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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bickerstaff takes over familiar role in call to help salvage Grizzlies’ season

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

SAN ANTONIOJ.B. Bickerstaff was emotionally sandwiched between pride and pain.

At one moment came the news on Monday that long-time friend David Fizdale was being relieved as Grizzlies head coach barely 20 games into the season. A day after that jarring information was shared, Bickerstaff was promoted Tuesday to interim coach for the remainder of the season.

His first task Wednesday is to attempt to close out a brutal November and help the Grizzlies (7-12) snap an eight-game losing streak in a game against San Antonio. Then on Friday, the Grizzlies return home to face the Spurs again to open a vicious December schedule that includes nine road games, eight matchups with teams currently in playoff position and six back-to-back sets.

There are only 30 NBA head coaching jobs in the world, and the best man in Bickerstaff’s wedding had just lost the first one he ever held. But, again, there are only 30 NBA coaching jobs, and Bickerstaff was given a second chance in one of those rare roles to guide a team through a turbulent stretch.

So as he sorted through those various emotions this week, Bickerstaff turned to a comforting and reassuring voice for perspective and guidance. He hopped on the phone with dad. Former NBA coach and executive Bernie Bickerstaff, who faced similar situations throughout his career, knew what to say.

“He and I talked - we talk pretty much every day,” J.B. said of connecting with his father. “So we spoke about the situation, and the first thing he talks about is, ‘Trust yourself, trust your instincts and believe in what your plan is.’ And then, obviously, ‘Come up with a good one.’ From there, you stick to it. You figure out where you’re headed and you give yourself a road map, and you plug along.”

Then, the elder Bickerstaff reminded his son of the most important thing he could do in times like this.

“Every single day, you do your job,” Bernie Bickerstaff told J.B. about this latest transition. “No matter what the situation is – wins, losses, adversity, it doesn’t matter – you show up and you do your job.”

J.B. Bickerstaff, 38, was given this job largely because he’s done this very task before under these circumstances. Two seasons ago, Bickerstaff took over in Houston after Kevin McHale was dismissed a month into the 2015-16 season and led the Rockets to a 37-34 record the final 71 games. Houston advanced to the playoffs with Bickerstaff as interim coach, but he removed his name from consideration for the permanent job after the season when the Rockets targeted current coach Mike D’Antoni.

Much like then, there are no guarantees now, either, for Bickerstaff. There’s only the challenging opportunity to steer the Grizzlies through a difficult December in an effort to get the team back in contention for a playoff spot.

Memphis started the season 5-1, highlighted by promising victories over Golden State and Houston. But that encouraging start soon gave way to the team’s longest losing streak since the 2009-2010 season that predated the beloved ‘Core Four’ era that has produced seven consecutive playoff appearances.

Bickerstaff is tasked with turning that tide once again. He’ll enter December with a roster still missing point guard catalyst Mike Conley, who has been sidelined since mid-November with a sore Achilles. The Grizzlies have also struggled to settle into a consistent playing rotation, with JaMychal Green, Ben McLemore, Brandan Wright and Chandler Parsons either coping with injuries, having recently returned from injuries or playing on some level of minutes’ restrictions.

The coaching change that moved Bickerstaff over one chair from his seat as Fizdale’s lead assistant came after eight consecutive losses, including seven at home, and a 14-26 stretch in the last 40 regular-season games dating to the end of last season. The Grizzlies made the playoffs and pushed the Spurs to six games in the first-round series, but management believed things were trending in the wrong direction.

“We are an organization with high expectations,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. “The trends were not positive. This is a production, bottom-line business. A change was warranted and had to be made. We are the Memphis Grizzlies and we always get through adversity, get through the other side and have success. We made a change, hopefully, that gives us a positive reboot.”

Wallace also suggested the move was made just 19 games into Fizdale’s second season as coach because the Grizzlies had to “do something to try and save the season.” Wallace also acknowledged a strained relationship between Fizdale and three-time All-Star center Marc Gasol was a factor. Bickerstaff’s background gave Wallace confidence that the Grizzlies could regain their footing.

