In the NBA, failure almost always requires blame.
Lose eight consecutive games and something has to change. It could be as simple as a change in the starting lineup. It could be as serious as firing a coach.
Ultimately, David Fizdale lost his job in Memphis this past week because of a lengthy losing streak, a clash with his best player Marc Gasol and a front office that changes leadership seemingly about as often as one changes a hairstyle.
On the surface, the Grizzlies firing Fizdale doesn’t seem right. This is a coach almost universally lauded as a sharp basketball mind, a passionate teacher and a coach who relates to his players. I remember sitting next to him a few months ago at the Las Vegas Summer League taking every opportunity he could to give words of advice to Kobi Simmons and Wayne Seldon.
The man obviously cared about his job. And he wasn’t afraid to stick his neck out for his players. Last year in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, his “take that for data” press conference rant drew a $30,000 fine. He had the respect of the veterans on his team and many around the league, including Cav star LeBron James, who tweeted this:
“I need some answers. Feels like my man was a fall guy”
At the same time, the line of coaches who have been fired for fueding with their best player is extensive. And that’s what happened to Fizdale, who wasn’t on the same page with star center Marc Gasol. When Fizdale benched Gasol in the fourth quarter of a loss to the Brooklyn Nets, that appeared to be the last straw. Gasol publicly said he was unhappy not playing in crunch time. And in this latest battle between franchise player and coach, the front office obviously sided with the franchise player.
Gasol is a great center, cerebral and skilled offensively, better defensively than given credit for. He’s the very foundation of the Grit N’ Grind culture that has made the Grizzlies one of the best and most consistent small market teams of the past decade. Year after year, Memphis makes the postseason and causes headaches when it gets there. Gasol and point guard Mike Conley are the biggest reasons for that success.
But Gasol isn’t good enough to be firing a coach. Magic Johnson got Paul Westhead fired. He was good enough. LeBron James got David Blatt fired. He was good enough. Gasol isn’t on that level. He’ll be 33 at the end of January, and isn’t close to being one of the top 10 players in the league. The Grizzlies aren’t going to the playoffs this season, and firing a good coach impulsively limits the pool of good coaches you can hire.
As is, the margin for error Memphis faces this season is narrow. The Grizzlies gutted their roster, even if that was a good decision. Their identity was aging, so they opted for a roster reset. The Grizzlies didn’t want to tank; rather they wanted to retool on the fly, similar to what the Jazz are doing in the wake of losing Gordon Hayward.
So, the Grizzlies let Zach Randolph and Tony Allen walk in free agency. They let Vince Carter walk. They brought in young guys like Ben McLemore. They brought in veteran help in Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers.
The current roster, however, couldn’t sustain an injury. And with Conley out, neither Phil Jackson nor Red Auerbach could lift Memphis out of its current state..
That’s why I have sympathy for Fizdale. He deserved more than 20 games, and he didn’t deserve to be made a scapegoat. And yet, every coach takes a job these days knowing a bad relationship with the wrong player can spell a quick end.
Fizdale will be fine. He’s 43, so he’s still pretty young in the profession. He’s smart and personable. He’s popular among players and executives. And he has significant support in the NBA world outside of Memphis. He’ll land on his feet, even if his first head coaching job came to an abrupt and bitter end.
Memphis? Well, the Grizzlies have bigger issues than even Fizdale. They have to forge a direction and will have to do it on the back of Gasol and Conley, aging stars who aren’t durable.
And now, they’ll have to find a coach who wants to follow the good coach they fired after 20 games into his second season. That won’t be easy.
NBA Power Rankings
1. Houston Rockets (17-4) • They’ve won 10 straight, they are 9-1 on the road and have the NBA’s best net rating at +10.8. Houston’s having zero problems.
2. Golden State Warriors (16-6) • Their biggest opponent right now is boredom. We may not see them at peak effort until May.
3. Boston Celtics (19-4) • Boston is good, but there are signs they aren’t quite as good as their record. Having to rally for many of their wins is one of them.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers (15-7) • LeBron James may be having the best season of his career. That’s saying something.
5. Detroit Pistons (14-6) • They’ve beaten Golden State and Boston on the road. In this season. That’s quite the feat.
6. San Antonio Spurs (14-7) • Tony Parker is finally back from injury. Now, they are just waiting on Kawhi Leonard.
7. Toronto Raptors (13-7) • Toiling under the radar a bit. Raptors have the best home record in the league at 7-1.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-9) • At some point, Jimmy Butler is going to have to start taking more shots and being more aggressive offensively.
9. Portland Trail Blazers (13-9) • Playing well early on, but loss to the Milwaukee at home was one they wanted to avoid.
10. Philadelphia 76ers (12-9) • Joel Embiid sat out Thursday’s loss to Boston for rest purposes.
11. Milwaukee Bucks (11-9) • Finished off a western road trip in style with wins over Sacramento and Portland.
12. Denver Nuggets (12-9) • Not having Paul Millsap hurts. And now, Nikola Jokic may miss time with a sprained ankle.
13. Washington Wizards (11-10) • Record is skewed a bit because they are missing John Wall. Should make a push when healthy.
14. Indiana Pacers (12-10) • Victor Oladipo — cough, cough — is having an all-star type of season.
15. Utah Jazz (12-11) • They look like a different team offensively than they did a month ago.
16. New Orleans Pelicans (11-11) • Anthony Davis goes down with injury in Friday’s loss to Jazz.
17. New York Knicks (11-10) • Now 1-6 away from Madison Square Garden, they need to start notching some road wins.
18. Oklahoma City Thunder (8-12) • A team this talented has got to start putting it together soon ... right?
19. Miami Heat (10-11) • They spent an awful lot of money on a lot of players to end up this mediocre.
20. Orlando Magic (9-13) • Aaron Gordon is the real deal. He drops 40 on OKC.
21. Los Angeles Lakers (8-13) • Former Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma is the NBA’s Western Conference Rookie of the Month.
22. Los Angeles Clippers (8-12) • Absolutely decimated by injuries. They may go into tank mode.
23. Charlotte Hornets (8-12) • Two dynamic talents in Kemba Walker and Dwight Howard and very little else around them.
24. Brooklyn Nets (8-13) • Playing well enough that their 2018 draft pick may not be as valuable to Cleveland as first thought.
25. Memphis Grizzlies (7-13) • They’ve lost nine straight. They fired David Fizdale after loss No. 8.
26. Phoenix Suns (8-15) • The worst defensive team by a significant margin. They surrender 115.8 points per game.
27. Sacramento Kings (6-15) • The worst offensive team in the league. They score 94.7 points per game.
28. Dallas Mavericks (5-17) • The presence of rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. has been a saving grace. Otherwise, this is a bad team with an aging core.
29. Atlanta Hawks (4-17) • Exciting rookie John Collins will miss 2-3 weeks with a left shoulder injury.
30. Chicago Bulls (3-17) • Had Denver beaten on the road until Will Barton made the game-winner