership and management have to think long and hard about who they want to be, because continuing to cycle through coaches — especially well-regarded ones like Fizdale — in pursuit of past glories isn’t going to lead the Grizzlies to success today, tomorrow or deep into the future.

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Dan Devine is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at devine@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!

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