You don’t need a recap of how disorganized and shameful last year’s Memphis Grizzlies season was. The basketball was often embarrassing, which in turn made the player development look bad. There were ownership concerns, ultimately resulting in Robert Pera still maintaining a majority share of the team, who if you don’t know, started a monstrous tech company that doesn’t keep him close to Memphis. There were injuries, there was drama in the locker room; basically anything that could derail an NBA season happened.
But there was ultimately one infamous decision that shaped the trajectory of a season that resulted in the first top-10 pick for Memphis in nine years.
The front office fired then head coach David Fizdale and replaced him with interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff. We are all familiar with the story - it is rumored that there was tension between long-time center and franchise cornerstone Marc Gasol, and the decision was made to keep Gasol around instead of Coach Fizdale. There were other factors - overall philosophy, way of addressing the success of the previous era of Grizzlies basketball, etc. - but this seemed to be the last straw.
We can debate until we are blue in the face about what the best decision was, that’s not relevant anymore. The team wasn’t going to win no matter what coach was leading the way, and the lottery was inevitable.
What has changed because of the coach swap is the mindset and personnel that coach Bickerstaff has to work with. David Fizdale verbally expressed and consciously practiced a new style of play in Memphis. He wanted more speed, higher scoring, and most definitely more shots to be taken each game. The Grit-N-Grind era had faded with the departures of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, it was time for Fizdale to make his mark on a new era of Grizzlies basketball.
This was evident in the way the team played immediately. Marc Gasol went from attempting three 3-pointers all year in the 2015-16 season, to averaging 3.6 attempts per game under Fizdale in 2016-17. The team attempted the most threes in franchise history, scored the most points on the season and averaged the most points per game in six years. The team had turned a new leaf under Fizdale, yet it wasn’t much greener on the other side.
Fizdale would go 43-39 in his first season as a head coach in Memphis, a record that landed them in the playoffs and inevitably beaten by the pesky San Antonio Spurs. Even still, the next season started off strong with wins over the Golden State Warriors and the Houston Rockets, but the hysteria was short lived. Fizdale apparently lost the locker room, notably (one of) the leader(s) of the team mentally (Marc Gasol) and the another of the leaders to injury (Mike Conley). Things were going south and quickly.
In a move unpredicted by most, general manager Chris Wallace fired Fizdale after 19 games of the 2017-18 season and replaced him with J.B. Bickerstaff. Bickerstaff had interim coaching experience with the Rockets where he slugged through one season and was not given the full-time nod. Now the story is different, Bickerstaff has been given a multi-year deal to be the head coach of the Grizzlies, a decision that was not surprising to Memphis faithful, despite the debate of whether or not he actually deserved the promotion. It seems now that Bickerstaff is being given the chance that Fizdale was not: an opportunity to build a team that can compete year after year.
The difference in philosophy is on full display, starting with the personnel that has been acquired in the off season.
Grizzlies (finally) officially announce they’ve hired J.B. Bickerstaff as associate head coach and Nick Van Exel as an assistant.— Kevin Lipe (@FlyerGrizBlog) June 8, 2016
Let’s start with the draft picks. Jaren Jackson Jr., who will not turn 19 until September, was drafted with the number four overall pick by the Grizzlies. The 6-11, 242 pound forward averaged just under 11 points and six rebounds a game last year in his only season with Michigan State. More importantly, he averaged three blocks in just 21.8 minutes a game. Jackson only took about six shots a game, less than three 3-pointers per game, and is by all accounts more of a defensive presence than offensive. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that, but in today’s NBA, bigs are losing relevance unless they can defend multiple positions and create offensively. Hopefully Jackson can do those things consistently.
The Grizzlies second round pick was spent on Jevon Carter, a four year veteran out of West Virginia. In his senior season he average 17.3 points, 6.6 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game. That’s not bad for a 6-2, 185 pound guard. But there’s more. Carter averaged three steals per game last season and 2.5 the season before. If you watched any West Virginia basketball this year, you knew where Carter was: guarding the opponent’s best player. Carter is a defensive specialists, and wants to own that role. Sure, he can score a little, he can manage the floor, but his money will be made on the defensive end.
The latest free agency signing by the Grizzlies is Kyle Anderson, previously with the San Antonio Spurs. Anderson soaked up the remaining cap space that Memphis could spend and brings a new perspective to the bluff city. Anderson averaged just 7.9 points and 2.7 assists last year for the Spurs, but he also grabbed 5.4 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. In classic Grizzlies form, Anderson averaged less than one three-point attempt per game last year, making only 19 threes on the season.
Bickerstaff has chosen to revert back to the roots of the last era in Memphis (or current era if you’re still a Grit-N-Grind sympathizer). It was evident that Marc Gasol couldn’t play fast, or at least couldn’t player faster without another ball dominant player on the floor. The speed that was brought in to help Fizdale’s framework hasn’t panned out to say the least. And moving forward, the young guys on the roster aren’t franchise altering talent.
This team has to create an identity that isn’t built around one scorer or fast pace.
There was a conscious effort by the front office, likely in conjunction with J.B. Bickerstaff, to seek out defensive players. For better or worse, this team is built to play slowly, and Bickerstaff will be tasked with coaching them to win within that play style. In Memphis, this will likely be a welcome strategy, but for the era that the NBA has morphed in to, it’s the opposite style that teams are adopting. With new faces added to a new coach with ambition to bring Memphis back to relevance, there is still a lot to be determined for the Grizzlies franchise.