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Dysfunction, thy name is Memphis

The Grizzlies are the new Kings. Welcome to Hell.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Three years ago, the Sacramento Kings, long the NBA’s paragon for dysfunctionality, fired Mike Malone following an 11-13 start. It was a bizarre decision given the circumstances. The Kings were missing their biggest star, yet still outperforming expectations.

Following that firing, former GBB writer Austin Reynolds wrote a rather prescient article on the parallels between Kings owner Vivek Ranadivé and Grizzlies owner Robert Pera. In the midst of the Grizzlies’ hot start, it seemed fans had all but forgotten the issues that had beset the Grizzlies front office just months earlier.

“After all, it wasn't all that long ago that this Chris Mannix Sports Illustrated article was giving everyone the impression that Pera was an asinine, meddling new owner bound to derail any hopes of a parade down Beale Street, just a year removed from the franchise's first ever appearance in the Western Conference Finals.”

There’s no mistaking it now, though. The Grizzlies are a mess on par with those Kings, something even Malone himself noticed.

“It really reminded me of my situation in Sacramento,” Malone said. “Mike Conley goes out. They go 0-7, 0-8. DeMarcus Cousins gets viral meningitis. We go two and whatever. And I get fired. He gets fired. David Fizdale is going to be back in the league as a head coach and he’ll be in a better situation just like I am.”

Those comments are alarming, but there’s truth in them, and Grizzlies fans must face facts. The team is a mess, and Fizdale’s firing has only served to bring the franchise’s dysfunction to the forefront of the NBA world.

Since the decision to let Fizdale go, the backlash has been severe and has come from every angle. The sources of the criticism—LeBron James, in particular—have only served to throw even harsher light onto to the train wreck unfolding in FedExForum.

The NBA world will move on eventually, but the Grizzlies will likely suffer lasting damage long after things have quieted down. Whatever allure the Grizzlies might’ve had as a free agent destination just took a body blow. I doubt this will come as a news flash, but the Grizzlies weren’t going to get LeBron even if he opts out of his contract with the Cavaliers and decides to move on from Cleveland. Hell, they probably weren’t going to even get a shot at the corpse of Dwyane Wade.

The real damage will be done to their ability to sign other free agents. Why would anyone want to come play for a franchise this inept? Memphis, already forced to take risks and overpay, will only be further handicapped now.

The Blame Game

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Fizdale isn’t blameless in Memphis’ recent struggles. True, he’s been handed a roster mostly devoid of talent and decimated by injuries to some of its best players, but he hasn’t made his own life any easier with his decision making. At times there was no discernible rhyme or reason to his rotations; lineups felt like an alchemical attempt to turn a roster of lead into gold.

In the wake of the Fizdale decision, the expected murmurings of dissent surfaced, charges that the man who’d given us the infamous Take That For Data rant had lost the locker room. Certainly he’d lost Marc Gasol. As for the others? Chalmers said he’d “heard rumblings,” but seen nothing. Deyonta Davis asked “WHY” before deleting the tweet. Mike Conley, JaMychal Green, and James Ennis all took to social media to thank Fizdale for his time in Memphis. Those don’t sound like players who’d given up on a coach. It sounds like the team made a decision based on its one disgruntled employee.

Speaking of Gasol, it’s fair to discuss his role in this, even if he never proffered some grand “him or me” ultimatum. The fact is that this sort of thing happens with star players. Marc may not be the transcendent star of LeBron, or Jordan, or Magic’s ilk, but he’s the best player to ever wear a Grizzlies uniform, and the NBA is a player’s league, as Chris Herrington wrote in the Commercial Appeal last Wednesday:

To the degree that this was a choice between a player and coach – and it certainly was to a large degree, even if a demand was never made from either end – Marc Gasol has both a greater track record as a player than Fizdale does as a head coach and has more invested in this franchise. Players, good ones at least, are ultimately more important than coaches. Peep the paychecks.

