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Grit and Bear It: Where Do the Grizzlies Go From Here?

Firing David Fizdale treated a symptom of Memphis’s recent decline, but not the cause. For GM Chris Wallace to take the team to the heights he’d once promised, he’ll have to take the bitter pill and do what he did a decade ago: Start over.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

David Fizdale is a scapegoat paying for the sins of other men. Mounting tensions—eight straight losses, a fourth-quarter benching of Marc Gasol, and Gasol’s subsequent airing of grievances in the locker room—culminated Monday with the Grizzlies firing Fizdale. Memphis is once again at a crossroad: It’s not good enough to contend, but not bad enough to slide to the top of the lottery standings. The team will have to grind its way back into respectability by taking it one game at a time, but it’s exactly that kind of shortsightedness by the Grizzlies that has led the franchise to the edge of NBA purgatory.

It wasn’t like this in the beginning. “I’m here to build a championship team. I want to see a parade one day down Beale Street. This city deserves it,” Chris Wallace said in June 2007 when he was hired as Grizzlies general manager. “That’s what we’re in the game for, to win championships.” Memphis hasn’t seen that parade yet, but they’ve had memorable times that Grizzlies fans will cherish forever. The best decision Wallace made was his first: selecting Mike Conley with the fourth pick in 2007. The other came seven months later in 2008 when he pulled the plug on the franchise’s former crown jewel, Pau Gasol, and dealt him for his brother Marc Gasol.

The Gasol deal set the team up for the future, as Wallace once claimed. He was right. But times have changed and their run is almost over. Things have come to a head. Grit ’n’ Grind is dead. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, two grizzled vets both 35 and older, are gone but the team isn’t getting much younger. The team is largely composed of unproven players on cheap, short-term contracts, but the cap situation in Memphis isn’t getting any less costly. Gasol was nearly in tears on Sunday after he was benched for the entire fourth quarter of Memphis’s 98-88 home loss to the Nets. “If I’m not on the floor, then I’m not valued,” Gasol told reporters after the game. Gasol’s discontent isn’t new. Toward the latter half of last season, Gasol wasn’t defending or boxing out with the same intensity that earned him All-NBA honors. It wasn’t clear if he was tired or if the team situation was weighing on him. Something wasn’t right. Gasol said this summer that the “atmosphere” of the Spanish national team was different from Memphis since the team was a “family” with “mentors and leaders” who gave “pause and tranquility.”

Gasol has gotten off to a slow start scoring the ball; he’s averaging 19.1 points, but it's come on a near career-worst 46.7 effective field goal percentage. All season, Gasol’s defense has slipped, and Sunday was one of his most lethargic performances. Fizdale was right to bench Gasol, frankly. The incident highlighted tensions between the coach and player, effectively pushing the issues into the public. ESPN’s Jonathan Givony reported Monday that Fizdale and Gasol were “on very poor terms after some confrontations in practice.” The Grizzlies’ front office essentially had to choose between their cornerstone center or their head coach who is more acclaimed for his catchphrases than for his coaching tactics. Easy choice. Less than 24 hours after Gasol’s public complaints, the Grizzlies ousted Fizdale and promoted associate head coach J.B. Bickerstaff as interim head coach. Bickerstaff is Memphis’s sixth coach in the past 10 years.

It isn’t clear what happens next. Firing Fizdale doesn’t guarantee a happier Gasol. A dark day may get darker. Bickerstaff’s first stint as a head coach in Houston in 2015–16 was disastrous; his game management was plagued by both ineptitude and inexperience. After an underwhelming season with Bickerstaff, Rockets ownership conducted a “comprehensive evaluation of all facets of the organization,” which put general manager Daryl Morey “under the microscope.

Wallace might also find himself in the crosshairs if the Grizzlies continue to slide. Fizdale didn’t sign Chandler Parsons for $94 million. Fizdale didn’t add retreads like Ben McLemore and Mario Chalmers. Fizdale didn’t trade first-rounders for rentals (Ronnie Brewer, Shane Battier, and Jeff Green). Fizdale didn’t draft Kevin Love and trade him for O.J. Mayo. Fizdale didn’t draft Hasheem Thabeet, Xavier Henry, Jordan Adams, and Jarell Martin. Fizdale didn’t draft Wade Baldwin and Rade Zagorac then cut them both one year later. That was all Wallace’s doing.

