VOL. 132 | NO. 40 | Friday, February 24, 2017
As Rookie NBA Head Coach, Grizzlies’ David Fizdale Earns Acclaim
By Don Wade
He has been forthright – with his players and when speaking with the media. First-year Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale doesn’t go in for verbal gymnastics or political double-talk.
First-year Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale had the team sitting at 34-24 at the All-Star break and still in position to compete for home-court advantage in the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)
Nor does he worry about appearances. He cancelled shoot-arounds on game days multiple times right before the All-Star break because he believed his veteran guys could use the rest. A more paranoid coach, a less assured man, might have worried about the fallout if the results were not good.
But Fizdale wasn’t concerned about outside perception. And it’s not that he believes his team always has given max effort every game this season. When they have failed to play with consistency and hard effort, he has said so in no uncertain terms.
Fizdale, however, also knows when to let it go. The Grizzlies suffered a dreadful 95-91 home loss to New Orleans, at FedExForum, right before the All-Star break. Rather than berate his team as they started their time off, he reminded them why they had lost and moved on.
“He told us to get this loss out of our heads,” Tony Allen said.
Fizdale also hasn’t wasted his time and energy having petty, public battles with the front office. Where Dave Joerger could not help himself, Fizdale has shown little temptation to take subtle, or not-so-subtle, jabs at the brass above him.
Truth is, more than any Grizzlies coach since the first one to lead Memphis to the playoffs – Hubie Brown in the 2003-2004 season – Fizdale, 42, is a walking and talking manifestation of what-you-see-is-what-you-get.
In that way, he is already like many of the acclaimed coaches in the NBA. He is his own man, to be sure, and yet influenced by former bosses with the Miami Heat in team president Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra. He is also shades of Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Doc Rivers and even Brad Stevens.
Intense, but controlled. Cerebral, but not above going with his gut. The calm in the middle of the storm, yet willing to fight for his guys and get ejected – and then deride himself afterward for losing his cool.
There are many factors in the Grizzlies being 34-24 at the All-Star break, holding down the No. 6 slot in the Western Conference and the No. 4 seed well within reach. But know this: Fizdale is not just an adjunct to this standing. He is a driving force, the coach who made both center Marc Gasol (now a 3-point weapon) and point guard Mike Conley true scorers as opposed to pass-first team guys even though they long have lacked better players around them.
Fizdale has changed Grizzlies culture for the better without discarding Grit and Grind. He even managed to do so at the beginning of the season by bringing the proud Zach Randolph off the bench. And when necessary, even getting into Gasol – telling him as captain and the best player he must do more, must lead.
If that all sounds a little like San Antonio’s Popovich, well, there’s a reason for that.
“As a coach, you have to be who you are,” Popovich said when the Spurs were in Memphis earlier this month. “I curse, so every time I do, I say, `Gosh, I wish I could be like Johnny Wooden.’ But I can’t. I’ve just got to be me, so I curse. Same way, I felt it made sense that you don’t want the 12th player to be treated one way and the star of your team gets coddled, can make all the mistakes he wants and there’s no consequence.
“You can’t have a team that way,” he said. “Everybody has got to be accountable.”
It is perhaps the baseline for how Fizdale has operated in Memphis.
“He may even be harder on his best players,” Fizdale said of Popovich. “I’ve heard that from everybody’s that’s played for him. That’s one thing I just really admire. So I try to do the same thing with these guys, without the pedigree of Popovich. But it’s what’s right and it’s what creates trust between you and your players. I’ve definitely taken that from him.”
While this is Fizdale’s first head coaching job, he has worked as an NBA assistant since the season the Grizzlies first made playoffs – albeit with a much different caliber of Golden State Warriors 13 years ago. In fact Rivers, who coaches the Los Angeles Clippers, jokes that Fizdale has been around so long he doesn’t even qualify as a rookie head coach.
Joerger, also a first-time head coach at Memphis and now coach of the Sacramento Kings, was lauded for his ability to draw up plays out of timeouts. Fizdale earns points there, too.
“He’s had some terrific end-of-game situations that have helped them win games,” said the Boston Celtics’ Brad Stevens. “He was well-respected long before this, but he’s really done a great job.”
Golden State’s Steve Kerr agrees, but as a fellow truth-teller says, “I think David knew he was getting a great job for his first NBA job, just like I did. I got a great job because of the talent. The main thing you want is to be able to coach talent. Then, on top of that, you have guys who are genuinely team-oriented like Conley, Gasol, Tony Allen, Z-Bo. You’ve got something.
“David has done a great job, but I think he would be the first to tell you that he got a helluva gig his first time out, just like I did.”
So maybe, however the rest of the season goes, it won’t add up to an NBA Coach of the Year Award. But if there was an NBA Rookie Coach of the Year Award?
In any case, Fizdale said he knew how fortunate he was on his way in the door last spring. He said he recognized and respected that this team had been to the postseason six straight seasons under Lionel Hollins and Dave Joerger, and with this core, and that he had nothing to do with any of it.
But neither did he bow at the altar of past glories. Rather, he looked at the good and the bad from those teams, what these players – now his players – had accomplished and where they could improve, and began plotting. He thought about all he had learned in Miami and at other stops around the league, and even growing up in in south central Los Angeles, and began melding it all into a plan – one he knew would constantly be undergoing change and adjustment.
“I just try to get better all the time,” he said.
This much was clear to him from the start: The culture must be focused on winning – no personal agendas, no petty behind-the-scenes game-playing, and no free pass for a member of the Core Four if there is no free pass for a Troy Daniels or a James Ennis.
“It’s more a cultural thing,” he said of the mindset he wants to pervade the team. “It’s about putting the jersey on the right way, tuck in your shirt the same as everybody else, playing as hard as the guy who doesn’t get all the shots, stepping forward and owning it when something bad happens and not pointing fingers.”
In the end, of course, the players will share the results. But that final record will for all of NBA eternity belong to David Fizdale. It’s a story that will be told in two black-and white numbers – wins and losses – and in shades of gray only the rookie head coach will be able to see.