There’s an opacity to the innermost workings of NBA franchises that we’re probably never going to crack no matter how many league-mandated pre- and post-shootaround interviews coaches submit to, and no matter how many (increasingly rare) season inside the locker room books get written, so it’s impossible to know for sure what’s wrong with the Memphis Grizzlies. Perhaps David Fizdale was factor number one with a bullet, but even from our information-deficient position, we can safely say that the Grizz have had numerous thorny problems this season that have nothing to do with their second-year coach, who was fired on Monday afternoon amid an eight-game skid that hit a new nadir when Fizdale benched Marc Gasol for the fourth quarter of a ten-point loss to the thoroughly not-great Brooklyn Nets. Gasol was about as miffed after the game as he gets, which is to say he fumed politely: I hate not playing. That’s what I value the most. If I’m not on the floor, that means I’m not valued.
While the instinct to immediately terminate the employment of anyone who would dare hurt a sweetheart like Marc Gasol’s feelings is understandable, Fizdale’s dismissal smacks of scapegoating. After an improbably hot start to the season, the Grizz are now playing worse than what they should be, but that’s mostly down to injury and a struggling Gasol. Mike Conley has been out for the past two weeks with an achilles issue that’s taking longer than expected to heal. Chandler Parsons’s ninety-four million dollar trick knee has rendered his night-to-night performance erratic. Brandon Wright and Wayne Selden haven’t been playing recently due, respectively, to a groin and a quad. The Grizz ran out a starting lineup against the Nets that included Dillon Brooks and Mario Chalmers. Ben McLemore has been playing 18 minutes per game. It’s no mystery why they’re having a hard time.
With J.B. Bickerstaff temporarily replacing Fizdale (there was apparently an underdiscussed clause in the most recent CBA that made Bickerstaff the league’s official interim head coach, like a designated quarterback in a flag football game), Robert Pera is about to hire the fourth coach of his five-year ownership of the Grizz. The franchise is also in the middle of a sixty-day period in which minority owners Steve Kaplan and/or Daniel Straus can put in a bid to buy Pera’s majority share of the Grizz, which is about twenty-five percent. Pera can then accept their offer or buy their shares—they each own about fourteen percent of the organization—at the valuation their bid suggests. So if Kaplan and Straus put in a joint bid of twenty-five bucks for Pera’s shares (hardball!), he could take that deal or pay Kaplan and Straus twenty-eight bucks and assume much fuller control over the franchise. It’s worth mentioning that Pera hardly ever attends his team’s games; his primary business, Ubiquiti Networks, took a hit earlier this year after a Wall Street watchdog publication called it a total fraud; and the Grizz, if you want to believe the books NBA franchises keep, were about $40 million in the red last season before revenue-sharing ameliorated most of their losses.
Canning your coach amid all this turmoil and uncertainty is, at best, popping open an umbrella in a hurricane, and at worst only induces further frenzy. Last season, Fizdale ably began to transition the Grizz out of the Grit & Grind era, as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen were on their last legs, empowering Mike Conley to be a more assertive scorer and pushing the formerly paint-centric team to shoot more threes. Both of those reforms were successful and the squad came close to realizing their potential, finishing a tick above five hundred and giving the Spurs hell in a close-run six-game opening round playoff series. Fizdale didn’t put on a Popovichian coaching masterclass, but it was a good start for a guy who for years had been widely regarded as one of the most promising assistant coaches around.
In the space of two months, Fizdale screwed up so egregiously—failing relationships with his players, disagreements with the front office, losing some games with a banged up roster, whatever it was—that he needed to be fired? That doesn’t scan unless Conley or Gasol went to management and said they wanted Fizdale gone, which would be out of character for either of those consummate pros. It’s much more likely something happened between Fizdale and his bosses, or that the Grizz are going to have new ownership soon and they’re not Fizdale fans, or that Pera, capricious as he’s proven himself to be, wanted somebody’s head to roll in the midst of a losing streak. At any rate, it’s a strange move for which we’re unlikely to ever get a complete explanation.
This post-Randolph and Allen era was always going to be tricky for Memphis—redefinition is easier to conceptualize than it is to achieve—but with Fizdale’s dismissal, Pera (or whoever’s about to be in charge of the franchise) has marked New Grizz, Take One as a failure. Their season is still salvageable in a soft-middled Western Conference. Even after dropping eight straight, they’re two-and-a-half games behind an unconvincing, Rudy Gobert-less Jazz team for the eighth spot in the standings. If Conley comes back soon and Gasol snaps out of his slump, they can get themselves back into the playoff hunt. Or they could have a lousy December and become sellers heading into midwinter.
Everything’s in play for an organization that’s, curiously, not backsliding toward crisis so much as full-on sprinting toward it. The Grizz are about to make a lot more sense over the coming weeks. We’ll see how they play under Bickerstaff, who is like a placebo in a suit, and fragments of the story of Fizdale’s canning will circulate. Maybe this was a necessary maneuver, but the impression at this early stage is a franchise in flux freaked out and blamed the wrong guy for a bunch of stuff that’s beyond his control. At the very least, the Grizz have issues that don’t have anything to do with whoever’s manning the bench. How those get addressed remains to be seen.