Wallace’s tenure started out beautifully when the front office took a long view in 2008 dealing Pau Gasol. But with a focus on the playoffs, their moves this decade have largely fixated on the short term. Their decisions were understandable, but it’s gotten them into trouble. They have one of the oldest cores in the NBA. Gasol, Conley, and Parsons are on the books for roughly $80 million combined annually in 2018–19 and 2019–20. They won’t have cap space until 2020, when Conley will be 33 and making $34.5 million. Conley himself has suffered numerous Achilles injuries over the past year, which currently has him sidelined. Gasol turns 33 in two months and is under two years removed from major foot surgery on his navicular bone. Parsons is basketball’s Mr. Glass.

None of their young players have shown long-term upside, aside from 2017 second-rounder Dillon Brooks, who still projects as a role player. That’s problematic because their draft-pick situation is murky. They owe a first-rounder to the Celtics (top-eight protected in 2019, top-six protected in 2020, and unprotected in 2021, should it take that long to convey) and don’t have any incoming first-rounders. Memphis’s core is old and its future is fucked.

“Coach Fizdale worked tirelessly to achieve on-court success, and for that, we are grateful. We wish him and his family all the best in the future,” Grizzlies controlling owner Robert J. Pera said in a statement. “We remain focused on achieving sustainable, long-term success.” If Pera is truly thinking long term, then it’s time to direct the front office to do the same.

But what exactly are their options? The time to blow it up, tank, and maximize a return passed them by in 2016. Gasol is healthy now, so, despite his age, he still retains some value. But he doesn’t retain the same value he did before. Conley is great, but few teams need a point guard, especially one that’s older, exorbitantly expensive, and currently injured. Even if the Grizzlies took what they could get, draft lottery reform begins next season and lessens the odds for teams at the bottom of the barrel. Not to mention that the Grizzlies franchise lost nearly $40 million in revenue this past season, according to ESPN. Bottoming out would likely cut further into their bottom line while alienating a fan base that has spent the past seven years expecting postseason basketball.

I’d still blow it up. It’s worth the risk. The top prospects in the 2018 class are enough of a good reason to do it. Marvin Bagley III, DeAndre Ayton, and Luka Doncic could all be cornerstones for the next decade. Michael Porter Jr. is likely out for the season but has similar upside. The 2019 draft will be similarly loaded if current 2020 high school prospects are allowed to enter the draft. As previously reported, NBA executives expect draft reform to begin in 2019, if the one-and-done rule is extinguished. So even if they end up with pick no. 6 or 7, a tantalizing prospect might be available given a wider talent pool.

The argument against pressing reset is understandable. The draft offers no guarantees, as evidenced by the Grizzlies’ recent run of selections. They’re in a small market, making them an unlikely free-agent destination. If things get really bad, fans and sponsors could abandon them. Instead of installing a rebuild, they can wait for the contracts of Gasol, Conley, and Parsons to expire and hope the three can stay healthy enough in the next two seasons to enjoy a couple of more playoff pushes in the meantime. It certainly looks like that’s the route the team is taking after firing a young, well-respected coach in Fizdale to appease an unhappy, aging star in Gasol.

Rebuilding is all about timing and commitment to a plan. We know for a fact that the 2018 and 2019 draft classes are looking strong up top, while 2020 and beyond could more closely resemble the class of 2013. The return for two 30-plus stars in Gasol or Conley will never be as good as it was yesterday, and will only continue to corrode into tomorrow.

There’s a risk in reshuffling a roster before it’s too late. Sometimes it’s worth it. Wallace knows how well it can work. So do Grizzlies fans. Wallace blew it up when he dealt Pau Gasol in 2008. Wallace screwed up a long list of draft picks and trades, but the Gasol deal still led to the greatest era in Grizzlies history. This time around, they could have better luck with their draft picks, whether or not Wallace is in charge. Losing Gasol and Conley would be a shock. Many fans would be furious. But the hard-core fans will understand the big picture. They can root for Gasol and Conley on their new teams. The laundry they wear doesn’t change who they are as people and what they did for the city of Memphis.

The Grizzlies need change. It will come in waves sooner rather than later. The best thing Wallace can do for the city is return to his original dream of building a champion from scratch.