CHICAGO – Memphis is a slow-moving city along the Mississippi River that dissects the United States. It is probably best known for its most famous modern resident, rock and roll icon Elvis Presley, whose Graceland mansion remains a major American tourist destination 40 years after his death.
It is a somewhat surprising location for a major American team sports franchise, the Memphis Grizzlies being the only big professional sports franchise in the city after relocating from Vancouver, Canada, in 2001.
After a shaky beginning, the Grizzlies with Pau Gasol become a marginal contender, if not a playoff success. Pau eventually forced his way out to the Los Angeles Lakers and two NBA titles. But the Grizzlies cleverly recovered with Pau’s brother, Marc, from that same trade, some shrewd personnel moves and a so called grit ‘n grind style of slow, physical play that entranced the local, blue collar, hard-working community and engendered a nice seven-year run. It peaked with a conference finals loss in 2013, which when one stands back is pretty good.
Rare is the run that results in a championship.
Most end aborning.
So now that the Grizzlies are all shook up with the recent firing of coach David Fizdale, suspicious minds are wondering who was the devil in disguise in all this. Was it Marc Gasol, coach killer, who was at odds with Fizdale? Was it Fizdale’s now or never routine of calling out players lest they should be a return to sender?
Sure, it’s all of those things, though the dramatic firing of Fizdale with the team 7-12 in just his second season and on the way to 11 straight losses, and after a famed playoff rant last season to defend his team that endeared him to the local community, is really more the evolution of a team heading for a blue Christmas.
Grizzlies’ management says it intends to remain competitive with interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff and awaiting the return of Mike Conley again from injury, this time Achilles issues. Which is a big uh-oh after serious back problems from last season. Sure, his $153 million contract going through 2021 looks bad now. But free agents don’t come to Memphis. Chandler Parsons did and everyone wishes he didn’t.
It’s understandable when a franchise in a remote market rides its stars as long as it can.
But seven years as a serious contender is a franchise lifetime.
It becomes like trying to hang onto an old love. When you look back, you realize you should have left sooner. But the heart always wins over the mind in emotional discussions.
Fizdale was brought in from the stern Miami Heat regime of Pat Riley’s Way or No Other, and Fizdale’s relationship with the often emotional and very talented Marc Gasol wasn’t very good from the start. But this is the lesson of American pro sports these days. Sorry, if you’re not Gregg Popovich or Pat Riley, the player wins.
Not that Fizdale or management didn’t understand in some respects. They were trying to change in this dramatically shifting NBA era, going from a defensive-oriented, slowdown game to a more updated, faster game with more perimeter shooting. Of course, they made the mistake every team does by trying to duplicate success: You can’t beat them at what they do best. You have to do what you do best.
The Grizzlies after years of terrific acquisitions like Marc Gasol in trade, Conley lower in the draft and Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, began to break it up letting both Allen and Randolph go. Parsons was a big free agent pickup as a 3-point shooting power forward, but he’s been constantly injured and unavailable. They haven’t been able to fill behind with a series of poor No. 1 draft picks, and when Conley went out again — he’s gone maybe another month — they didn’t have any point guard with Mario Chalmers unable to fill the void. Bickerstaff isn’t even using a point guard to start these days.
They probably made their biggest mistake letting assistant Dave Joerger, now with the Kings, talk them into letting him replace Hollins after a 56-win season, the franchise’s best, and the conference finals. Joerger’s Grizzlies maintained Hollins’ style after a brief attempt to change and remained relevant. But they were breaking up the old band, Randolph and Allen with their grit gone, Conley now in and out, and though Marc Gasol had established himself as one of the best centers in the NBA, the load was becoming too much.
And here was this brazen new coach changing things without much success.
Fizdale benched Gasol late in a loss and Gasol objected publicly. Not great, but Fizdale had his own habit of calling out players publicly, which isn’t done much these days in the NBA when your initials are not GP.
Gasol didn’t so much do a him or me, but like when Magic Johnson early in his career clashed bitterly with Paul Westhead, it wasn’t who was right but who was Magic. Management can figure that out. Coaches rarely score or rebound.
The Grizzlies, because of the limitations in talent and injuries to Conley and Parsons and Marc Gasol turning 33 next month, were headed toward a reevaluation.
You can only follow that dream so long. It’s probably time to rip it up even if that leaves you in a heartbreak hotel for now.
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”