David Fizdale was fired as coach of the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday afternoon, a decision that sent shockwaves through the NBA even as Memphis is mired in the middle of an eight-game losing streak and sits in 12th place in the Western Conference.
This move was entirely unexpected. Memphis is playing without one of its two best players, point guard Mike Conley, who is out indefinitely with Achilles’ soreness. With him, Memphis is 7-5, including two wins over the Houston Rockets and another over the Golden State Warriors. Without him, though, Memphis is 0-7, including losses to the Dallas Mavericks and Brooklyn Nets at home.
So why, then, was Fizdale let go? It seems, more than anything else, a classic case of losing a power struggle, and, as a result, losing your job.
Fizdale benched center Marc Gasol in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 98-88 loss to the Nets — a tough decision to make under most circumstances, given Gasol’s importance to the team, but especially when your team is trying to snap a seven-game losing streak at home. After the game, Gasol didn’t mince words about how he felt.
“I do not know the why,” Gasol told reporters Sunday about not playing down the stretch.
“It’s a first for me, trust me, and I don’t like it one bit. I’m more [ticked] than I can show and frustrated.”
Then there was this: “If I’m not on the floor, then I’m not valued. I’m sure [the coaching staff] knew that would hurt me the most.”
It appears the Grizzlies’ front office and ownership heard those comments loud and clear and decided to clear the air by telling Fizdale to clear out his office Monday. In truth, though, those comments were only the culmination of what has been a tense relationship between the two for some time, perhaps going all the way back to last December, when Fizdale said after a loss to Boston he was “really down on our leadership.”
On a team clearly led by Conley and Gasol, there’s little doubt who that was a shot at, and Gasol appears to have never forgotten it.
Even with those issues between Gasol and Fizdale, though, moving on from the coach will do nothing to actually improve the situation in Memphis. The Grizzlies came into this season attempting to try to replicate what they did last year: coax another pair of stellar seasons out of Conley and Gasol (who, it should be said, were terrific under Fizdale last season) and get enough production from a mix-and-match supporting cast to sneak into one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference.
Instead, Conley is hurt, Gasol’s shooting numbers are down and Memphis hasn’t gotten enough production from those other players. The result?
“You can stick a fork in them,” said one scout, a comment that was made even before Fizdale’s firing was announced.
And that’s where the real trouble starts for Memphis. Conley, Gasol and Chandler Parsons are owed a combined $78.8 million next season and, presuming Gasol picks up the option on the fifth year of his deal in 2019-2020, will be owed north of $83 million the following season. That’s given Memphis no flexibility to fill in the roster around them.
It’s what makes Parsons leaving Sunday’s game with a recurrence of pain in his right knee (he could be seen on camera wincing after making a play in the first half) so damaging to the Grizzlies’ hopes of keeping this era in franchise history alive. Memphis took a chance on Parsons rediscovering the talent he displayed earlier in his career, and it outbid Portland for his services by offering him a maximum contract.
That, so far, looks like it will be a complete disaster.
Memphis would have been able to offset that, though, if the Grizzlies could support Conley and Gasol with some young talent. And, highlighting another reason for the troubles in Memphis, they have very little.
The Grizzlies haven’t had a single first-round pick reach a second contract with the team since Conley himself was drafted 10 years ago. Wade Baldwin, their first-round pick last year, was cut at the end of training camp and later signed a two-way deal with Portland. The only other former first-round pick on the roster, 2015 selection Jarell Martin, was rumored to be on his way out in training camp only to survive and make the roster, but he is only a bit player.
It is difficult to construct a contender in a small market like Memphis even if you find stars and draft well to surround them. It becomes impossible if you do one but not the other.
The question now for Memphis is what comes next? The Grizzlies have their first-round pick this season, but starting next year they will have to give up a first-rounder to Boston sometime in the following three years because of the ill-fated Jeff Green trade back in 2015 (that pick is top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020 and unprotected in 2021).
Trying to find a taker for Gasol and Conley would make some sense, but trying to move on from either of them is going to be extremely difficult. While both are talented players, their ages (Gasol will be 33 in January; Conley turned 30 in October) will give teams pause, as will the money remaining on their contracts (roughly $72 million over three years for Gasol, assuming he picks up that option, and $126 million over the next four years for Conley if he picks up the option on his deal).
Plus, firing Fizdale would seem to indicate that, at least for now, the players involved aren’t going anywhere.
The truth is, though, that this is what Memphis signed up for when it re-signed Gasol in 2015 and Conley in 2016. Residing in a small market that had seen unprecedented success with a talented core full of vibrant personalities made the Grizzlies beloved in the city and its surrounding environs, and Memphis chose to keep its stars intact instead of settling into a long, arduous rebuild with no assurances of success.
It was, and remains, a perfectly defensible decision. Such runs of success don’t happen every day and shouldn’t be taken lightly. But signing aging stars to large contracts in small markets can come back to haunt teams down the road.
And while Memphis moved on from David Fizdale on Monday afternoon, that won’t mean the end of the pain for the Grizzlies. Not by a long shot.