It is the very start of the dog days of the NBA calendar inside a cavernous double arena that functions as the home of the league’s annual Summer League event. You lose track of time inside there, watching game after game of sloppy rookies and fringe rotation players vying for contracts, status or playing time. Everything in the NBA’s Las Vegas Summer League is about the future. A role player’s future as a member of the NBA, a rookie’s future as a star building block, a young player’s future as being ready to take the next step.
Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale is worried about the present, the future and the past, all at once, it seems.
The 42-year-old who has been an assistant for 14 years in the league finally left Miami, where he spent nine seasons, helping the Heat to win two championships in their super-team Triad era. Fizdale was as much a part of Heat culture as anyone, credited by everyone from Dwyane Wade to LeBron James to Erik Spoelstra for his guidance and contribution to making the Heat into the nearly annual playoff force they’ve been. On May 29 he was introduced as the new coach of the Memphis Grizzlies.
A month-and-a-half later, he was barking out directions to D.J. Stephens, rookie Wade Baldwin IV and up-and-coming guard Andrew Harrison from the sideline at the Cox Pavillion adjacent to the Thomas and Mack Center at UNLV. Many coaches, even in their first season as a head coach, opt not to handle coaching their summer league squads, delegating it to assistants while they half-pay-attention from the sideline or stands. Fizdale, on the other hand, is fully engaged, installing a new system even with only a handful of players who will be on the roster, let alone take up floor time next season.
For Fizdale, the decision to take the reins was a simple one. His ego was never going to stand in the way of building the process he’s looking to shape the Grizzlies with.
“I’m not above this,” Fizdale told CBS Sports in Vegas earlier this month. “I need this.”
“I have no hours logged as head coach. When you talk about putting in a whole system that I’m also teaching the assistant coaches, I didn’t want to throw that responsibility on a guy when he doesn’t even know it. I wanted to jump right in, I wanted to get my hands on my guards, I wanted to get my hands on JaMychal Green so he can see in me in practice and know where I’m coming from and how I want him to play.”
Fizdale said the decision has less to do with a lack of trust in conveying what needs to be said, and a plain-stated admission of where he’s at in his journey as coach.
“I want to be involved in everything. It’s not micromanaging so much as it is I need the experience.”
His involvement at this level speaks to his approach, driven by meticulous hard work and attention to detail. Asked where he learned the importance of that precision, Fizdale rattles off the coaches who have influenced him, from Spoelstra and Pat Riley in Miami to Mike Woodson in Atlanta, Eric Musselman in Golden State and assistants like
Larry Drew, Bob Bender and Tom Sterner. All were “elite” in their attention to detail, and he saw the results that brought.
Fizdale will need that focus as there are considerable changes coming to this Grizzlies team, just not the way many thought.
The prevailing narrative about Memphis heading into the offseason was that it was on the way out. After the Grizzlies’ season ended in an apocalyptic-level injury plague, there was talk of Mike Conley departing in free agency, which was then supposed to kick off wholesale changes toward a rebuild. Rumors swirled about Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen. The run was supposed to be over.
That is not what went down.
First, Fizdale played a key part in getting Mike Conley to re-sign on what became the largest contract in NBA history (five years, $153 million). The money mattered, but Fizdale also told Conley about the role he would play in the new offense in Memphis.
“My number one goal for him is to be an All-Star,” Fizdale said of his pitch to the veteran who has never been selected as a starter or reserve, in part due to the glut of incredible point guards in the Western Conference. Fizdale wasn’t just promising lofty accomplishments, but a real shift in the team’s offensive approach to make better use of Conley’s talents.
Conley, one of the Grizzlies’ best shooters and a top-notch defender, is best known as a game manager, a floor general, a point guard who sets the offense, makes plays and orchestrates the personnel. The Grizzlies’ post-first offense meant Conley was often the initiator and last resort, with a lesser role within those parameters. Fizdale looks to change that.
“The style of play is going to change the way he looks offensively. We talked about giving him the first six seconds of every possession. In the past, which I’m not knocking because I have so much respect for those coaches and the success that that they had, but they played a different style where they posted their bigs first and then Mike had the ball at the end of the possession. I want to give Mike the opportunity early on to attack and make plays, and then we’ll get that end of possession post-up for Zach or Marc out of movement where teams can’t just load up on them.”
“Obviously my pitch was a lot more than just ‘I want you to be an All-Star,'” Fizdale said, “but I showed him how and why. He was very receptive. He’s been waiting to hear that, because he’s had to defend those [elite point guards] in those systems, and I want him to be able to go back at those guys. That’s something he’s never been given offensively.”
Offensive change hasn’t been easy for Memphis. Former Grizzlies and new Kings coach Dave Joerger spent every season trying to adopt a more up-tempo style and more spacing. But early-season struggles led to resistance from a roster that had found so much success in the Grit-Grind approach and sought only to get back to what was comfortable. That comfort would lead to success, which would lead to wins and a sense of “If it’s not broke, why fix it?” even when the team’s offensive limitations would spell doom for them every season despite admirable challenges to teams like San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Golden State.
For Fizdale, there is clearly a plan to instill those changes, and he insists the roster is ready to accept that not only can those changes help take Memphis to the next level, but they are necessary in an NBA landscape that has shifted dramatically to perimeter offense in recent seasons.
“I’ve talked to all the guys and they understand where the league is at,” Fizdale said. “If we think we’re going to play in the 80s and win anything, we’re sadly mistaken. And they understand that and I think we’re going to have a committed group to playing at a faster tempo.”