“We believe we have a coach right here who can help us get through this, get us turned around,” Wallace said of Bickerstaff. “What we want is to stop the bleeding and get some stability.”

Bickerstaff is facing a difficult transition, but hopes to draw from his Houston experience.

“It was more on the fly than this one is,” Bickerstaff said of comparing the past ordeal with the Rockets to the current dilemma in Memphis. “When that one happened, it was literally the morning of a game. Shootaround was cancelled, and I was coaching a game that night. At least now, there (was) an opportunity to kind of take a breath, prepare the group with a practice, a shootaround, then go play.”

Yet, it’s never a seamless transition.

Marc is one of the leaders of this team, so responsibility falls on his shoulders as well... And in order for us to be the team that we want to be, especially with Mike out, a ton of that responsibility will fall on Marc... we need him to be Marc Gasol.
-- J.B. Bickerstaff

“When you’re in these situations, it’s important to take a step back and see the big picture first, identify our biggest concerns and from there, attack them every single day,” Bickerstaff said of his initial approach. “You can’t come into this situation and try to do these large, big things. It’s just not enough time. Now, you find the small things and work on those small things every day.”

Those small things began with a few tweaks to the schemes on both sides of the ball. As Fizdale’s associate head coach, Bickerstaff was essentially the Grizzlies’ defensive coordinator. Through the first few weeks of the season, the Grizzlies were ranked in the top five in the league in multiple categories. Since then, they’ve registered in the bottom third in many of those same defensive rankings.

So it was no surprise that a recommitment to defense is the first priority.

“We didn’t talk much Xs and Os – we talked about the situation and the toughness of it and the perception people are going to have,” Gasol said of the initial adjustments Bickerstaff has made. “But we have to win. We have to find whatever we can to be consistent defensively. And whatever that is, whatever plan they have, lay it out there and allow everybody a chance to understand what their job is, what their role is. And we’ll help the coach enforce that role.”

Those responsibilities are reciprocal, and Bickerstaff insists Gasol must move beyond the controversial coaching change and assume a major part in the team’s rescue.

“Marc is one of the leaders of this team, so responsibility falls on his shoulders as well,” Bickerstaff said. “We need Marc to play his best basketball. His impact on the game is felt on both sides of the ball. And in order for us to be the team that we want to be, especially with Mike out, a ton of that responsibility will fall on Marc. We’ve seen how good Marc can be. And we need to do things to help Marc, put him in position to be successful, support him and those types of things. But we need him to be Marc Gasol.”

Ultimately, it boils down to reestablishing an identity.

Bickerstaff has been one of the most respected young coaches in the league, having spent the past 13 years on the bench with Memphis, Houston, Minnesota and Charlotte. He was the NBA’s youngest assistant when he began working at age 25 alongside his father in Charlotte during the 2004-05 season.

More than anything, Bickerstaff is seasoned in perseverance.

“He’s going to get on us when we need to be gotten on, and he’s going to bring it every day,” Grizzlies guard Mario Chalmers said of Bickerstaff’s coaching style. “He’s got a positive attitude. And once your coach comes into a situation like this, being positive about it and not dwelling on what happened, it makes the team move on faster.”

A turnaround won’t happen instantly. But Bickerstaff is confident the Grizzlies can get back to being the team that showed so much promise at the beginning of the season. Time is of the essence, and Bickerstaff has guided teams through tight spots before.

“We can tweak a few things, but they can’t be grand scheme things because we don’t have a lot of time,” Bickerstaff said. “We started out the year playing very good basketball. So it’s here, it’s in this group. And what we’re going to try to do is get back to doing the things we were doing when we were successful. We just need to get back to that spot. It’s not going to turn overnight. I don’t have pixie dust in my pocket. But the purpose of this job, in this position, is improvement every single day.”

Pixie dust might not be handily available for Bickerstaff and the Grizzlies.

But Memphis is relying on a dry rub dose of his stabilizing strengths.

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.