The Memphis Grizzlies fired head coach David Fizdale just 19 games into 2017-18 season. The firing came as a shock to many, but it came a day after Marc Gasol was benched and he was not happy. I wrote about how weird that was then for Marc Gasol and David Fizdale went after each other publicly, but that is now obviously in the past. David Fizdale is gone and the Grizzlies were left to make sense of a season were they now had a newly promoted interim coach, J.B. Bickerstaff.
Going from assistant coach to interim head coach in a matter of hours is not easy. Getting the players, some who really like Fizdale, to suddenly play for you and respect you can not be something that happens overnight. Yet it seems like that is exactly what Bickerstaff did, he had players on his side from the first game he coached. Most players understand that a firing of a coach happens - it is a business, and accept the new coach and move on. Some younger players, which the Grizzlies have a lot of, don’t always get that right away and that is where Coach Bickerstaff challenges were, getting the young guys on board.
The Grizzlies have played 29 games with interim head coach Bickerstaff in charge. The Grizzlies were 7-12 under Fizdale and have gone 10-19 with Bickerstaff at the helm. They have a better offensive rating at 104.1 but have a far worse defensive rating at 108.4 - it was 103.2 with Fizdale. Their pace of play, field goal percentage, points off turnovers, and second chance points are roughly the same under the new coach. They have a slightly better three point percentage under their new coach than the old one. If they numbers haven’t changed much, then why does Bickerstaff deserve a long term contract?
They dont matter. The numbers in this situation do not matter. As a numbers guy myself, I find this hard to come to terms with as well. You have to think about the things that Bickerstaff is doing and the obstacles he has to overcome while also trying to win basketball games. Since he has inherited this job, the Grizzlies have had more injuries. JaMychal Green has been out a significant number of games. Chandler Parsons has now missed 19 out of 28 possible games since December, a player that everyone seemed to think he was playing better. Wayne Selden Jr. came back and had to be acclimated into the roster on a nightly basis. Andrew Harrison, Mario Chalmers, Brandan Wright and James Ennis have all missed time.
Bickerstaff hasn’t even really had a full roster. He has been patching a roster together, trying to figure out who is healthy enough to play, while also trying to put a competitive roster together. This can’t be easy for any coach at any level, especially not a coach who replaced one of his friends after just 19 games.
That is why the numbers don’t really matter, because of the players that Bickerstaff has had to run out on the court on a night basis. The Grizzlies are regularly starting Andrew Harrison, Dillon Brooks, Jarell Martin and Selden now. Andrew Harrison is not a capable starting point guard in the NBA and he might not even be a capable backup. Jarell Martin was going to get cut in training camp and still has serious issues, long term he is a end of the bench guy at best. Dillon Brooks has been great this year, but he is playing out of his role right now. Selden has just overcome injury and still does not have that much NBA experience.
What about the players coming off the bench for the Grizzlies? Well it does not get much better. Ivan Rabb, a rookie this year, had not starting playing until recently, but now is getting serious minutes. Myke Henry, who was playing with the OKC Blue just a few weeks ago, has recently been getting 20 minutes a night. Mario Chalmers has been coming off the bench all year for this team as the backup point guard. Chalmers has not been good much at all this season, there have been bright spots, but it has been bad overall. Ben McLemore has also been playing more, someone who could not even get off the bench earlier this season. This is the roster that J.B. has to deal with, and has still somehow managed to win 10 games.
The roster is bad enough, but after you have lost this many games in a season it starts to become mathematically impossible for you to make the playoffs. The draft pick you have starts to become more and more valuable the more games you lose. Now the front office would not publicly ask the coach to lose on purpose, but maybe they should play all the young guys to get experience in this lost season. Bickerstaff now has a bad roster that gets worse by playing even more young guys. This puts the interim coach in a really bad spot.
Bickerstaff has to somehow manage trying to win as many games as he can because he wants to keep his job, wants people to know he is a good basketball coach, and also playing the young guys to keep his bosses happy. This is the strangest of all predicaments for him to be in, for every win that you get, it might not be what the front office wanted because they want a high draft pick.
This is why it is time to give Bickerstaff a three-year contract. He has already won more games than the coach that they fired, with a worse roster. He has gotten the players to play for him in a very short amount of time, in a setting that is not the most ideal. He has taken a roster of young guys and has gotten them to play better. Players like Jarell Martin who looked like they had no business being on the court with other players have made a surprise turnaround in the months of December and January. Bickerstaff has managed to walk to fine line of winning a few games but losing the majority of them.
He is definitely a company man, playing all the young players over people like Brandan Wright, to get them experience for the upcoming years. Bickerstaff himself said-
They’re young, their eager, they’re hungry, they’re working at it, so we’ll live with those growing pains right now.” “For the future of this organization, this experience is priceless for them.
The most important thing that he has done since becoming the head coach is he has gotten Marc Gasol to like him. Given recent history, this is huge. Marc Gasol might not say he has had nothing to do with the last two coaches getting fired, but neither of them are here now. Getting Marc Gasol on board might have been one of the biggest challenges that Bickerstaff had in front of him and he did it pretty quickly.
The players like Bickerstaff. They play for him. They hard for him every night they are on the court. It’s time to give him a chance. It’s time to let him have a shot next year with a real roster, with good players every night, with a point guard in Mike Conley that could change the outcome of any game on any night. The Grizzlies should give Bickerstaff a three-year contract and make it official, that he will be the head coach of the future. At least then, he can start losing games and he wont have to worry about keeping his job and everyone including Bickerstaff can be happy about a high draft pick this summer. Let’s give Bickerstaff a shot with an actual NBA roster and see what he can do.
As Tony Allen would say “Go ahead and get signed for the year then!”