MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bickerstaff deserves more time, better circumstances to prove right fit for Grizz permanent job
MEMPHIS – Through it all, J.B. Bickerstaff’s commitment to the job – and his desire to keep it beyond this season – have never wavered.
“You don’t look too far ahead because you focus on the job at hand, and that’s to keep developing these guys and try to put our team in the best position to compete every night,” the Grizzlies’ interim coach recently said. “But I would love to (stay) here and really have the chance to help get it turned around.”
Coming off a disastrous February that ended with Wednesday’s 110-102 loss to the Suns at FedExForum, the Grizzlies now stumble into March carrying the NBA’s longest current losing streak at 11 games. At 18-42 overall entering Friday’s visit from the Nuggets, Memphis holds the league’s third-worst record and has now guaranteed its first losing season in eight years.
For me personally, you approach every day the same... These are tough times, these are frustrating times, but the competitor in you can’t give in. You can’t let bad habits come in. We all hopefully plan on being in this thing for a long time.-- Coach Bickerstaff
The Grizzlies’ stretch of seven consecutive playoff appearances – the NBA’s third-longest active streak – is certain to end once they play their regular-season finale on April 11 in Oklahoma City. And plenty of decisions loom from the front-office and throughout most of the roster.
Among the more pressing personnel matters is determining what happens with the coaching staff. Bickerstaff, 38, was promoted to the interim role Nov. 27 after David Fizdale was dismissed 19 games into the season – during the team’s first of what’s now become two 11-game losing streaks. General manager Chris Wallace has repeatedly said he’s seen some development and progress under Bickerstaff, but he’s also indicated a decision on the coaching situation won’t come until after the season.
Considering the difficult hand Bickerstaff inherited, the win-loss record at the end of the season should be far from the main factor in determining his fate. Bickerstaff has strong and essential support from franchise center Marc Gasol, has overseen steady improvement from rookies Dillon Brooks and Ivan Rabb and has gotten occasional breakthrough moments out of Andrew Harrison and Jarell Martin.
In many ways, this was a far more challenging task than the last interim job Bickerstaff assumed two years ago in Houston, where he guided the Rockets to a 37-34 finish and into the playoffs while managing peace between James Harden and Dwight Howard. Bickerstaff’s interim run in Memphis won’t end with the same postseason payoff. But he deserves another year to get the Grizzlies there.
What Bickerstaff hasn’t and won’t be able to show this season is what he’s capable of accomplishing with a fresh start, relatively healthy roster and fair amount of time to implement his system.
Perhaps that opportunity comes next season. But Bickerstaff remains committed to the current fight, regardless of this season’s ultimate outcome. What’s known is that Bickerstaff has an ideal mix of patience, planning, penchant and pedigree for this position. The record, however, lacks clear progress.
His father, Bernie Bickerstaff, has worked as a coach or executive across the NBA landscape for five decades – and counting. Bernie’s wealth of experience runs the gamut from contributing on the bench with championship teams to first-year expansion franchises.
Almost daily, the Bickerstaff men share notes and stories in conversations or texts. So there likely isn’t a situation or dose of adversity that J.B. isn’t prepared to face. And he’s already endured plenty. It started with Mike Conley’s season-ending injury back in November, two weeks before Bickerstaff took over. It continued with Chandler Parsons’ persistent injury absences for a second straight year.
And the losses of those two highest-paid players on the roster are almost impossible to overcome when last summer’s top free-agent priorities – JaMychal Green and Ben McLemore – have drastically underachieved. Then came a crippling month in February, which began with Bickerstaff preparing for the trade of leading scorer Tyreke Evans only to shift gears again when a deal was never consummated.
It’s all resulted in nearly two dozen different starting lineups. It’s not simply hard to win under those circumstances, it’s basically impossible. Rick Carlisle is widely considered one of the elite coaches in the league, but look at his record this season in Dallas. Mike Budenholzer was NBA Coach of the Year three years ago, but check Atlanta’s spot in the standings today. Dave Joerger and Frank Vogel were two of the most underrated coaches in the game a few years back. Now, their respective teams are a combined 29 games back of the eighth and final playoff seeds in their conferences.
A solid argument can be made that none of their jobs this season have been harder than the one in Memphis, all things considered. Bickerstaff stepped into a spot tight enough to make skinny jeans feel baggy. He needs the flexibility of more legroom in hopes that stability kicks in moving forward. That’s one of many things needed for a franchise that’s had four different head or interim coaches over a span of six years.
“For me personally, you approach every day the same,” Bickerstaff said. “You have a job to do no matter what, no matter how difficult the circumstances are, no matter what position you’re put it, there’s people who rely on you to do your job. These are tough times, these are frustrating times, but the competitor in you can’t give in. You can’t let bad habits come in. We all hopefully plan on being in this thing for a long time.”
A fair assessment of Bickerstaff shouldn’t begin with wins and losses in a season that, in hindsight, essentially was lost somewhere around Thanksgiving. The final tally won’t be pretty, nor is it likely a primer for what’s to come if he’s kept. So don’t solely base Bickerstaff’s interim impression on his record.
Considering all he’s juggled, start by judging his resolve.
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.