For those of us who lived through the last painful, heartrending breakup between the Memphis Grizzlies and a man named Gasol, this is getting all too familiar.
The Grizzlies, riding a seven-game losing streak, trailed by 14 entering the fourth quarter against the bad Brooklyn Nets on Sunday. Without Mike Conley — who has missed five games with an ankle injury — you might have figured that Memphis coach David Fizdale would ride Marc Gasol on the comeback trail. He did not. Deyonta Davis played the entire fourth as Memphis cut the deficit to five before losing by 10. In fact, only one Memphis starter (JaMychal Green) played at all in the fourth despite injury laying waste to the Grizzlies’ roster (an annual tradition).
The loss was Memphis’ eighth in a row. Less than 24 hours later, Fizdale was fired in a move that stunned the league.
Memphis has fired coach David Fizdale, league sources tell ESPN.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) November 27, 2017
The events following Sunday’s loss may provide a clue.
Gasol told reporters after the game that the decision to keep him on the bench was not explained. And he was mad, albeit in that calm, smoldering Gasol way.
“I hate not playing. That’s what I value the most. If I’m not on the floor, that means I’m not valued. I’m sure they knew that would hurt me the most. [...] I’m sure they wouldn’t do it to Mike.”
That last sentence stings, though it’s worth noting that Gasol was working through an explanation that being benched in a competitive game amid a losing streak would grate on anyone. Gasol said it’d hurt Conley too before realizing out loud that the Grizzlies, and specifically Fizdale, wouldn’t do this to Conley.
That stings. And it might have broken open fissures that bubbled beneath the surface.
Fizdale declared that he had reasons for sitting Gasol, but didn’t reveal them. Fizdale, still a relatively new head coach, had to know that an unexplained benching in the Grizzlies’ greatest time of crisis in nearly a decade would blow up. And blow up it did, albeit not how Fizdale surely wanted.
Gasol isn’t the type to light up a coach in the postgame — he never did it to Lionel Hollins or Dave Joerger, or heck, even Marc Iavaroni — but he’s a proud dude who was every bit the fabric of Grit ’n’ Grind as Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, or Conley were. Memphis loves Gasol, Gasol loves Memphis, and being at loggerheads with one is liable to put you in the crosshairs of both.
Gasol is in his 10th year, all of them with Memphis. He has three All-Star appearances, all representing Memphis. He has a Defensive Player of the Year trophy, representing Memphis. He has two All-NBA honors, both representing Memphis. He’s played in 59 of the Grizzlies’ 75 all-time playoff games, and all 29 of the Grizzlies’ all-time playoff wins.
None of this means that Gasol can never be benched. It simply means that Gasol deserves the respect any other star player would get.
All that means here is that Gasol deserved an explanation. Getting that explanation to Gasol before he talked to the media would have prevented the unwanted attention the skidding Grizzlies and Fizdale will receive now. It might have even prevented his firing.
Aggressive Marc is the best Marc pic.twitter.com/hFIUuv1jlL— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) November 26, 2017
What’s unfortunate is that depending on how Conley heals, this could be the beginning of the end for Gasol in Memphis, even with Fizdale on the outs.
Fizdale said Sunday that Conley, who was originally ruled out for two weeks about two weeks ago, won’t be back “any time soon.” Memphis’ next four games feature a home-and-home with the Spurs, a visit to Cleveland, and a visit from the Timberwolves. Odds are that if Conley isn’t back in a week, this losing streak hits a dozen. Without Conley, there are few winnable games until the solstice.
Toss in coaching upheaval, and Memphis’ task only gets harder.
Memphis is already dipping into a hole in the West, saved from full disaster only by a hot start. Another two weeks of losses would be catastrophic. The coaching staff clearly hit the skids with Gasol, the best healthy player on the roster and one half of the heart and soul of the team. Now, there’s no telling how much worse this could become.
Armchair analysts are already trying to figure out whether the Grizzlies should trade Gasol. With so much invested in Conley and Chandler Parsons, that would seem unwise unless an unbelievable deal came along. If Conley — one of the toughest players in the league — can return to form soon, the soft bottom of the West could open up once again for Memphis. Utah, missing Rudy Gobert, currently sits in the No. 8 spot after a pair of wins. Oklahoma City looked poised to grab their spot for good after smacking the Warriors, but things aren’t quite right there yet. The Lakers and Suns are warm-weather buckets of fool’s gold. The Clippers are barely gasping. A Conley-Gasol battery is good enough to win that spot.
That doesn’t mean they will — OKC is the overwhelming favorite, still — and there’s no guarantee Conley comes back strong or soon. But so long as that is a real possibility, moving on from Gasol is too rash for a franchise like Memphis.
Logic dictates riding this out and seeing what happens next. Memphis instead chose to fire its coach.
In the meantime, new interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff would do well to keep Gasol on his side. One of the benefits of working in a tiny NBA market is that you can fly under the radar when things go south. But by letting internal strife burst out of the Memphis bubble, Fizdale only opened himself up to heightened scrutiny and second-guessing.
Fizdale showed us he had the chops to coach a game (and lace into referees) last season. But even if his firing was rash, the jury is now out on whether he can manage a locker-room crisis in his next stop. It’s all part of the job.
Back in 2007, the Grizzlies didn’t manage a locker room crisis starring the elder Gasol, Pau, well at all. It resulted in Pau getting booed night in and night out in Memphis and eventually a fire sale trade in the middle of a losing season. That trade, blessed be the fates, brought Marc to Memphis.
But expecting lightning to strike again is a fool’s errand. The Grizzlies need to find a way to avoid a similar end for this Gasol’s run in Memphis. It remains to be seen if abruptly firing Fizdale is the right first step.