As it pertains to the NBA’s coaching carousel, there is an old quote from Stephen A. Smith that describes the Memphis Grizzlies so incredibly well . After the firing of David Fizdale, he gave several reasons for why the Grizzlies fired him. But the main reason behind it, as Stephen A. believed, was simple.
“He worked for the Grizzlies. This is simply what they do.”
Whether it’s completely fair or not, there is definitely a perception that the Memphis Grizzlies are a model of organizational instability. And even if that isn’t true, you can forgive members of the national media for thinking so.
After all, the Grizzlies decided to not renew Lionel Hollins’ contract (which is a really nice way of saying that they fired him) after a 56-win season and the franchise’s first trip to the Western Conference finals. They then fired Dave Joerger after leading the team to two 50-plus win seasons in his three years at the helm. And most recently, they fired David Fizdale, who was also admirably active in the Memphis community, just 19 games into his second season. He of course had led the Grizzlies to the playoffs in his first year.
Enter J.B Bickerstaff.
Now to be clear, there are many factors and variables that went into all of this turnover over the years. Hollins apparently had “philosophical differences” with the Grizzlies’ new management that was led by Jason Levien at the time. Due to concerns about his job security, Joerger didn’t even really want to be in Memphis anymore. And hell, the Grizzlies fired Fizdale to apparently appease Marc Gasol, a player who now obviously isn’t even in Memphis anymore.
Regardless, it’s easy to understand why many media members as well as possibly executive members of the Grizzlies’ organization are very hesitant to get rid of J.B. Bickerstaff after just one season at the helm. If you fire yet another coach after such a short period of time, then what quality coach is going to want to come to Memphis, the NBA’s coaching equivalent of a slaughterhouse?
However, the reason that there is even a conversation about firing Bickerstaff in the first place is simple: He has not shown much evidence in his 215 games with two different franchises as a “rookie” head coach that he is anything resembling a good head coach. In fact, he has appeared downright incompetent at times.
Of course, he has had his moments. The league in general considers him to be an excellent defensive mind, which he has shown as the architect of the Grizzlies’ defense both under Fizdale and as a head coach. Even this season, the Grizzlies had an excellent run under him and were at one point 12-5, the best record in the Western Conference.
Yet his shortcomings and weaknesses that he has displayed as a head coach clearly outweigh any of his current strengths or solid runs of basketball.
Even before he came to Memphis, he coached 71 games as the interim coach for the Houston Rockets—who had James Harden, a tail-end-of-his-prime Dwight Howard, and most of the same role players that helped them get to the conference finals the year before— and only led them to the 8th seed by season’s end. Of course, that team was somewhat dysfunctional, but they underachieved with the talent they had.
As head coach of the Grizzlies, his regular mismanagement of rotations and in-game situations has been frustrating at best and downright embarrassing at worst. There have been many clear examples of this such as his infuriating inclination to play Shelvin Mack in clutch situations and his stubborn refusal early to play Jaren Jackson Jr. over JaMychal Green no matter how well he played. To put it as politely as possible, he just seemed lost at times. Of course, these are eye-test examples, and there could be unknown behind-the-scenes reasons for why these decisions were consistently made.
However, when you look at the numbers, an even darker picture begins to form.
For starters, Bickerstaff is obviously very poor at making in-game adjustments considering that the Grizzlies lost 18 games this year in which they led by double-digits. Even if you believe that basketball is a game of runs and that the Grizzlies had inferior talent as compared to most of the teams they played (and both of these statements are true), this is still completely inexcusable, and it speaks to a coach’s lack of ability to properly respond in the second halves of games.
His play-calling appears to be extremely suspect as well. In points per possession after timeouts (ATO), the Grizzlies ranked dead last in the NBA. Personnel (or lack thereof) is certainly a factor, but that doesn’t change the fact that he has demonstrated a clear lack of creativity—creativity that is needed to properly attack opposing defenses in the NBA.
Perhaps the most damning aspect of Bickerstaff’s tenure has been the Grizzlies’ performance in clutch situations. In these spots (games that are within five points with less than five minutes to go), they ranked 29th in the league in net rating. Even with injuries and all the roster turnover, this is relatively amazing since the Grizzlies have been historically great for the better part of the last decade in close games. But although roster turnover was definitely a factor, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—the two players most responsible for the Grizzlies’ clutch time success over the last decade—still played over 50 games together this year. Clearly, coaching was a primary factor.
So with all of this in mind, the question is simple: Should the Memphis Grizzlies retain J.B. Bickerstaff and give him another chance next season?
In my opinion, the Grizzlies should make the decision to fire him now and begin looking for other candidates. And they should do so because they should have never hired him in the first place.
The front office hired him without even conducting a real coaching search because he was considered a player’s coach, and the Conley-Gasol tandem really liked him. Marc Gasol is of course now in Toronto, and it’s becoming increasingly more likely that Conley has already played his last game as a Grizzly.
Now this may not be completely fair to Bickerstaff. He had to endure seemingly endless injuries and roster turnover that caused the Grizzlies to match their own depressing NBA record from three years ago with 28 players on the active roster, which assuredly threw a wrench in some of the designs and plans that he had for the team. The failures of the front office also led to him inheriting a team that was probably never good enough to make the playoffs.
However, we have a large enough sample size of games to suggest that Bickerstaff simply doesn’t have it as an NBA head coach. While he did have to handle adversity and a handicapped roster for much of the year, that doesn’t excuse his general incompetence that he displayed throughout the season. If he had given the fan base more confidence in his decision-making, then maybe he would get a pass for the team failing every single goal that it had for this season.
But he didn’t, and he won’t.
And even if you believe that he deserves another chance with a fully healthy NBA team, wouldn’t it make more sense to just start fresh at this point?
Think about it: There is no more damage that can be done to the Grizzlies’ already-existent reputation of an unstable organization, and one more fired coach won’t change that. Bickerstaff is just another in a long line of shortsighted decisions made by a front office that should have been replaced several years ago. It is also incredibly stupid to use those same shortsighted decisions to fire previous coaches as a reason for why the Grizzlies shouldn’t fire someone who has been shown to be inept now—you can’t let the mistakes of the past determine what you do in the present.
To change the Grizzlies’ reputation and organizational culture, the change must start at the top. It’s time for a new front office and a new vision—a vision that also includes their own choice as coach, not Bickerstaff—a man selected by a fledgling front office whom didn’t even bother to conduct a real search. To be sure, the basketball gods will not be so cruel as to allow Chris Wallace to survive yet another coach.
By all accounts, J.B. Bickerstaff seems to be an excellent human being and a family man. He has represented Memphis well, and no matter what happens next, the people of Memphis should hope that he lands on his feet.
But his clear shortcomings and weaknesses as a head coach simply do not warrant the Memphis Grizzlies bringing him back for another season, especially as they enter into a precarious new era. The Grizzlies need to clean house and start over—and that includes a fresh face from a hopefully new regime as head coach.