Sinking in the standings, the Grizzlies scapegoated David Fizdale on Monday, a head scratching decision that will solve exactly none of Memphis’ fundamental problems. The Grizzlies are a banged-up, deeply flawed team that just sent a message to every prospective coach out there: In a battle between the coach and the franchise player, we have chosen a side.
The rift between Fizdale and Marc Gasol was real, multiple league sources told Yahoo Sports, a toxic relationship that took root last season and reached its breaking point on Sunday, when Gasol watched the final 12 minutes of Memphis’ 98-88 loss to Brooklyn from the bench. Gasol, sources said, discussed the issues pertaining to Fizdale with key players last season — including Zach Randolph and Mike Conley — and eight straight losses proved to be enough for management to agree with him.
“After a thorough evaluation, I decided a change in course was necessary to move forward and provide the team and organization its best chance at success this season and beyond,” Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace said in a statement. “Coach Fizdale represented the Grizzlies and City of Memphis proudly, and we wish him well as he continues his career.”
Fizdale wasn’t flawless, but come on, fired? He was 50-51 in a season-plus on the job, restoring Memphis as a top-10 defensive team in his first year and squeezing the team into the playoffs for the seventh straight season. This season has skid off the rails the last few weeks, and the body language for most of it has been brutal, but that’s what happens when Conley is in street clothes and Chandler Parsons continues to be underwhelming.
Sure, Fizdale could have aired less dirty laundry — players remember few compliments but take every public criticism personally, and Gasol chafed at some of the more pointed critiques, a source said — and he had an ego of his own. But Fizdale is young, inexperienced and in charge of a team with little more than a puncher’s chance of competing with the conference’s elite. Blaming the coach for that is akin to faulting the captain for a plane crashing because it ran out of fuel.
“I was shocked,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy told Yahoo Sports. “Dave did a hell of a job with that team last year. Obviously, you don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but Dave did such a good job last year, and we’re only 19 games in this year? I was really, really shocked.”
Here’s the real problem in Memphis: The Gasol era is over, and the Grizzlies need to come to grips with that. It’s been a heck of a run. From Pau’s kid brother who bunked up with him in the early years, to a piece of a trade that sent Pau to L.A., to the centerpiece of the Grit-and-Grind Grizzlies who had been one of the NBA’s most consistent winners, Marc is a Memphis icon. His jersey will be in the rafters and an ownership stake — hell, maybe a mayoral run — later isn’t out of the question.
But he’s 32 and a depreciating asset, a star playing out the back end of his prime on a team whose ceiling is a playoff berth. Understand, they do things differently in Memphis. There is deep pride in the Grizzlies’ string of playoff appearances, and a deeper fear of what could happen if they bottom out. The team lives in the red — Memphis lost $40 million last season, a hole offset by the league-high $32 million in revenue sharing it pocketed, per ESPN — and there’s a palpable concern about how bad things could get if it devolves into a 25-win club. The FedExForum’s grip on the team loosens after the 2020-21 season, and the lure of a new arena in Seattle could be enticing to an owner — San Jose-based Robert Pera, or otherwise.
Still, keeping Gasol is little more than a Band-Aid on a bullet hole. Age will erode his game, and Memphis may have to make a difficult decision in 2019 anyway, when Gasol can become a free agent. For now, there is value there; while the Grizzlies have not shopped Gasol, teams have inquired about him, only to be rebuffed. At some point, they will stop calling, and Memphis will have blown its best chance to recoup the kind of draft capital needed to rebuild.
The Grizzlies will play better, and J.B. Bickerstaff, who will coach the team for the rest of the season, is a respected voice. But the end game in Memphis is murky, with the desperation to claw out one more playoff appearance seemingly the only coherent plan. Gasol may be the team’s best chance to win now, but moving him may be the only shot it has at a future.
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