The Grizzlies fired David Fizdale on Monday after 1-plus seasons, one playoff first-round out, one feud with his All-Star center, and one infamous line about officiating that will reverberate forever, for whatever the data says about it. The decision prompted reactions of outrage and confusion across the league for a well-respected coach who will no doubt get another opportunity elsewhere.
After Memphis had lost eight straight and 11 of 13, things came to a head in Memphis' Sunday night loss to the Nets. In the third quarter, Fizdale elected not to reinsert All-Star center Marc Gasol into the lineup, and kept Gasol out the remainder of the game. It's one thing for a coach to ride a bench lineup that is playing better. However, to single out a player, one the team's two stars, with whom the coach has clashed consistently since arriving in Memphis, crossed a line with Gasol. He made that clear in his own reserved way after the game.
Less than 18 hours later, Fizdale had been shown the door.
A person close to the situation made clear to CBS Sports that, while the team had been "trending in the wrong direction," without the irreconcilable differences between Fizdale and Gasol, Fizdale's termination might not have been necessary. The person, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, also said that owner Robert Pera did not intervene in the situation despite his relationship with Gasol. The decision to fire Fizdale had been made by management Sunday night.
The optics of the situation are inescapable. A 32-year-old aging center on a max contract clashed with his coach, and after it reached Sunday's boiling point, the team sided with its All-Star, firing a coach respected league-wide. No one comes out looking good here, certainly not Gasol.
The 7-foot-1 Spaniard has always been a mystery, at once one of the most consistent and disciplined players in the league and one who in recent years has struggled with motivation. He resisted offensive shifts from former coach Dave Joerger. While he adapted to Fizdale's strategy, becoming a stretch five while still using his post game, there was always a personality clash.
"It's not like people in the league didn't know that Marc and Fiz weren't speaking or getting along," an NBA executive told CBS Sports, requesting anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on another team.
The situation teeters on the edge of outright disaster for Memphis, which owes its 2019 first-round draft pick to the Boston Celtics and has Conley, Gasol and Chandler Parsons locked up on max deals through that spring. Team sources indicated to CBS Sports this summer that Gasol was considered "untouchable" in trade talks. A source indicated Monday that the decision to fire Fizdale in light of his conflict with Gasol is an indication that the team's position has not changed on that matter.
However, every analysis of Gasol's situation was dependent on the team not falling into a tailspin. It has. Memphis is 16-27 since the All-Star break last season. The common reaction on social media Monday to Fizdale's firing was about the roster's issues, with so many borderline or non-NBA-caliber players surrounding an aging, injured core.
In Memphis' market, with their payroll, a rebuild is daunting. Conley and Gasol trades could yield zero first-rounders -- consider the market for younger and arguably better stars from this offseason. Then you're relying on Memphis A) hitting top three in the lottery and B) nailing its own draft pick this summer. The Grizzlies' draft history, for a variety of reasons from poor scouting to bad luck, won't engender much confidence. (Hasheem Thabeet says hi, wherever he is. )
Memphis won't be able to lure star free agents. Even with the financial flexibility caused by a potential blow-up, they would have to overpay mid-level free agents to come to Memphis. That's how you get yourself in a much worse situation than an eight-game losing streak with two stars, one of whom, Conley, is on the shelf during this skid. That's why a "keep the two stars at all costs" is more pragmatic than it may seem on the surface.
Still, the team's woeful play in this stretch prompted tough decisions. You can try and overhaul the roster. That's the popular problem to point to, but you can't do that instantly in November mid-season. That option may arise later, but not now. So the Grizzlies did what every other team in this situation has done, historically. The coach takes the fall, no matter what role he did or didn't play in the team's gravitational descent.
If this move doesn't work, if the team doesn't turn around, more changes await. Memphis' ownership situation is messy and in flux. Parsons actually has been good in terms of production, effort and on-court vs. off-court advanced stats -- but not $25 million good. Gasol remains a moody but dynamic player. Conley's persistent foot injuries could be a nagging problem or a time bomb. Those two now will be on their fourth coach since making the 2012 Western Conference finals.
The rest of the roster is largely on the fringe. If things get worse, Gasol could decide there's been too much poisoning of the well, and ask out. If he goes, Conley goes, and the Grizzlies will have to face a rebuild regardless.
The plan is for interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff to finish the year as head coach, the person with knowledge of the situation said. But after that, who knows what the situation will be?
Maybe this move turns things around. Maybe this forces Gasol to prove himself to acquit the perception that now permeates this situation. But it's clear that Monday's decision was messy and unpopular. It was a desperation move from a team with fewer options than people believe, and unless Memphis finds the same kind of resiliency that has defined the team over the past seven years, all signs point to one trend.
It's going to get worse, before it gets better.