Tuesday 20 February 2018 / 10:49 PM


Coach Fiz is finished, but Memphis have bigger problems on the horizon.

Pundits will proclaim that the Grizzlies have, in the wake of the divorce from head coach David Fizdale, finally moved on from the infamous ‘Grit N Grind’ era. It couldn’t be further from the case — David Fizdale was himself brought in with the intention of moving into a new era and implementing a style more analytically savvy and on-trend with the trajectory of the NBA. He followed Dave Joerger, who was tasked with the same job.

We’ll find the common thought process to reflect variations of the position “they had to move on to transition to a more modern style” or that the change in coach will lead to a shift in identity that will reinvigorate the franchise.

But here we stand, two coaches and four and a half years removed from Lionel Hollins creating a function offence by dumping the ball into Zach Randolph, whilst Tony Allen blew transition layups and the Grizzlies simply out-hustled teams and defended their way to wins.

Basketball has changed, but the Grizzlies haven’t – and now they’re in serious trouble. But their direction off the court is proving far more problematic than their style on it.

The inevitable debate in the wake of their coaching rearrangement will be the direction of the franchise; should they blow it up? Truthfully, that question comes at least two years too late, but the answer is still a resounding YES.

Issue is: when pulling the trigger on a rebuilding effort, especially in the hopes of extracting full value from your assets, timing is everything. Memphis rode the wave a few years too long, fell off their board and now they have to face the prospect of drowning in their past mistakes. It’s an important lesson, and even though we’ve seen it play out time and time again, teams always mess it up — when the bomb starts ticking, you need to do something. Standing pat might seem loyal and sincere, but bypassing logic in the name of fervency always leads to an undesirable outcome.

The most common misunderstanding is the result of these mistakes: the aforementioned drowning doesn’t come at the bottom of the standings, it’s the hamster wheel of mediocrity that keeps the floor and ceiling of the team’s progress sandwiched together; not good enough to compete, not bad enough to rebuild. Just… there.

In the NBA, existing is losing, and while there is an inclination to look back on the dwindling years of a great era through rose-coloured glasses, don’t let the nostalgia cloud your judgement – like it did the Memphis front office.

Loyalty is increasingly disregarded in the modern sporting landscape, and it’s not because of the business becoming progressively nihilistic as some will have you believe. It’s because it’s an inefficient team-building model — it places emotions and past performances ahead of concise judgement, accurate evaluations and perceptive management of assets. Withholding assignment of blame on the Grizzlies front office for the results of this season because of their past successes is conveniently overlooking the contextual impact of those choices.

Marc Gasol and Mike Conley (when healthy, the unfortunate add-on to their names) are still two of the top 20 players in the NBA, but they’ve seen their teammates wither around them, and then disappear, without ever seeing replacements. They can still prop a team up with their sublime craftsmanship in the two-man game, but without help it can only last so long. Success this season was never sustainable anyway, and once an injury struck either of their stars it was game over. Memphis are toiling at 7-12 (tied for wins with the Brooklyn Nets and Phoenix Suns, for God’s sake) because they built a paper-thin roster around two fragile stars in their 30s.

The Grizz have been so feverishly mediocre this year that Tyreke Evans has been the main talking point. And that isn’t a knock on Evans; he’s a perfectly fine (but inherently flawed) rotation-level player, but he needs the ball in his hands to basically do anything. He’s failed everywhere he’s been since his rookie year because he simply isn’t good enough at anything to demand such a high usage rate. But here he is, having what’s being referred to as a career resurgence (which is quite overblown), because Memphis, especially when Mike Conley isn’t taking to the court, simply have no one else to turn to. Connecting those dots and walking away blaming Fizdale for implementing an inefficient system is bizarre.

