Could Fizdale Be the Wind Beneath Grizzlies’ Wings?

By Don Wade

Preseasons are based on optimism, on fresh starts, on positive change and on the belief that anything is possible. So, yes, it was all ice cream and sunshine at Grizzlies Media Day; actually, a slimmer Zach Randolph was seen helping himself to a slice of the media’s pizza, but the point is unbridled hope is the oxygen that sustains teams – and fans – before the games start for real.

First-year Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale already has made a strong impression on his players, by both expecting more from them and holding them accountable. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

“I’m excited for this,” the team’s star center said on Media Day. “Coach is bringing a quality that we need. I think he’s going to get us on the right path.”

Marc Gasol talking about David Fizdale?

No, that was DeMarcus Cousins talking about Dave Joerger.

So, sure, anything said by anyone in September about an NBA team’s prospects and chemistry is subject to a remix. That’s just the reality whether in Sacramento or Memphis.

That understood, a lot of people wearing Grizzlies uniforms seemed to have much faith in this first-year coach who tutored in Miami under Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra.

“He’s a spark, something new,” said point guard Mike Conley. “Just the last three weeks, we’ve seen him hold guys accountable, being in the gym with us every day, making us run extra. He’s won a lot of guys over.”

If the coach can win them over by making them run more, not less, well, that bodes well for the 82-game grind, doesn’t it?

General manager Chris Wallace pushed the idea, upon Fizdale’s hiring, that one of his chief assets was to develop not just younger players but older ones, to even find ways to get more out of future Hall-of-Famers such as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.

It came across as hyperbole, but now Grizzlies players are talking excitedly about the new coach expecting more from them: Tony Allen might get to touch the basketball on the offensive end, Zach Randolph might be asked to be more of a facilitator in some sets and Conley and Gasol would both have enhanced freedom but also much leadership responsibility as the two stars on long-term contracts.

“Coach did a great job coming over to Spain and giving me the goals and the things he expected out of me and the leadership as a captain that he wanted out of me,” Gasol said.

“Coach … they gonna put us in some strange positions,” said Randolph. “He told me and Marc they’re gonna use us in some different ways.”

Back to Sacramento for a moment and guess what the hot story line is there? Joerger is bringing the defensive mindset the Kings have so desperately needed. It’s not about playing faster, as Joerger so wanted to do with the ground-and-pound Grizzlies, but locking in and defending – or what Joerger learned firsthand as an assistant to Lionel Hollins in Memphis before having a three-year run as head coach.

So what of Fizdale’s philosophy? What will that look like?

“I don’t want to sit here and say, ‘I have this system,’” Fizdale said. “But obviously I’m gonna bring a lot of my defensive qualities from Miami, things I learned under Coach Spo and Pat. Offensively, I’m stealing a little bit from everybody. I like a lot of the stuff that (Rick) Carlisle does (with Dallas). I like a lot of the stuff Terry Stotts does (with Portland), some things that we did in Miami.

“I’m gonna try to put our guys in position to highlight their talents.”

That was, after all, a chief reason that free agent forward Chandler Parsons signed a four-year, $94 million contract with Memphis. He knew the Grizzlies needed shooting and he could envision flourishing with the team’s core in a Fizdale system, whatever they might ultimately look like.

“I felt I would have a perfect fit and it’s a new, fresh young coaching staff,” Parsons said.

Perhaps the supreme test of how the new coach and players fit together will come much later, when the games and minutes have begun to pile up. Gasol is coming off a broken foot and a surgery. Conley is coming back from an Achilles injury, Parsons from a second knee surgery.

So let’s ask Conley, who’s tighter with Gasol than anyone, how the Big Fella will really handle it when the head coach tells him he’s not playing the second game of a back-to-back?

“If you asked me that six months ago, I’d have been like it wouldn’t have went well,” Conley said, not mentioning Joerger by name. “But with the way (Fizdale) has come in and won over guys … everybody’s wearing the same colored shirts, there’s nothing different, nobody’s bigger than the team.

“So when you have that mentality, guys like myself and Marc, when you tell us stuff that we don’t like, that we gotta sit down, you’re gonna listen because you know he’s got a vision for this team to win a championship.

“He’s not a typical first-time head coach.”

That sounds pretty good in late September, but we will know Fizdale has his team on the right path if players are saying the same thing in March.