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MikeCheck: Shift to bench role relieves pressure on both Parsons and Grizzlies as season looms

By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – This shouldn’t have been surprising.

A bit unfortunate, yes.

But surprising? Nope.

The Grizzlies will push decisions on their final roster spots until the very last available second approaching Monday afternoon’s league-wide deadline, but there was a definitive move made Sunday with coach David Fizdale’s primary playing rotation.

Chandler Parsons will open this season coming off the bench. And that may be a role he’ll play for his foreseeable future in Memphis. Due $23.2 million this season – in the second year of a four-year, $94 million deal signed last summer in free agency – Parsons will be the highest-paid reserve in the NBA.

No, it doesn’t add up. And it’s hardly ideal, based on where expectations and hopes were last summer when Parsons arrived as what was projected to be the missing piece to get the Core Four of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Zach Randolph eventually back to the Western Conference finals.

And at the very least, with Randolph and Allen now having moved on, Parsons was supposed to help calibrate the transition from the beloved Grit and Grind Grizzlies to a more dynamic, up-tempo era – one more catered to the emerging dominance of Conley and Gasol.

But now, coming off a third knee surgery in as many years and needing more time and patience to reclaim his game, Parsons is positioned differently entering Wednesday’s season opener against the Pelicans. He’s less of an essential piece and more of a spare part.

"Obviously, we’ve had conversations about it and it’s only fair, until I get my minutes up and my rhythm back to make sure I’m playing every game," Parsons said after Sunday’s practice. “It makes the most sense to start off coming off the bench and give the starting five time to create the chemistry and get into routines and get everyone’s role locked in.”

Let’s be clear: Neither the Grizzlies nor Parsons expected to be here at this point. But bringing him off the bench, no matter the cost, is the most sensible move for Parsons, the team, the coaching staff and even the fan base.

It was obvious during the preseason that Parsons needs more time to chip away at the rust that continuous surgery and rehab the past 24 months have robbed from his game. It’s one thing to be healed and healthy enough to get back to your job. It’s quite another to reclaim the elite level of shooting, conditioning, athleticism and confidence to excel at your job as a frontline NBA player.

I’m not certain Parsons ever gets back to the emerging All-Star type talent we saw glimpses of in Houston and early in Dallas. What I am convinced of at this point is that he simply needs more time and space to transition to what may be a new normal.

Superstar starting small forward is way too much to expect now. But serviceable swing forward who can bolster what should be a solid bench? That remains totally salvageable. Fizdale sees Parsons as a key contributor on the second unit alongside Tyreke Evans, Brandan Wright and Mario Chalmers once Parsons gets his legs, chemistry and confidence properly aligned.

"I’m still not going to have kid gloves for him," Fizdale said Sunday of gradually working Parsons into a productive role. "When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. Obviously, I’m going to be pushing him to play great minutes. But I see for us, right now, the role that’s best for him is off the bench for us. I’m just letting him build and get rhythm, get his timing and all of that stuff back."

And that’s best for Parsons, even though he’s never been a full-time reserve in his career. That contract and the scrutiny that comes with it aren’t going anywhere. But this new role relieves some of the pressure and expectations from the outset of the season to live up to something he can’t be right now.

Handling this bit of roster/rotation business right off the bat is best for Fizdale, too. Unlike last season, the coaching staff and Parsons’ teammates don’t have to scheme and coach and play and struggle and get squeezed by the elephant who was a fixture in the training room and the starting lineup.

Parsons is free to gradually rebuild his game and redefine his role.

And Fizdale is free to play the rotation without strings attached.

"I want to play. I just want to be healthy, whether that’s starting or coming off the bench," Parsons insisted. "I just want to help this team win any way I can. Honestly, I’ve never come off the bench in my career. But it doesn’t matter to me … This way, it creates more options for us."

Parsons’ combination of max contract, paparazzi-friendly lifestyle, relentless health issues and struggles to stay on the court his first season in Memphis understandably made him a lightning rod. But his humility, self-awareness and perspective entering this season should afford him an olive branch.

Again, this isn’t ideal for Chandler Parsons or the Grizzlies.

It’s not surprising either. That’s why Fizdale didn’t waste time putting this issue to bed and refusing to allow Parsons’ status to be a nightly narrative hijacking a new season.

"He can play. The guy knows how to play basketball," Fizdale said. "So I don’t really need to overdo it. The important thing is to get his body out there to hit and get through it."

This time a year ago, Fizdale dropped another rotation bombshell when he boldly announced Randolph would be coming off the bench on a full-time basis. Z-Bo responded with one of the most efficient seasons of his career and led the NBA in double-doubles off the bench.

The circumstances are obviously different and more delicate with Parsons. There’s no denying he’s the most expensive gamble in franchise history. Shifting Parsons to a role among the reserves was the logical next step for the Grizzlies in hopes of salvaging what they can from the investment.

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