Ed. Note: Since I'm out on paternity leave, Beyond the Arc sent intrepid Hustle correspondent Sam Cicci to the Grizzlies' final media availability of the season. Here are his notes on who said what while the microphones were on Thursday afternoon. — KL
Following the Grizzlies this season essentially turned into a screening of Titanic. A voyage that started out with so much promise after an opening six wins against tough opposition slowly turned into dread as the ship headed toward its impending doom. The wooden door-turned-life raft wasn’t big enough for both Fizdale and Gasol, but enough about ships. Hope springs eternal, as they say, and the future looks just a little brighter for Memphis after this season.
Instead of an iceberg, the Grizzlies have a guaranteed top-five pick in a talented draft class. Majority owner Robert Pera stated he wouldn’t sell the franchise and was committed to keeping the team in Memphis. And, the players are fully behind interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff, if the organization should decide to keep him on. Overall, encouraging signs came out of the season's final media availability.
The season was a tough spot for Gasol, who obviously doesn’t want to spend his prime years playing for an under-performing team. He couldn’t be drawn out on how the front office handled matters, but did reveal that he would soon be meeting with Robert Pera to talk about where the organization is headed. “It’s not just about the results,” said Gasol, “but whether the organization is doing everything in its power to achieve that. It’s easy to say Memphis wants to win a championship, but a lot of things have to go right to make that happen. The day-to-day stuff is huge, and I want to know what he has to say. I’m happy because I know he wants to keep the team in Memphis.”
On Bickerstaff: “He’s done a tremendous job with the tools he was given and what he was allowed to do. He’s held the guys accountable as much as he could, he’s been positive, he’s made the best of a bad situation, and he’s done a great job.”
A running theme throughout the afternoon, and one kick-started by Gasol, is that the players are ready to put in the hard work to get the Grizzlies back to where they were. Rather than just looking at the draft, he acknowledged the hard work that would be required for the team to rebuild its confidence. It’s crucial for a senior player to be setting that example, but it’s no surprise Gasol is looking to give his all.
As if the season weren’t hard enough, things got worse when Conley became mired in injury limbo, and fans were frantic when the organization went silent on his status for long stretches of time. With a bleak prognosis for the season, GM Chris Wallace finally confirmed in January that Conley would miss the rest of the season due to a small bone protrusion in his left heel. With health as his personal priority over the off-season, Conley turned attention to some of the newcomers who had standout performances. “I was really excited about the improvements you saw from Dillon, and then Kobi down the stretch. Ivan Rabb got a lot of minutes, Deyonta Davis improved a lot. There were so many different moments, and then MarShon coming on late, and having somebody who can score the ball like he can was a really cool thing.”
Team health also emerged with Conley, who believes that the team will certainly make the playoffs if everyone is healthy. With a top draft pick as well, that goal should be even more achievable. Conley, like most of the other players, wouldn’t be drawn out on who he’d like to see drafted.
On Tyreke, “I haven’t spoken to him, really. A little earlier this season, I told him he better come back! But I know he’ll do what’s best for him and his family.”
On Dillon, “He was very very good. He did a lot of things very well, but he improved in a lot of areas throughout the season that we wanted him to improve in. He really cares about the preparation, and watching film, and things like that. He didn’t approach it like a rookie, so that was really cool to see, so hopefully he’ll keep building on that. I’m excited to play with him next season.” Conley wouldn’t confirm a return date from injury, but hoped to be in shape for the start of next season.
Interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff was bullish about next season. “Injuries were a huge part of what happened to the team this year, and throughout the season, other veteran guys missed chunks of time.” With everyone back healthy, and a top five draft pick, Bickerstaff doesn’t believe Memphis will be out of the playoffs for long.
On his chances of landing the head role on a permanent basis, “I’m confident the staff executed the plan that we discussed with the front office. When the shift happened and injuries started piling up, we went into player-development mode, giving young guys experience and making them better basketball players. There’s not one of those guys that I look at who I don’t think is a better basketball player now than when we put our hands on him.” And those weren’t just empty words. As a collective, the players were enthused about Bickerstaff’s contribution.
“He made the best opportunity he could out of a situation he had no control over,” said JaMychal Green. “We could have gave up a long time ago, but he kept us going, never gave up on us, and kept pushing us at practice, and we fought hard. J.B. has that mentality, like coach Fiz, about playing hard and playing for each other. That’s a coach that you want to play for, a coach that will go down an alley with you and fight with you. I do definitely think he deserves it.”
While there’s no question that injuries to key players crippled the Grizz this season, that in turn allowed for many of the younger players to get important minutes. Dillon Brooks was the only rookie to play 82 games in the NBA this season, but it wasn’t easy to tell it was his first season in the league with some standout performances. Some Hustle players, like Kobi Simmons (who dropped a career-high 20 points against the Pistons last Sunday) and Ivan Rabb, were able to join the senior players and continue to build playing time and experience. Dillon set a career high with 36 points in the final game, to personally end the season on a high note.
Chandler Parsons was happy that injury misfortunes at least allowed young guys to get minutes. “Guys like Dillon really benefited carrying a load for an NBA team. Ivan, Deyonta, Andrew, Kobi all gained valuable minutes which I think will improve their reps and help their future.”
On a personal note, Parsons was confident about next season. “When I’m healthy, I can play at a high level and I can help this team win. There were some moments when I felt myself and did well, and other times when I had to shut it down. One positive is that this is the first time in three summers that I don’t need a surgery going into the summer. There’s no rehab, I’m already doing workouts, training for next season. I have a full five-six months to training camp, and the goal is to get as strong as I’ve ever been and not have to come in with a minutes restriction.”
On a potential improvement for next year, “it reminds me of the Spurs back in the day, when they had a bunch of injuries and then drafted Tim Duncan and won the championship the next year. It would be amazing if we can do that.”
The Main Rook
“I did kind of surprise myself, but it’s always been in there,” says Dillon Brooks. “There were so many opportunities that I had placed in my corner, with Mike going out and lots of players out with injuries. I never let it run away from me. In the NBA you only get a couple opportunities, and it’s always first impressions. You can’t let it go to waste.”
Brooks credited Fizdale with initially believing in his ability, and said that extended to Bickerstaff as well, which helped him perform well during the season. “It was hard, since Fiz was the first guy I talked to when I was getting drafted, but J.B. continued it from there. He’s done well with the cards he was dealt, working with young guys. He’s a players' coach, and he knows how it goes for us. We all love him, and with everyone back and whoever we pick up, we’re gonna be fine.
On his position, “I can play a two, three, or four. You see Draymond Green, I’ve got the same type of heart, grit, and everything. And it’s a mismatch problem. You got a four man like Paul Millsap or one of those guys, it’s a mismatch. Just another way another coach has to figure out how to stop us.”