The crux will be selling a veteran roster on those concepts long-term, while still playing to the team’s personnel strengths. Fizdale insists the key for Memphis isn’t about playing with “pace,” but taking advantage of offensive opportunities earlier in the clock when the defense isn’t set.
“Pace is just how fast we can get the ball from one end to the other. It’s not necessarily how fast we can shoot. It’s just a tempo thing. Can we explore early options to get easy baskets when the defense is maybe lulling back or jogging back? We want to take our chances with getting a quick easy one.”
“Once we get into the half-court, we’re still going to look to highlight our talent in a way where they’re strongest. A lot of it has to do with sacrificing for each other and maybe getting out of your comfort zone when maybe you haven’t played that way.”
Part of what Memphis has to hope will ease that transition will be the new personnel it has added. Memphis was aware last season that it needed to build an underlying core of younger players as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen advance further away from their primes. JaMychal Green emerged as an underrated stretch-four weapon who would wind up starting 15 games for Memphis. The team drafted Wade Baldwin IV and Deyonta Davis, giving the Grizzlies point guard and center depth. Harris brings an athletic combo guard who Memphis inked to a three-year deal after a strong summer league performance and a dominant D-League season last year.
But the biggest changes came in free agency. Instead of losing Conley and kickstarting a rebuild, Memphis not only retained Conley and the core of players that has made the playoffs every year the past six seasons, but landed a free-agency coup in adding Chandler Parsons. Memphis was in the mix for Eric Gordon and other shooters, before finding great value in pure shooter Troy Daniels in a sign-and-trade with Charlotte.
Parsons in particular carries the hope for major advances for Memphis’ ceiling. Roll down the checklist of needs for Memphis over the past four seasons and you find what Parsons brings to the table. Fizdale envisions Parsons’ role in the most dynamic sense, and plans on handing the keys to a variety of engines to the veteran forward.
“He’s gonna be my LeBron James. He’s gonna be my Dwyane Wade,” Fizdale said, obviously not comparing Parsons’ talent to those two future Hall of Famers, but describing the kind of high-involvement, hyper-versatile role he envisions for Parsons. “He’s gonna be the guy I put into every offensive situation imaginable. He’s 6-9, 6-10, he can handle, he can shoot, he can run pick and roll, he can post, he can work off the elbow, he can set pick and rolls.”
“There are so many ways I want to use him. And obviously catch-and-shoot is what he does well already. I’m going to move him around a lot. With the personnel we have, he’s very unique. We don’t really have a guy like that, a lot of teams in the league don’t have a guy like that. I want to put him in the optimum situation offensively where he can be impactful.”
There are huge concerns, of course, as there are always are with teams like Memphis. Parsons is coming off two seasons where knee injuries ended his year, and had “minor micro-fracture” surgery a year ago. Conley has had repetitive foot issues over the past four seasons that led to Achilles soreness which kept him in a boot throughout last year and eventually cut short his season as a precaution. Marc Gasol looks to return from a broken foot, which is the number one phrase on any list of “things you don’t want to read about big men.” If the injury bug bites, Memphis will go down in flames, and their injury concerns are greater than others.
Which is part of why getting a coach with the overall organizational vision that Fizdale has matters. He’s involved in developing the youngsters, maximizing the stars, engaging the role players. Fizdale said that a key reason he decided to sign with Memphis was how things “clicked” with the Grizzlies’ multi-faceted front office with Chris Wallace, Ed Stefanski and John Hollinger, a group that mixes old school scouting and new-era development. The team invested in upgrading its injury assessment and prevention facilities last year, which wound up not helping at all when over half the team suffered a variety of season-ending maladies.
The team is trying to be forward-facing, even as it held on to players like Randolph and Allen, who remain impactful but situationally limited in the NBA’s pace-and-space era. They know Randolph can come in and still bully undersized opponents, getting buckets over and over. They know Allen remains an elite defender, but now they can deploy him and Parsons together with each compensating for the other’s weaknesses.
And that front office, Fizdale said, has involved him in a way that most coaches in his positions aren’t blessed with.
“They involve me in everything, which is rarely what happens with a first-year coach,” Fizdale raved. “I’ve been a part of every recruiting visit, every decision when it comes to personnel. Every time a guy’s a possibility I’m getting calls about ‘What do you think of this guy?’ That is so awesome for me as a first-year coach and I don’t take that lightly. I try and do my homework and give them factual evidence when I come to the table with something.”
There’s a lot on the table for Memphis next season, which is why it matters that after losing a tremendous coach in Dave Joerger, the Grizzlies have a coach who enters with vision but not expectation, with plans but not ego. First-year coaches face a wide spectrum of success and some tremendous assistants never flourish as head coaches. This is summer, when every team has optimism for how next season will go and the potential their team enjoys.
For David Fizdale and the Grizzlies, he has hit the ground running, working the rookies and fringe guys, planning for changes to his star players, and looking to implement the success he saw with Miami. That process started in free agency, it continued in the frigid summer league gyms tucked away from the Vegas blistering heat, and heads toward next season as Fizdale and the Grizzlies remain aware of both the challenges and opportunities in front of them.
Detail by detail, David Fizdale is looking to take the success the Grizzlies managed to salvage this summer, and build something even better.
For more on Fizdale, be sure to read the excellent conversation with him regarding growing up in South Central Los Angeles and recent events with the Undefeated.
Courtesy: CBS Sports