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Weekend Focus: The Five Faces of Grizzlies Frustration

MEMPHIS – At 7-foot-1, Marc Gasol typically towers over the group of reporters and television cameras that surround his locker after every game.

But following yet another demoralizing loss at FedExForum the other night, the Grizzlies’ center refused to hold himself above either the criticism for his team’s recent struggles or the outside input amid the quest for answers. So after TV cameras turned away, recording devises flipped off and most of the media dispersed, Gasol nodded to a few familiar faces who remained and asked a simple question.

As long as it’s about keeping us together and not breaking us apart, I’ll consider just about anything.
-- Marc Gasol

“You guys got any answers?” Gasol deadpanned. “I’m serious. I’m willing to listen to anything right now. As long as it’s about keeping us together and not breaking us apart, I’ll consider just about anything.”

Gasol was only half kidding.

The relative desperation and despair from a season-long, five-game losing streak have the Grizzlies (36-30) searching for plenty, including their identity, with a month left before the start of the NBA playoffs. This is the first time since 2009 they've lost four in a row by double figures. This time a week ago, Memphis was closing in on position for the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference, which would guarantee home-court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs.

Then came a string of losses, including Monday’s home double-digit setback to the league-worst Nets, that dropkicked the Grizzlies to what coach David Fizdale identifies as the season’s lowest point. Is there time to forge a path back to stability and into strong contention in the West this season?

Theoretically, yes.

But first, let’s examine the ‘Five Faces of Frustration’ from the Grizzlies’ current predicament and the realities that surround them.

DAVID FIZDALE

By now, the first-year coach knows that his controversial “they can kiss my ass” comment in response to critics/skeptics of his drastic lineup changes was a combination of ill-timed, inappropriate and unnecessary. Fizdale is a prideful, tough-minded coach and, more than anything, transparent.

He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. But he’s got bigger challenges on his plate right now than to bother with saying anything to – or through – the media that might alienate fans, especially entering the peak of season-ticket renewal drives. Clearly, the man is a direct communicator and has no problem getting his point across. But at this stage of the season, the message is sometimes clouded when game results don’t necessarily reflect the relentless effort and contemplating that go into figuring out how to fix matters.

“When you hit a bump in the road, the first thing you want to do is revert back to what’s comfortable,” Fizdale said Friday. “That’s not going to win it for us, I can tell you that. To anybody who questions what we’re trying to accomplish, the old way will get us mediocre results. I’m not guaranteeing you what I’m doing is going to get us better results. I just know that that way is not going to get it.”

The bottom line is this: Memphis has used 18 different starting lineups this season. In some ways, Fizdale’s hands are tied with a limited roster beyond Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph. That said, it’s a bit late in the season to make changes for the sake of change. It’s time to reconnect and salvage what’s left of the regular season. That process starts from within by stopping the guesswork.

MARC GASOL

The most baffling aspect of this season has been that the Grizzlies played arguably their best stretch of basketball at a time when their roster was most limited by injuries. Remember the Nasty Nine? Remember when Gasol’s dominant play on both ends had national pundits flirting with entering Big Spain into consideration for the back-end of the MVP ballot?

Sure, it’s a sensitive topic. But Gasol enjoyed both comfort and clarity during that holiday stretch in November and December when he was the focal point of the offense and the anchor of the defense. Gasol has still been the team’s most consistent player overall this season, but the three-time All-Star has slipped from his peak form over the past month. His scoring, rebounding, steals and field-goal percentage are all slightly down since he returned from New Orleans.

If fatigue is a bit of a factor, Gasol will never admit it in what’s been an overwhelmingly successful campaign in his first full season back from last year’s foot surgery. But if it’s one thing Gasol appreciates, it’s stability and dependability. Those two elements have been in short supply lately, and it’s impacted a Grizzlies’ defense that’s been in a relative free-fall in recent weeks.

“We have to put our big-boy pants on and man up,” Gasol insists. “You’re not going to win many games playing this type of defense. We’re not stopping dribble penetration, we’re late rotating over to help and we’re not trusting one another. It takes five guys. That’s the type of defense we used to play here.”

The bottom line is this: the temperamental captain is growing thin on patience, but if this team is going to recover defensively, Gasol must channel his 2013 Defensive Player of the Year form. Fizdale has worked all season to make this Gasol’s team. Gasol has to demand that this is his time … again.

