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Brand New Eyes: Coaching Staff Will Breathe New Life into the Memphis Grizzlies

Sometimes a fresh perspective can help bring about new opportunities for success. David Fizdale and his staff should be counting on that.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

When you think of the Memphis Grizzlies during this Grit and Grind era, you don’t think offensive juggernaut.

You don’t think youth movement.

You don’t think explosive athleticism.

You don’t think coaching philosophy developed outside of the Memphis Grizzlies.

The time has arrived to change our ways of thinking. Clearly there's potential offensively now that Chandler Parsons is in the fold (health permitting), and clearly the roster has gotten both younger and more athletic. This time of transition while still trying to remain competitive in the Western Conference has meant some things staying the same (like the Core Four of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol) and others adapting pretty rapidly (like bench players, training staff, etc.).

But coaching...that's something that has neither gone unnoticed nor been a major focus when it comes to the waves of change coming to the shores of the Memphis Grizzlies. For an organization which has really emphasized coaches who have been in Memphis for a while in the past with Lionel Hollins and Dave Joerger, the coaches of the Grizzlies have changed more drastically than the core pieces of the roster have. There is only one holdover - Adam Mazarei, who was a player development coach on Dave Joerger’s staff and is now a full assistant. Otherwise, there will be all new faces on the Memphis bench this season. That is a drastic departure from what has been the norm for the Grizzlies front office in the past. And this is a good thing.

Fizdale 2

David Fizdale of course leads this crew as the Head Coach, but the staff he has assembled behind him speaks volumes. J.B. Bickerstaff, Nick Van Exel, and Keith Smart all bring varying levels of experience to the table, whether it be as former head coaches (Smart and Bickerstaff) or as former players in the Association (Smart and Van Exel). This is a staff that has different journeys to Memphis than the one they are replacing, and that will mean several things moving forward.

This doesn't mean a departure from what has made this group special. On the contrary - "Grit and Grind" isn’t going away - Fizdale said so himself. What it does mean is fresh ideas and new opportunities at making the most of the end of an era.

Different Schemes

There have not been many drastic shifts in Memphis when it comes to Grizzlies X’s and O’s. Aside from the out of timeout genius of Joerger, he and his predecessor Hollins have shared philosophies, especially defensively (which makes sense, since Joerger ran the defense for Hollins). Marc Gasol on the elbow, Gasol and Conley pick and rolls, Zach Randolph in the the core and coaching staff have remained, so have the base offensive and defensive sets.

The problem with that? You get predictable. Even with offensive sets where there are multiple options, if you as a defense can take away an offense’s best option - say a Gasol elbow jumper, or a Conley dribble penetration attempt - they get that much more dependent on lesser options, and you can anticipate that to an extent. If your third option is a Randolph post-up, for example, it becomes that much easier to double team him in the post and force a bad pass or shot.

The beauty of the current situation? For the first time in the Grit and Grind era, opposing teams have no idea what Memphis will be running. Not. A. Clue. While it wouldn’t be wise for Fizdale to go too far off the grid with regard to offensive system due to the veteran nature of his core roster, there are several tweaks that can be made. These adjustments will surely be centered around Parsons, whose offensive versatility should allow for more opportunities for all, and Fizdale has stated he sees using Parsons in similar ways to LeBron James as a creator and scorer.

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat - Game 7
Fizdale has two damn good mentors.
Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

But for hints about both offensive and defensive scheme? We go to who Fizdale likely has been impacted by most, Erik Spoelstra, his head coach in Miami, and Spo’s mentor Pat Riley. Back in 2012, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz wrote about Spo’s schemes, and had this to say about his defensive systems in particular...

...Over time, Spoelstra has calibrated the system. His big men often show high and hard, with the rotator coming from the back line. But as opposed to the Thibodeau system that has very explicit instructions about where the back-side defenders should be to zone up the rest of the floor, Miami allows James, Wade and whoever else more leeway to jump out of that zone to disrupt passing lanes, swarm without warning and, at times, leak out prematurely...

The major "grain of salt" here is the fact that James and Dwyane Wade were in Miami when this article was written. When James left, Miami made adjustments, like  more reliance on rim protection with Hassan Whiteside, for example. But Fizdale learned first hand how to both rely on stars and also adjust when they are no longer there. His schemes should therefore be relatively flexible, and inherently adjustable. This is good, considering the personnel he inherits in Memphis are a bit different than those he had most recently in Miami. His system likely will be tailor-made to what he has here in the Bluff City-  a sign of a coach who is self-aware and able to self-evaluate, a great trait for a coach entering his first job.

Fizdale’s assistants of course will also have a voice in shaping offensive and defensive systems. For example, Bickerstaff has experience in fast-paced offense from Houston and can bring that knowledge to the table, and Van Exel played the facilitating and scoring point guard role well during his time in the NBA. This experience should pay dividends when it comes to taking Mike Conley to the next level, or developing the young backup point guards Andrew Harrison and Wade Baldwin IV, or picking up the tempo with a roster that drastically needs a tune-up in that area.

Fresh perspectives should help.

New Sets of Eyes

As mentioned previously, the Grizzlies have hired from within for much of their recent history when it comes to coaches. That will not be the case this coming season. The shakeup in coaching staff can have a disruptive effect, but given Fizdale’s reputation for player development and as a player’s coach, this appears to be unlikely.

Instead, the more likely scenario is fresh concepts when it comes to how you approach things we take for granted at times. How training camp and the preseason are handled, how the rotation is established, how bench players and starters play together...these are all things that will be established as time goes on. While looking at Spoelstra gives us some hints to this (Spo is often quoted as saying "the rotation is the rotation", for example), it's important to acknowledge that Fizdale is his own man as well. While he was surely impacted by his Miami experience, he will make his own way.

He and his coaching staff will be doing that together this coming season. There will be a transition period as coaches get used to working with their players and among themselves. But the fact that there is so much turnover will make for a fresh start for many players, and Fizdale surely sees these guys in a different light than Joerger did, and perhaps even these players themselves do. He said in his opening press conference that he feels that everyone, even veterans like Allen and Randolph, have room to grow and develop as players. It is easy to get complacent with a coaching staff, but now first impressions must be made on both ends. This hopefully will make for a more intense and crisp preparation for the regular season for both coaches and players alike.

Perhaps with his new assistants at his side, he sees something that those that have gotten too close to the situation after years in Memphis cannot. A breath of fresh air in a era that could use it - a novel idea, and a reason to be optimistic as the dog days of the NBA offseason grind along.

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