So the Grizzlies opted to keep their aging star content rather than give their struggling coach a vote of confidence. They aren’t the first team to do so; they likely won’t be the last.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

But what’s the end game now? Hiring Fizdale was lauded almost league-wide for a number of reasons, none of which was more important than Fizdale’s perceived ability to steward in the “Next Generation of Grizzlies basketball”, to mold the team’s glut of unproven, young clay into something resembling NBA-caliber players. That plan was thrown out the window with Fizdale’s termination, a disposal of a coach still in infancy made to get rid of bathwater that’d gone rancid amid struggles since last season’s All-Star break and a more recent 9-game losing streak.

This isn’t the Grizzlies’ first run-in with firing a coach following a playoff appearance. Lionel Hollins was let go after an appearance in the Western Conference Finals. Dave Joerger attempted—not just once, but twice!—to get away from Memphis, in the end choosing Sacramento, of all places. With J.B. Bickerstaff, the Grizzlies are now on their fourth coach in five years. They’ve become like George Steinbrenner on Seinfeld, firing coaches like it’s a bodily function.

As for Chris Wallace, the Grizzlies GM’s comments on the subject were laughable, especially when compared to what he said when Dave Joerger was fired in May of 2016.

In Bickerstaff’s introductory press conference, Wallace called firings a “fact of life” in the NBA. That’s true; coaches lose their jobs all the time. But stable organizations don’t change coaches on a whim, something that’s become habit in Memphis. Hollins, Joerger, and Fizdale are all gone, while the one in charge of roster construction has somehow survived the nuclear winter.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Moving Forward

The bigger question will come at the end of the season. Assuming the team moves on from Bickerstaff and tries to hire someone new, how do they convince a potential prospect to take the position? How can the Grizzlies brain trust look someone in the eye and say convincingly that this time is different, that this time they know what they’re doing? How do you point to the wizardry of Gasol’s peak while telling the Scarecrow and Tin Man to pay no attention to the monster behind the curtain?

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Fortunately, the Grizzlies can rely on Grind City Media to provide damage control. I want to be clear: I have no qualms with anyone employed by GCM. Amara Baptist, Mike Wallace, Alexis Morgan, Chris Vernon, Jon Roser, et al provide quality content on the Grizzlies. I have no issue with them as individuals, or even as employees of the organization.

But there are valid concerns with Grind City Media’s modus operandi: the restricted access to local media, the lack of transparency over player injuries. One need look no further for examples than the past week, when J.B. Bickerstaff’s introductory press conference wasn’t streamed live, or when TMZ revealed Chandler Parsons was in LA long before medical updates were provided on what was termed “pre-scheduled treatment.” Looking at the situation, it’s impossible for me to shake the feeling that GCM isn’t some sort of North Korea-style PR factory, a spin machine meant to draw attention away from the growing chaos surrounding the team through sleight of hand and college football picks.

This may seem new to the larger NBA world, but the fact is that the stench of ineptitude has long been present, simply masked by the veneer of winning. In the same way that Chris Wallace has escaped reproach for a decade of bungled draft picks through the fortuitous construction of the Core Four, the Grizzlies’ ailments have gone unnoticed under the success of a seven-year playoff run on the verge of running out.

And who does this all trace back to? None other than team owner Robert Pera.

In May of 2014, Pera told fans via Twitter that he planned to “be as transparent as possible.” Since then, it appears he meant this literally, as he’s been mostly invisible from Memphis, popping up occasionally to tweet gifs about throwing money away, or to host an impromptu Q&A after his company was attacked by a short seller. One wonders if Pera only remembers his NBA team exists when his phone buzzes with a text from Mike Conley or Marc Gasol.

Given the team’s ambiguous ownership situation—a shadowy, closed door process that will likely take months to play out—there’s a chance that this changes, that Pera is bought out and Kaplan takes over and rights the ship. Until then, Grizzlies fans will have to suffer through these trying times, knowing that their team is not unlike the NBA’s most tumultuous franchises. The Kings, the Bulls, the Knicks, and now, the Grizzlies. Comrades in ineptitude.

Next time you visit FedExForum, look up as you enter. You just may catch a glimpse of these words scrawled across the doorway in a jagged hand: Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”

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