Retooling is hard, and not everything works out according to plan. The Chandler Parsons deal was an unfortunate misstep that could have been a huge plus had it swung their way. Players rarely fail to reach their contract value so significantly, but it wasn’t as though it was without risk — Parsons had struggled with injuries in Dallas, so handing him a max offer was a risky gamble where the downside was apparent. It ended up far worse than expected — Parsons hasn’t logged 25 minutes in a single game through two years (!) — and of course the context of the signing matters, but getting next to nothing out of a guy taking $22 million out of the salary cap (who is 29 and appears to be washed) can’t be justified with a shrug of the shoulders and a cry for bad luck. Someone has to be accountable.

Nobody wants to subscribe to the pessimistic view that all teams should fall to the wayside while the Warriors moonwalk to a dynasty — and, yes, it’s noble and dignified to never back down and strive to compete — but a pragmatic approach shouldn’t be discarded for a fantastical belief. A little realism goes a long way, and the Grizzlies as currently constructed didn’t have a shot in hell at getting past the Warriors, but they did (key word: did) have highly-valued assets that could have been flipped for real things whilst someone else chased that fantasy.

As heartless as it may have appeared, they absolutely missed the boat on trading Gasol and Conley. Accepting when the run is over and it’s time to hit restart is right up there among the most important factors in sustained success — riding off into the sunset and wishing them a happy farewell comes at the expense of winning; ask Dallas. Memphis can’t be vindicated for their non-action with any of the cliched excuses, because the warning signs were all there, and we’ve had both sides of the spectrum presented in full in recent times.

The Celtics called it a day on a championship team, traded two future Hall of Famers and let their other two All-Stars walk. They currently are the most asset rich team in the Association, have the league-leading record and look set to contend comfortably for the next decade with the brightest future outside of Golden State. San Antonio have anchored 20 years of success around retooling and revamping, refusing to expect their older guys to remain at the top of their game forever, rather surrounding them with emerging talent and seamlessly shifting from generation to generation; they haven’t missed the playoffs in two decades and are well on track to continue that streak.

On the other hand, the Clippers sat idle whilst the league whizzed by, put blind faith into a thin roster headlined by three stars and watched their most prized possession orchestrate his way onto a conference rival without fetching anything resembling an accurate return. They are in free-fall, only one win above Memphis themselves. That’s just a recent snapshot of a huge sample size of proof suggesting regenerative measures are far more efficient than persevering efforts. As Dave Fizdale once said, in what will probably be the enduring memory of his tenure, “How’s that for data?”

Fizdale feels like a smaller, unfortunate casualty in a bigger story here: We aren’t even six months removed from him propelling a starless, glorified G-League team to two breathtaking, emotional wins against the Spurs in the playoffs. He showed what he can do with nothing more than willpower, motivation and a whiteboard, but he’s been let go for poor results because management haven’t surrounded him with talent to carry out their expectations. There’s always more than meets the eye here, so this isn’t an unconditional defence of coach Fizdale, but the obvious missteps that appear to have led to his dismissal seem to be due to factors out of his control.

Memphis are lucky in regards to the persona of their stars. Neither Gasol or Conley appear to be the type to force a trade, but if they did hand in a request, after putting all their eggs in the basket of integrity, the Grizzlies’ hands would be tied. Neither will command a worthwhile return — Gasol is 32 with a history of lower-leg injuries and 3 years/$60 million left to run on his deal; Conley is 30, in the second year of a 5 year/$153 million contract and whilst still an elite player, every potential suitor is covered at the point guard spot.

Getting off either money now will be tough, and they should go for it if they can get it done. They’ve got no chance of extracting prime value, and therefore receive an automatic fail in that category. Nobody else on their roster even approaches ‘value’, and I have a hard time believing they could get a first-round pick even by bundling multiple players. The road ahead is tough, and the light at the end isn’t visible as of yet. The quickest way to progress is to reconcile with the mistakes and not repeat them by pushing ahead.

Removing the ship captain won’t be enough to course correct: this isn’t tanking, this is capsizing. Welcome to the rebuild!

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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