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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Three Takeaways From J.B. Bickerstaff’s Opening Day As (Full-time) Coach

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace and newly-minted fulltime head coach J.B. Bickerstaff didn’t mince words about their joint expectations heading into next season.

“Our identity won’t change either way,” Bickerstaff said Wednesday as he was formally promoted from the interim role to a three-year contract as the 13th head coach in franchise history. “We’re planning on success. We’re planning on a playoff run.”

Wednesday represented the start of a clean slate for Bickerstaff and the Grizzlies, who are regrouping from a 22-60 finish that left the team out of the NBA playoffs for the first time in eight years. Bickerstaff and Wallace covered plenty of ground during Wednesday’s hour-long press conference inside the Grand Lobby at FedExForum. Let’s highlight three key takeaways as the Grizzlies move forward.

TAKE ONE: GRIZZLIES DIDN’T SEARCH FAR

Wallace made it clear from the outset of Wednesday’s media session. The front office prioritized continuity, clear communication, experience and an established connection with catalysts Marc Gasol and Mike Conley in the franchise’s search for its next coach.

That search didn’t take them too far or too long to reach the conclusion that the coach they wanted was the coach they already had in the fold. Bickerstaff and Wallace opened negotiations toward the end of the season, and those talks intensified in the days after the April 11 season finale. All indications are that Memphis didn’t seriously consider any of the various available coaching options on the crowded market.

He’s a young coach who’s also very experienced. He either has it or he doesn’t. You could tell right away, he has it. He’s the guy. We had a 63-game interview process. And he passed with flying colors.
-- General Manager Chris Wallace

“We think he’s a rare commodity,” Wallace said of Bickerstaff, 39. “He’s a young coach who’s also very experienced. He either has it or he doesn’t. You could tell right away, he has it. He’s the guy. We had a 63-game interview process. And he passed with flying colors.”

Ultimately, it was far more about relationships than record. Under Bickerstaff, the Grizzlies finished 15-48 after he replaced David Fizdale in November. Conley and Gasol expressed strong support for Bickerstaff during exit interviews last month, and their voices clearly resonated.

“It was obvious that Mike and the rest of the team wanted him,” Wallace said. “That’s very positive. (Bickerstaff) knows better than anybody the strengths and weaknesses of our team.”

TAKE TWO: INITIAL DRAFT OUTLOOK

In addition to staffing decisions, the next agenda item for Bickerstaff and the Grizzlies is to further evaluate needs and options heading into the May 15 draft lottery and ensuing draft combine in Chicago.

The Grizzlies finished with the second-worst record in the league this season and are assured of a top-five pick in the June 21 NBA Draft. They also own the No. 32 overall pick in the second round. Bickerstaff joked that he’d be joined at the hip with Wallace and the front office staff as they dig deeper into the offseason evaluation process.

J.B. Bickerstaff

Wallace declined to speak specifically about the draft process or prospects, but did confirm he recently returned from a scouting trip in Europe. The Grizzlies were among several NBA lottery teams to send executives to watch Slovenian guard Luka Doncic, a projected top-three pick, in the EuroLeague playoffs.

Both Wallace and Bickerstaff spoke as if the plan for the Grizzlies moving forward is to continue to build around 33-year-old Gasol and 30-year-old Conley, while also trying to land a transcendent talent who can eventually bridge the franchise into the next era.

Along with Doncic, American college players DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Michael Porter are widely considered among the best prospects in the draft.

“If you look at it, (picks) one through five, maybe six, there are some game changers in there,” Bickerstaff said in general of the potential talent atop the draft board. “We’re in a good position.”

Wallace agreed.

“We’ve got a lot of tools to work with,” Wallace said of the returning roster and offseason options, which will include the full midlevel exception in free agency. “A lot of the heavy lifting is already done.”

TAKE THREE: BICKERSTAFF’S STAFF IN TRANSITION?

Although the Grizzlies’ staff of assistant coaches had been working on contracts that carry them through the end of next season, Bickerstaff was non-committal when asked which members would be retained.

“We’re going through that process now,” Bickerstaff said. “It’s still too early.”

Bickerstaff kept the staff largely intact when he took over as interim coach, but also brought in Greg Buckner from the Houston Rockets midway through the season. Buckner, who had a previous working relationship with Bickerstaff in their stops in Houston and Minnesota, is likely to be retained.

The remaining assistants – Keith Smart, Bob Bender, Nick Van Exel and Adam Mazarei – either all had separate, individual relationships with Fizdale or, in Mazarei’s case, was inherited from Dave Joerger’s staff. Van Exel was among the staff members who publicly congratulated Bickerstaff for the promotion, although none were in attendance for Wednesday’s press conference.

Bickerstaff thanked the coaching staff during his comments and indicated some assistants may be candidates for jobs with other teams. The Knicks, Suns, Bucks, Hornets, Hawks and Magic all have head coaching vacancies and will need to fill out their respective coaching staffs. Fizdale has interviewed for many of those openings and could recruit some of his Grizzlies’ assistants to join him should he land another head job.

So we’ll see how the process goes (over the next few weeks), and make some decisions from there.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff

“I expect some of the guys on our staff to take the next step up,” Bickerstaff said. “So we’ll see how the process goes (over the next few weeks), and make some decisions from there.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.