Editor's Note: I am at a conference this week out of town, so I asked my old friend and brilliant basketball mind Andrew Ford to chip in with a couple of guest posts. You can find Andrew on Twitter, and you can read his work at places like Upside & Motor and probably all kinds of other places I'm not remembering.
Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale
What does an NBA franchise typically do when searching to replace its head coach? It often finds a candidate who turns out to be the polar opposite of the previous coach. While this swing of the pendulum is not always entirely rational, a drastic change such as this was just what the Memphis Grizzlies needed when handing over Dave Joerger’s reins to David Fizdale.
While Joerger was in Memphis, he was generally seen as a good coach. He faced a lot of adversity, particularly in terms of roster instability due to injuries, which he managed well. Joerger also took some strides to bring the Grizzlies into the modern era of offensive basketball by implementing more horns sets, high pick-and-rolls, flex action, and off-ball screening. It would be impossible and unfair to look back on Joerger’s tenure in Memphis and say he didn’t accomplish anything positive that could have a lasting impact on the franchise.
However, now that enough games have been played during Fizdale’s first season in charge to decently assess the job he’s doing on Beale Street, the things Joerger did not – or rather chose not to – do stick out even more.
James Ennis has had a breakout year for the Grizzlies after being cut last year.
Joerger’s personnel decisions baffled on a nightly basis while he was in Memphis, but those decisions look even worse now that there’s a new frame of reference in terms of properly handling young players with potential. Fizdale has worked wonders with Joerger-era castaway James Ennis, turning him into a solid, thefty player who fits the aggressive scheme well on the defensive end as well as a guy who is capable of playing off of key players Mike Conley and Marc Gasol while plugging a plethora of holes offensively.
Last season, Joerger cut Ennis to sign his pet project Ryan Hollins for the umpteenth time. This is a prime example of Joerger’s short-sighted nature. He’s an old school coach who doesn’t yet believe in the dependability of young, developing players, so he blatantly chooses experience over player development even if that will definitely come back to bite him in the future. Ennis almost certainly did not improve drastically last offseason, so all of the tools he possesses could have been at Joerger’s disposal had he let Ennis fly.
Whereas young players seemingly must show Joerger exactly what they can do before he figures out how to properly utilize them, Fizdale comes off as a visionary of sorts who can spot potential and envision how to make a young player fit within his scheme even when he hasn’t seen all of the pieces a player might or might not bring to the puzzle.
Joerger’s brashness and sense of superiority he randomly chose to lord over his players in press conferences wasn’t greatly appreciated in the Memphis locker room, so Fizdale’s softer, more empathetic approach to his players is a welcome change and one that’s getting results from a couple guys like Ennis who were mostly seen as fringe contributors prior to this season.
The stark contrast in terms of talent maximization strategies between Fizdale and Joerger doesn’t stop with young guys. Marc Gasol is having arguably the best season of his career, and he owes a great deal of that to Fizdale’s willingness to trust Gasol to morph into a highly-functional perimeter player. He restructured the Grizzlies offense from Joerger’s tenure to provide more floor spacing by leaning on many four out sets with Gasol being one of the four guys on the perimeter.
While Gasol had never served in that capacity prior to this season, Fizdale saw potential to make the offense flow more smoothly if Gasol proved capable of knocking down threes and threatening teams outside of the low post. Fizdale’s gamble has obviously paid off, as Gasol is now a pump-faking, three-drilling, wheeling-and-dealing machine with the ball in his hands on the perimeter. While it’s hard to fault Joerger as much for this specific lack of adjustment as it is to fault him for his handling of young players, he still could have made minor tweaks to the offense to create more productive touches for Gasol outside of the post.
On paper, Joerger was tailor-made for the Grizzlies grit-n-grind approach, but his unwillingness to operate outside of the box became his undoing. His teams appeared unprepared, unmotivated, or both for games against quality teams, all the while eking out wins against inferior competition in his final season. Many of the Grizzlies losses against good competition under Joerger’s watch can be attributed to predictability. The Grizzlies were going to do the same thing night in, night out, and if it wasn’t working then they were to bang their heads against the wall until it did or until they eventually passed out and were forced to miserably concede defeat upon regaining consciousness.
Fizdale’s more easygoing nature has invigorated the Grizzlies and brought about grit-n-grind 2.0 so to speak. Under Fizdale, the Grizzlies are once again giving maximum effort against the best teams in the league, except they are now grittin’ and grindin’ smarter than ever before. The Grizzlies work rate on both ends of the ball is still high, but the number of useless actions that don’t add value or lead to quality results has been minimized.
The offensive movement off the ball is orchestrated, and the defensive rotations are sharper under Fizdale. Nary is a guy sprinting around aimlessly unclear of the right move to make to benefit his team. Calm direction from a coach goes a long way, even in a league full of grown men.
Players often take on the personality of their coach, and that’s exactly what’s happened under Fizdale’s direction. It never seems like the Grizzlies are out of a game, and it’s obvious that the players never feel like they’re out of a game because they believe in their coach’s ability to adapt his strategy on the fly. Under Joerger, he sported his disdain during games squarely on his chin, and his teams often folded because they knew adjustments weren’t coming.
Hiring a coach who is the philosophical opposite of the previous guy doesn’t always work out as it has so well in this case, but the stark contrast will always help reveal more about the old coach for better or worse in retrospect. The sudden change from Joerger to Fizdale has simply revealed that the NBA is a league that’s constantly evolving, and it’s one that’s in great need of more coaches like Fizdale who are willing to adapt whenever necessary to survive rather than maintaining the long-standing status quo and willfully leading their team down the old, beaten path toward irrelevance.