MEMPHIS – From Tom Thibodeau’s vantage point, the vital signs for success are clear.
“He’s well prepared for this opportunity,” the Minnesota Timberwolves coach said. “We have some mutual friends, and they’ve told me a lot about him. And I can see it from the way his team plays. He’s earned his opportunity. He’s paid his dues. They’ve won big, and he deserves this.”
Thibodeau has established a reputation as one of the most intense, meticulous and prepared coaches in the league. In short, he’s a stickler for details. But for this particular scouting report, Thibodeau wasn’t breaking down a dynamic defensive scheme or a complex offensive set.
Instead, he was evaluating the Memphis Grizzlies’ hiring of David Fizdale as head coach. Including the preseason finale, the regular-season opener at FedExForum and a Nov. 1 matchup in Minnesota, the Grizzlies will have faced the Timberwolves three times in a span of 14 days. That’s plenty of time to get acquainted, but count Thibodeau among a growing number of NBA coaches who have already seen enough initial evidence to believe Fizdale is laying a solid foundation in Memphis.
Fizdale has embarked on a path similar to several NBA coaches who accepted their first head jobs after serving as lead assistants on championship teams guided by iconic figures. Emerging from the shadows of coaching legends to establish one’s own identity can be an intimidating process. Fizdale is finding his own voice after spending seven years in Miami, where from 2010 through 2014 coach Erik Spoelstra and president Pat Riley steered the Heat to two titles and four consecutive trips to the Finals.
“I’m keeping things in perspective,” said the 42-year-old Fizdale. “It may sound corny, but I could be somewhere else right now, doing something way worse. I’m very lucky to be a head coach in the NBA. I try to bring a positive energy to the game every day; to practice every day. I’m invested in these guys from a caring standpoint. I don’t want to just be their coach. I want to develop them as young men and make them better people. How can I ever be down if I’m trying to build them up?”
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That process has made the preseason a development laboratory on many levels for the Grizzlies, both on the court and on the bench. Thibodeau faced the same challenge in 2010, when he left Doc Rivers’ staff in Boston after a championship and two Finals runs to accept his first head coaching job in Chicago. During the preseason, Fizdale also faced two Greg Popovich disciples in Atlanta’s Mike Budenholzer and Philadelphia’s Brett Brown. All have experienced varying levels of struggles and success in lead roles. And all have said they’ve shared moments and tips with Fizdale amid his transition.
“That common experience was something we talked about,” said Brown, who has toiled through a painful rebuilding process with the 76ers after a decade of championship runs with the Spurs. “What my experience did in San Antonio was teach me the NBA. The thing that David and I spoke about that resonates is we’re both very privileged to tell really familiar stories (to players) of what it really takes to play in June. The routine, the professionalism, the luck, how you care for your bodies, all those habits.”
Brown and Fizdale both have reputations for being effective communicators who are almost candid to a fault. The Sixers played a preseason game in Memphis just days after Fizdale shifted beloved veteran Zach Randolph to a reserve role to boost the bench. But Fizdale also said he told Randolph that no team would likely pay the 15-year veteran to be a starter once his contract expires after the season.
Brown appreciates the directness from Fizdale and believes players ultimately respect that approach.
“All players, I’m convinced, want to be coached, want to be told the truth, want to be made to show up on time, they want to be accountable,” Brown said. “They want it real. You’re not going to get where David got unless those qualities were firmly in place. That’s culture. That’s growing a program.”
There’s been a holistic approach to that growth with Fizdale’s program in Memphis. The on-the-court instillation has involved converting to a new up-tempo offense, predicated on spacing in an effort to efficiently speed up one of the slowest-paced teams in the league. Philosophically, it’s turning the Grizzlies inside out, with 7-1 center Marc Gasol morphing into a three-point shooting threat and point guard Mike Conley operating more freely in the paint.
Off the court, there have been changes to everything from the design and motivational messaging on the walls in private areas near the locker rooms to further enhancing the team’s community presence. Fizdale has launched a team-wide voting initiative and is also working with Memphis police to create a police athletic league sports program for youths in economically challenged neighborhoods.
While Budenholzer made a seamless on-court transition from Spurs’ assistant to head coach of the Hawks – Atlanta won 60 games in his second season two years ago – there were challenges off it as he helped navigate the organization through a racially-charged incident within the front office. Budenholzer has already been fitted with many of the proverbial hats Fizdale is learning to wear as both coach and one of the franchise’s most prominent faces in the community.
“When you make that transition to being a head coach, there’s so much more you have to think of and consider,” Budenholzer said. “You’re constantly thinking, ‘How does this impact our culture? How does this impact us two, three steps down the road? It’s thinking big picture, and all of those things come with time. It’s a great challenge. I’ve obviously loved it and felt like I was well prepared leaving for Atlanta. And I think David Fizdale is as prepared as anybody.”
There’s a checklist of sorts that comes with implementing a program as a first-time head coach. It starts with taking inventory from the top.
“That first box is attitude and approach,” Thibodeau said. “Are we doing the right things? As long as we’re doing the right things, I can live with whatever comes our way. If we’re putting the work into it and the concentration, we’ll do well. But we have to understand what goes into winning. There are no shortcuts. There are no easy ways. You can’t skip steps.”
Fizdale repeatedly has referred to that task as building connections.
“From Marc, Mike, Zach and Tony (Allen) to the last guy on the roster, we’re getting all of these guys on the same page,” Fizdale said. “Anything I can tell the last guy on the bench is something I can say to the All-Star or the highest-paid guy on the team. You earn respect by being honest – sometimes brutally, but constructively honest – and by holding everyone accountable to the same standard.”
That was the same approach in Miami, where Fizdale was often the liaison that conveyed Spoelstra’s and Riley’s messages to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. And it’s the same approach in Memphis, where Fizdale allows his assistants to take over at any moment in practice to set the agenda.
“It’s the people you’ve been around,” Thibodeau said. “David has been around some great people and a great organization. He had a critical role in that (success), so he’s well prepared for this opportunity.”