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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bickerstaff juggling Grizz rotation options as Conley, Parsons ramp up recovery workload in practice

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff has the same vision in his head every night as he lays down and prepares to go to bed.

It’s a complete picture of health.

It’s a scene where a healthy Mike Conley rubs off a Marc Gasol high screen, then whizzes toward the basket as defenders collapse in the paint – just in time for the playmaking point guard to zip a pass to the corner as a healthy Chandler Parsons spots up at the three-point line.

“That’s what I go to sleep and dream about,” Bickerstaff said Thursday. “That’s definitely the goal, and you see the guys continue to work, taking steps in that direction because they want to be a part of it.”

Bickerstaff wasn’t dreaming Thursday when he scanned the facility and saw Parsons hitting shots on one court and Conley pushing through light scrimmage work on another as the Grizzlies (13-27) finished up practice. Both Parsons and Conley will remain out for Friday’s game in Denver against the Nuggets (21-20) as they continue to rehab from knee and Achilles heel injuries, respectively.

But both players also took noticeable steps in the recovery process with hopes to eventually rejoin their teammates in games. Parsons will miss his sixth consecutive game Friday with right knee soreness and has been sidelined for eight of the past 12 contests. Conley has not played since Nov. 13 after stepping aside to focus on extensive treatment for recurring soreness in his left heel.

Parsons went through non-contact team drills and conditioning at Thursday’s practice and is listed day-to-day. Conley increased his recovery workload on Thursday to participate in three-on-three scrimmages for the first time since he resumed routine conditioning work last month.

There is no timeframe for Conley’s potential return to game action, but Bickerstaff reiterated Thursday that he’s been encouraged by the veteran’s leadership and approach to his recovery.

“The action is good for him,” Bickerstaff said of Conley. “It’s the first time he’s gotten this much three-on-three stuff, so it’s a step in the right direction. To me and his teammates, it’s a joy he brings and some encouragement for them to see him participate and be part of the group. His personality, his attitude, his temperament is infectious to the rest of the guys. To see him just be able to sweat with guys, coach guys, teach guys – it’s a breath of fresh air.”

When Conley met with reporters last week, he insisted his intentions were to play again at some point this season. But he also suggested there were several factors in play, including how his heel and foot responded to increased levels of intensity in his workouts.

Conley also suggested that persistent pain and soreness could prolong the process, and he added that the front-office would have significant input in determining his status as the season plays out.

“I’m just going through the process, and the process is slow, unfortunately,” said Conley, who averaged 17.1 points and 4.1 assists through 12 games. “I’m making progress, though, doing a lot more on the court the past few weeks … trying to increase my load a little bit to see how much the Achilles can take.”

Conley did not meet with the media after Thursday’s practice. But Parsons, who addressed his status for the first time in two weeks, confirmed he had his knee checked out by specialists during the team’s recent west coast trip and results showed no structural damage. He’s spent the past several days working to reduce swelling and soreness in the right knee, which has twice been surgically repaired.

“My knee is feeling much better than it has been, so we keep doing a little more and more in practice to hopefully get back into a game soon,” said Parsons, who experienced swelling after he played in a Dec. 27 road win against the Lakers. “That’s the weirdest thing (because) I don’t remember getting hit. It wasn’t like an instance where I got hit or fell or got kneed. So I just took it slow, got it checked out, checked off the boxes and nothing was wrong. So I’ll just continue to strengthen it and do all the proper steps forward.”

Parsons is averaging 8.8 points and 2.8 rebounds while shooting 41.1 percent from three-point range in 27 games this season. Much like the Grizzlies, Parsons had gotten off to an encouraging start before running into a prolonged turbulent stretch the past couple of months. Parsons signed a four-year, $94 million contract in 2016 summer free agency but struggled last season before he was shut down to undergo left knee surgery after he played in 34 games.

Now midway through his second season in Memphis, Parsons said it’s been tough to continue to miss games while dealing with knee issues. Part of his health management process still requires Parsons to sit out of one game or the other when the Grizzlies play on consecutive nights.

It’s still very difficult,” Parsons said. “You want to be playing, especially in a season like we’re going through right now. You want to be healthy. I know I can help us win games. So it’s definitely frustrating and I want to be doing so much more. I want to be playing with these guys, and I think about that every day I come to the gym and continue to work and take steps in the right direction.”

That process of moving forward has required Bickerstaff to push deeper into his rotation at both forward spots Parsons has played this season. In recent weeks, Dillon Brooks, JaMychal Green, Wayne Selden, James Ennis and Jarell Martin have gotten consistent minutes in a rotation that has seen Bickerstaff regularly use as many as 11 players during games.

Brooks, a rookie second-round pick, is the only player other than Gasol to participate in every game this season. Selden has added athleticism and depth on the wing since he recently returned from a 34-game absence due to a quad injury. Ennis and Martin have had breakthrough moments, and Green is coming off his best game of the season, with 20 points and 14 rebounds in Wednesday’s win over the Pelicans.

The goal now is to find consistency within that group as Conley and Parsons continue to mend.

If you look at their productivity, Jarell has taken a huge step in the right direction. I think he’s done more by doing less and simplifying his game. His effort has been great. You look at the night JaMychal had (Wednesday), that’s something we need more of from him night after night. With James and then Wayne coming back, all have had an opportunity and all have shown they can play. What we’re looking for now is who can play that way night after night.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff

“They’ve all contributed something,” Bickerstaff said. “If you look at their productivity, Jarell has taken a huge step in the right direction. I think he’s done more by doing less and simplifying his game. His effort has been great. You look at the night JaMychal had (Wednesday), that’s something we need more of from him night after night. With James and then Wayne coming back, all have had an opportunity and all have shown they can play. What we’re looking for now is who can play that way night after night.”

For now, Bickerstaff can only dream of one day having his full complement of healthy players.

But seeing Parsons and Conley putting in work, still recovering off to the side, is a productive reality.

“We don’t have guys that are dogs,” Bickerstaff said, dismissing the notion of any half-hearted recovery efforts. “We’ve got guys that literally feel bad they can’t be out there competing with their teammates. But the intelligent thing to do is to protect them and make sure we’re cautious in working them back.”

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