When Coach David Fizdale was hired from Miami this offseason, he quickly made it a point of emphasis to try and build the same sort of “championship culture” in Memphis that had existed in Miami, where Fizdale was part of a staff that won two NBA titles.
Now, let’s be honest: “championship culture” is a sort of nebulous term with nothing in the way of quantifiable metrics. It’s also a lot easier to have a “championship culture” when your team is built around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Memphis has two very good to great players (Marc Gasol, Mike Conley), a couple of flawed franchise icons (Zach Randolph, Tony Allen), and after that, a mishmash of role players, injury concerns, and young, unproven guys.
Suffice it to say, the Heat’s Big 3, these guys ain’t. That being said, Fizdale certainly showed a willingness to work with what he had, and to push buttons where he could in an attempt to maximize his team, both short- and long-term.
So, how did his management style pay off? Let’s take a look back over the last season and see.
Fizdale made his mark felt early in the season, garnering praise for his straightforward handling of Zach Randolph’s move to the bench, and for his unorthodox method for eliciting more vocal leadership from his players. In his first preseason game, during a timeout, he handed Mike Conley a clipboard and told him to call a play. It was out of the box thinking, and fans and media liked what they saw.
The Grizzlies’ new head coach also made major strides where previous regimes had failed. Namely, Fizdale showed a willingness to rely on his young players (the Toney Douglas experiment notwithstanding).
Fizdale also deserves credit for his handling of the Chandler Parsons situation. It became apparent late in the season that Parsons was a drag on the starting lineup and that he was affecting team chemistry. And yet Parsons continued to start, a move that had all the markings of a front office directive.
When asked about it, though, Fizdale refused to throw management under the bus in a departure from Dave Joerger, who had openly bemoaned his own roster before.
Now, things didn’t all go 100% smoothly. There were moments during the season where it seemed apparent that Z-Bo missed his starting role. And Fizdale still needed to call out his team’s leadership at times; at one point during a losing skid, he remarked that the team’s huddles felt “like tombs” and that he was “down on [their] leadership.”
And there’s still that one topic that got all the talk late in the season, all the questions surrounding a certain seven-foot Spaniard.
Fizdale appeared early on to realize how great Marc Gasol can be, and how integral the center could be to building the sort of culture that Fizdale covets in his team. Before the season started, Marc was made the team’s lone captain, and the early returns looked as if Fizdale’s move would pay big dividends. Gasol strutted and strummed his way off the court after big shots, and carried the team during an injury-riddled open to the season. It was enough to earn Big Spain his third All-Star nod.
That changed post All-Star Break, when Gasol suddenly seemed like a different player. More prone to moodiness and bristling at questions about leadership and decision making, Gasol’s performance floundered, culminating in the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the Grizzlies first round series with the San Antonio Spurs, where he scored just 3 points, all on free throws.
Without really knowing what’s going on in Marc’s mind, it’s impossible to accurately explain what exactly went on during the late-season swoon. Maybe Gasol was fed up with playing next to Parsons; maybe Gasol chafed at Fizdale’s management methods; maybe he was tired or dealing with a few bumps and bruises; maybe he’d watched I Know Who Killed Me and was inconsolable over the rapid deterioration of Lindsay Lohan’s career.
No one knows what really went on this year, or if there’s anything that might linger into next season, but Marc’s demeanor will be something that fans should keep a close eye on early in the next campaign. The chemistry with Big Spain will be integral for Fizdale as he heads into his second season.
There’s a bright spot to all this, though. Even if Marc balked at some of Fizdale’s management styles, Mike Conley appears to have embraced his new coach — and the offensive schemes. Conley’s season was unquestionably the best of his career, and he only got better as the season went on.
Next season, I’d be shocked if Conley doesn’t join (or replace) Gasol as team captain, and I expect “The Conductor” to step up to the challenge.
I also expect Fizdale to continue to implement his form of team culture in the locker room. For all of the bumps in the road this season, Fizdale’s willingness to treat his players with respect, to listen to their input, and to demand leadership and accountability from his players has already yielded positive results.
Even without Big 3 talent, Fizdale is making strides in improving the team’s culture.