CHANDLER PARSONS

Let’s be totally honest here. Chandler Parsons isn’t just the elephant in the room. He’s been the elephant in the 18,119-seat FedExForum all season. For the most part, it’s been to no fault of his own.

The reality is that Parsons hasn’t been reliable to this point, and there’s an increasing chance that he won’t be much of a factor – if any at all – for his first full season in Memphis. And this time next year, the biggest incoming free agent in franchise history will already be halfway through that four-year, $94 million contract he signed to join the Grizzlies in free agency last summer.

Even though his recovery progress has been very methodical, public and frustrating, the Grizzlies have always taken – and continue to maintain – the big-picture perspective when it comes to Parsons. Shutting down his social media accounts will only quiet so much of the noise among those who believe he should be shut down, period, this season.

There are no indications that’s going to happen anytime soon for at least two reasons. One, the medical and training staffs aren’t going to abandon a complex plan that has shown promising results behind the scenes. And two, if the training and sports science staffs continues to show evidence that Parsons should push forward, Fizdale will maintain faith in a breakthrough in productivity for the promising prospect.

The bottom line is this: it might be time to split the difference and bring Parsons off the bench instead of force-feeding him into the starting lineup. There was a time midway through the season when James Ennis, Troy Daniels and/or Vince Carter effectively worked around the Parsons starting project and remained productive despite inconsistent rotation minutes. These days, that’s no longer the case.

TONY ALLEN

The undisputed commissioner of the Grit’N’Grind Grizzlies has publicly accepted his move to the bench as well as could be expected from one of the most emotional players on the team. But that didn’t stop Allen from lashing out under a nostalgic spell and calling for a return to the way Memphis used to play during its heyday as a pound-and-ground defensive juggernaut.

“I thought we were a grit-and-grind defensive team,” Allen said after the Grizzlies were dismantled by the Nets and Clippers in his first two games as a reserve this week. “Our identity has been defense for as long as I’ve been here. I just believe if we can get back to who we are, and that’s having our defensive mindset first, I think it will be a better outcome for these games.”

Allen is speaking from both the heart and from the past. The Grizzlies haven’t been nearly as lethal defensively as in some years, but the issue this season is that they can’t sustain offensive production. Fizdale has been trying to fast-track a team that isn’t quite built for consistent speed, pace and space.

It’s an ongoing philosophical struggle that has been the undercurrent of this entire season.

“When you hit a bump in the road, the first thing you want to do is revert back to what’s comfortable,” Fizdale countered. “That’s just a human condition."

Both Allen and Fizdale respect one another and know they need each other in order for this defense to maximize its production, especially in the postseason.

The bottom line is this: Grit’N’Grind is fine as a mantra and a mindset under Fizdale, but the days of it being a style of play, so to speak, are essentially over. Fizdale, however, has to understand he no longer has the luxury of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Ray Allen walking through that door to implement dynamic changes. And Allen must realize that in the final year of his contract, the options are to either adapt to the changes being implemented or prepare for the chance of change in another form.

THE FAN

Last, but hardly least, it’s clear the Grizzlies’ fan base has the three Ps covered.

They’re prideful. They’re passionate. And they’ve been patient. But that patience, understandably, has been wearing a bit thin as this season has progressed. They’ve been asked to buy into the potential of rookie draft picks the past two years (Wade Baldwin IV, Deyonta Davis, Jarell Martin, Andrew Harrison) who haven’t exactly instilled a lot of fan confidence based on their on-court production so far.

They’ve been asked to trust the process with Parsons, even as Parsons has shown little trust in his shot or ability to maintain an impact on the court when he’s available. And they’ve been asked to believe in a first-year coach who boasts about championship culture and sets standards in Memphis as high as they were during his days a Miami assistant on teams that won two titles and advanced to four NBA Finals.

And what do the fans have to show for it? A Grizzlies squad that has regressed since the All-Star break, that didn’t make a significant deal during a busy trade deadline and that carried its longest losing streak of the season into the weekend.

Right now, that fan base has every right to voice its pain as much as it showed its patience, pride and passion during the better days of the season. But don’t bail on this team just yet.

The bottom line is this: Many of the concerns are warranted and some of the frustrations are understandable. But this team is relatively healthy right now and still has its best basketball ahead. That wasn’t the case a year ago. The Grizzlies are trying to find themselves, but Fizdale hasn’t lost this team. And with a playoff push looming, Memphis fans certainly haven’t lost their purpose.