Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images
By: Kendall Garriss
The NBA began the 2017-18 season in a unique fashion: each NBA team started training camp with the same coach it had the previous season. To put this in perspective, the last time the league began and finished the regular season with the same 30 NBA head coaches was during the 1970-71 season. It had been almost 18 months since there had been a head coaching vacancy; the most recent firing was in May 2016, when the Memphis Grizzlies dismissed Dave Joerger. That streak was short-lived as the Phoenix Suns Head Coach Earl Watson was axed after a 0-3 start to this season, amidst the drama surrounding the team and former Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe.
On Monday, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi reported that the Grizzlies had fired Head Coach David Fizdale, their second head coach in the last two seasons. Fizdale, a long time assistant under Erik Spoelstra with the Miami Heat, excelled in his first season with Memphis, taking the team to the playoffs for the seventh straight season, where they were eliminated in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs. The Grizzlies lost the core of their “Grind City” veterans as they let Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen walk during free agency. The organization signed Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers to help fill the gap. The Grizzlies keep pace at the start of the season, posting a 7-6 record but the wheels truly fell off the wagon when starting point guard Mike Conley was sidelined with an Achilles injury on November 17. Matters did not improve for the team, as they lost their eighth straight game on Sunday, matching the longest losing streak for the franchise since 2009.
The tipping point was Sunday’s loss to the Brooklyn Nets. The Grizzlies held an eight-point lead during the first half but went into the half tied. They fell behind 14 points during the fourth quarter and finished the game using primarily their bench players. The bench unit was able to pull the Grizzlies back within five points with about eight minutes remaining in the game. However, instead of going back to his starting unit, Fizdale left the bench players in that had made the initial run. Not only did this prove to be a fruitless effort as the Grizzlies ultimately went on to lose the game but it also marked Fizdale’s final action during his short tenure as head coach.
Marc Gasol was clearly frustrated with how Fizdale handled the late game situation. He sounded off during his post-game interview saying, “If I’m not on the floor that means I’m not valued. And that, I’m sure they know, hurt me the most. I’m sure they wouldn’t do it to Mike [Conley]. It’s just the way it is. You have to deal with it.” Gasol’s anger and displeasure was shocking to discover for many within the NBA sphere. From his time in Miami and Memphis, Fizdale was widely heralded throughout the league as a coach who was adept at connecting with his players, which makes this reporting of deep-rooted player-coach conflict all the more surprising. However, according to DraftExpress’ Jonathon Givony, tension between Fizdale and Gasol had been festering since last season, citing that the two had several confrontations during practice. Apparently, these confrontations damaged the relationship enough that it got to the point where management had to choice between a star player and a coach.
Many NBA players have come to the defense of Fizdale. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who were both coached by Fizdale in Miami, were shocked and outraged by the news. James stated in at Tweet, “I need some answers. Feels like my man was a fall guy.” Wade echoed those sentiments when he Tweeted, “I need answers!!! WTF”.
While this news may be surprising for many, perhaps Memphis fans were less alarmed by the firing that the rest of us. Grizzlies Owner Robert Pera hasn’t been known for his patience and has a history of making brash moves. Over his brief stint, Fizdale went 50-51 and took the team to the playoffs in his first year, all while coaching a team that was constantly plagued by injuries. However, this was still not enough to save his job. This is not the first time a Grizzlies coach was fired seemingly prematurely. Former coach Lionel Hollins was dismissed after a 56-win season and Joerger was fired despite three of the franchise’s most successful seasons.
Take that for data.
Perhaps this firing says less about Fizdale and more about Grizzlies upper management, which has shown a propensity for impatience. For now, J.B. Bickerstaff will serve as the interim head coach for the rest of the season. This will be Bickerstaff’s second stint as an interim head coach (Bickerstaff served in the same role during the 2015-16 season after the Houston Rockets fired Kevin McHale 11 games into the season). However, with Conley sidelined for the foreseeable future and a tumultuous locker room, it is difficult to see the Grizzlies keeping pace with the rest of Western Conference.