MEMPHIS – David Fizdale did not elaborate.
In his mind, there was no need to do so. The question fired his way during the Grizzlies media day was direct and to the point. Considering the second-year coach is that way as well, so, too, was his answer.
How many wins will it take to make the playoffs in the super-stacked Western Conference this season?
Fizdale did not flinch, either.
“Forty-five,” he shot back.
To properly place that response in context, that would be two more victories than the Grizzlies managed last season as the No. 7-seed in Fizdale’s first season at the helm – a season that saw franchise catalysts Mike Conley and Marc Gasol both post the best offensive numbers of their careers.
To place that projected win total into further context, Memphis embarks on its latest quest having moved on from two members of the organization’s beloved ‘Core Four’ crew, with veterans Zach Randolph and Tony Allen departing in free agency to Sacramento and New Orleans, respectively.
Conley, Gasol, Randolph and Allen provided the foundation of a team that advanced to the playoffs seven consecutive seasons, which represents the third-longest active streak in the NBA behind only San Antonio and Atlanta. Now, Conley and Gasol remain with the goal of simultaneously extending the postseason run of success while also charting a new path for a revamped roster.
Honestly, I want to get off to a fast start, so I’m challenging this team to pick up things quickly... I really thought the front office did a great job of adding some multi-dimensional players. I really feel like we’re faster. We’re definitely more skilled from that standpoint.
-- Coach Fizdale
Fizdale didn’t need to explain how 45 wins also meant raising – not lowering – the bar of expectations around Memphis. In other words, the 2017-18 season will be anything but a rebuilding year.
“We will obviously miss Z-Bo (Randolph), T.A. (Allen) and Vince (Carter), and I don’t know if we can replace that – just their gravitas, their presence and their contributions,” Fizdale said. “I have to give this team its own identity, its own chance and put them in position to be as successful as possible. I know it sounds crazy, but that’s the whole reason why we do this. How do you overcome that, even though we don’t have as many big names? That’s why it’s a team sport. I plan on building a system and a culture here that has longevity and creates winning. I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
That challenge begins with taking the next step in implementing a faster playing pace, something the Grizzlies attempted last season to mixed results. Memphis did set franchise records for made three-pointers (767) last season, and jumped from near the bottom of the league to the middle of the pack. As many as seven rotation players established career-high marks in at least one offensive category.
But ultimately, as injuries piled up and the season wore on, the pace slowed and the consistency waned as the Grizzlies slipped to a 43-39 finish and lost to the Spurs in six games during the first round of the playoffs. The identity established during the Grit and Grind heyday has now transformed into a playing style that’s predicated on pace, space, ball-movement and interchangeable playmakers.
The Grizzlies know what to expect from Conley and Gasol, but the supporting cast must provide answers to pressing questions if Memphis is to remain a complete nuisance to other contenders in the West.
Now that those persistent knee problems and rehab are behind him, can Chandler Parsons emerge as the All-Star level performer the Grizzlies sought when he signed a $94 million contract two summers ago? And if an All-Star level output is too much to expect at this stage, can Parsons provide at least a steady dose of shooting, playmaking and, well, availability as a consistent threat at the forward spots?
“This is the first time in three years I’ve had a full summer to work on my game and work on my body,” Parsons said. “My body feels good. I have my ups and downs with soreness, but I feel unbelievable and drastically better than last year. I’m ready to come back with that chip on my shoulder I had my rookie year, and try to prove everyone wrong once again.”
The queries extend beyond Parsons.
Can offseason additions Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans and Mario Chalmers get their respective careers back on track in Memphis after they were derailed by injuries and developmental challenges in previous NBA stops the past few seasons? Will rookies Dillon Brooks and Ivan Rabb force their way into an opportunity to infuse the rotation with youth, depth and versatility that had in short supply?
Are Wayne Selden, Deyonta Davis and Andrew Harrison on the verge of building on some of last season’s promising rookie moments and becoming regular contributors? Will JaMychal Green, fresh off signing a new contract, become a needed double-double machine at power forward? Will Brandan Wright finally be the productive frontline fit many envisioned when he signed three years ago?
Answers won’t definitely come until a month or two into the season, but at least one thing’s for certain from the outset: There’s little time for patience.
“Both Marc and I will be more demanding than we ever have been of our teammates,” Conley said. “We want them to feel what we feel, the sense of urgency. We’re 30 and 32 (years old). We’re right in our prime position and we want to take advantage of it now.”
That process has required leading more passionately, both by example and voice. Fizdale challenged Conley last season to take charge of the team, and those demands have increased with the strong-willed Randolph and Allen no longer around.
One example of Conley’s highly-dedicated approach came midway through the preseason, when he was set to be inducted into the Ohio State University ring of honor during an Oct. 7 football game. Instead of missing practice the day of the ceremony, which was anticipated and would have been easily excused, Conley practiced that Saturday morning with the Grizzlies and then flew immediately to Columbus.
He arrived in time for the halftime ceremony on the football field during the Ohio State-Maryland game, then flew back to Memphis early that evening. He attended the Grizzlies’ workout that next morning and flew with the team to Atlanta for a preseason game against the Hawks.
That level of leadership and commitment resonates on a roster with as many as seven new faces.
It’s part of the process... Every year, it seems like I’ve had a change off the court or on the court. I’ve had to adjust my goals and position myself for that. This summer, it’s about being a different kind of leader for the team. It’s about staying angry. Staying focused on that end. Last year, I was angry about all the contract talk. This time, I’m just trying to position myself to help every way I can.
-- Mike Conley
This past offseason was a period of self-reflection across the board.
For Gasol, that meant improving his conditioning and returning in the best shape of his 10-year career with the Grizzlies. Gasol, who is visibly leaner after drastically cutting his body-fat percentage, led Spain to a bronze medal in the FIBA EuroBasket 2017 tournament and worked to improve his rebounding.
A lingering ankle sprain briefly slowed his progress in training camp, but Gasol is confident it won’t take long to establish chemistry and continuity with a rotation that returns three other starters. After sitting out the first two preseason games, Gasol grabbed a game-high 13 boards in the third exhibition against the Hawks.
“In my younger years, I had a lot of weight issues – I went up and down a lot,” Gasol said. “Being happy with yourself is really important to being able to perform in your job. That was it, it was simple. I have an obsession with improving and I want to strive for more. I’m very hungry. I focused on lower body strength to get up for those rebounds, to get those averages up. Get leaner, get stronger, move faster. I’m not going to catch five or six alley-oops per game, but I want to be able to get up and down faster.”
Gasol expects his teammates to keep up with expectations, too.
“I’m not waiting on anybody or anything,” Gasol said of holding himself and everyone around him accountable. “I have to be full go. You’re (either) with me or you’re not. That’s my goal for 82 games. That’s going to be my challenge. What we can’t do is expect any of the other guys to be Zach or Tony. Those shoes cannot be filled. The things they brought to the table, who they were and what they brought to the community, those shoes won’t be filled. We have to embrace the guys here now.”