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The problem with J.B. Bickerstaff

It is, and isn’t, his fault.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a weird experience, coaching.

You spend hour upon hour of your life preparing. You sacrifice relationships. Marriages. Watching your children grow up. Rites of passage and soccer matches and anniversaries and birthdays, all get missed at some point due to your schedule. If your kids are younger? First words. Steps. You come home from a practice and meeting with a parent or your staff where you’re told your players aren’t good enough and you’re not preparing them well enough to hear that your daughter woke up from a bad dream, calling for daddy, and you weren’t there.

It can rip you apart.

But whether you’re coaching kids or grown men, basic athletes or the elite of the elite, the grind of the profession is something that drives you. For folks like J.B. Bickerstaff, the opportunity to be considered one of the top leaders of men in professional basketball isn’t just a goal. It’s the family business. When your dad has success in the role, and you grow up in the game and see what coaching can be at the highest level, it is surely addicting. Even when you have little to no effect on whether or not the ball actually goes in the net.

So coaches of all sports drive themselves to the point of exhaustion. Across levels of competition, they push and they learn and they scratch and they fight for respect from their players and their peers. They hope to one day get the chance to have a program, a team, that is all theirs. One that will be built in their image, their way. J.B. Bickerstaff is no different.

He wants to have that level of control. And that’s the problem.

David Fizdale thought this would be his chance. To implement a culture he believed in, to construct a roster with a front office that believed in him. Then he posted a middling 50-51 record in his first 101 games as head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies, and went 7-12 to start this campaign, all while losing the support publicly of his best player Marc Gasol in the process. Rarely is one person ever fully at fault in these situations. Marc is not without blame. But part of being a head coach is getting your players to buy in to you and your plan, especially your best ones.

Fizdale failed.

Where his friend did not succeed, Bickerstaff appears to have found some success. In the midst of another long losing streak, Marc Gasol continues to play as well as one could expect him to at this stage of his career. He is quite literally alone right now, on a roster where you can argue the current third best healthy player is a rookie who was selected in the 2nd round of this past year’s draft, Dillon Brooks. On a very good team Marc is probably the 2nd or 3rd best players now. It makes sense he’d be the best of a bad bunch.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Where other stars have faded, though, Marc continues to at least try to shine. How much of that should be attributed to Bickerstaff? We’ve seen Gasol publicly critique coaches, not play for them or not fully support them publicly. Given the nature of the situation, and past family history in Memphis, it was even thought that Marc may request a trade and try to get out of Memphis by some. The opposite has occurred. Instead, one could argue that Marc is having one of his best seasons as a leader ever.

He is both vocally and non-verbally teaching this young roster. He is pulling a Brooks or Deyonta Davis aside and serving as a coach on the floor, explaining a missed rotation and a botched screen or extra pass. He is trying to make the most of a bad situation, in a year where his basketball mortality is more on display than ever before.

Professional pride surely plays a role here. Marc does not want to be seen as a “coach killer” - his summit with Memphis media in the wake of the Fizdale fiasco showed that quite clearly. But if we are to criticize Fizdale for not reaching Marc, we should also be able to compliment Bickerstaff for keeping his most important player engaged and focused in the midst of one of the worst team basketball seasons of Gasol’s career.

Fizdale seems to have believed in “his” way without selling how that was to become the Memphis way. To this point, Bickerstaff appears to be building “our” way. That’s making all the difference.

Since the firing of David Fizdale, the Memphis Grizzlies are 11-29. While there are direct reasons for this - the lack of a healthy Chandler Parsons or Mike Conley for much (if not all) of that stretch, the Tyreke Evans fiasco - it has to be stated that the Grizzlies have not gotten better under Bickerstaff. They as a unit have at best stayed the same, but multiple numbers say they’re worse. Memphis is attempting more shots under Fizdale, but missing more as well (especially in February).

They’ve taken less threes per game this month (23.8) than any other month so far this season. In the small sample size of the three contests since the All-Star break (against three Eastern Conference playoff teams in Cleveland, Miami, and Boston, to be fair) the Grizzlies are making threes less, turning the ball over more, and have been blown out in every game, not scoring more that 98 points while their opponents usually get to that total at the beginning of the fourth quarter.

Some players are having some success - JaMychal Green, Andrew Harrison, and Deyonta Davis come to mind in addition to Marc Gasol and Dillon Brooks - but the flashes and runs are too few and far between. There hasn’t been consistent growth in terms of team defense. There hasn’t been complete scheme on offense where players consistently move off the ball, or where players are put in better positions to help Gasol as cutters or shooters off of screens.

With a young roster, you hope to see improvement not just individually, but as a whole. That isn’t there.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

How much of that is on Bickerstaff? A fair question. How many of these current healthy Grizzlies would play on a Boston or Cleveland team, let alone start? Marc Gasol maybe, and that’s it? Would Dillon Brooks or Andrew Harrison, starters in Memphis largely due to the Conley and Parsons issues, be in the rotation there? Would Mario Chalmers or Ben McLemore see the floor for the Spurs or Timberwolves? Would Jarell Martin or Deyonta Davis or Myke Henry get minutes on the Wizards, or Sixers?

When the answer to these types of questions is mostly “no”, sometimes you have to give the coach the benefit of the doubt. With the recent resting of Marc Gasol in Miami, plus the “illness” of Chandler Parsons, it appears the team may have embraced the tank a bit more (not that they needed the help) in terms of letting the young players on the team eat more minutes, resulting in more poor decisions and more losses.

Again, the fact remains that this team as a whole is not improving. When it comes to how much of that lies at the feet of Bickerstaff, it depends on how you view this roster to a large degree. Here’s the tricky part - this roster will essentially be the same next season. Add a healthy Mike Conley and (hopefully) healthy Chandler Parsons, but the team hopes to keep Evans with the Mid-Level Exception. Say they’re successful. The only real addition would be the team’s draft picks.

Do you trust Bickerstaff to put these pieces in better roles and to run it back, with a hopefully much better result? That’s a decent-sized leap of faith, given what we have seen so far.

Coaching is culture.

It is about developing a mentality and having players help build it, enforce and cultivate it. From college to the pros, we see examples of the greatest coaches doing this. Popovich and Belichick, Jackson and Dungy, Krzyzewski and Wooden, Auriemma and Summitt. You establish the standard and develop from there.

But the current culture of the Memphis Grizzlies may not allow for J.B. Bickerstaff to ever get to this point.

Ownership is in limbo. The front office may well soon be in for an overhaul. Bickerstaff has been tasked with taking a roster of 2nd round picks and projects and trying to do more with them than his former boss was able to. To keep the ship afloat in turbulent waters. To be successful, but essentially not THAT successful.

It’s a tough spot for any coach. Especially one coaching for his next job, be it in Memphis or elsewhere.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Bickerstaff has been in this spot before, in Houston, a run that was much more successful than this one as an interim coach (James Harden will do that for you). And yet, Bickerstaff chose to pass on the opportunity wirh the Rockets and move forward. Now he faces a similar sort of limbo, but this time the organization isn’t sure of their own path forward. How can you build something on such shaky ground? How do you establish a foundation where your cornerstones are crumbling, or get control of a product that is, currently, pretty out of control?

You can’t. And that’s the problem.

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