Bickerstaff the Grizzlies’ Best Option for Coach

By Don Wade

Would keeping interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff be the easiest play for the Memphis Grizzlies? Absolutely.

Would keeping the 39-year-old assistant who was promoted after David Fizdale was fired amid a losing streak and conflict with star center Marc Gasol be the best budget move for the Grizzlies? Probably.

It also happens to be the right move.

It’s the right move because Bickerstaff has the support of the team’s two most important players – Gasol and point guard Mike Conley – and pretty much everyone else in that locker room that might have a future here. But it’s also the right move because the Grizzlies won’t be made better by reaching into the coaching recycling bin.

Gasol lauded Bickerstaff for doing a “tremendous job with the tools he was given and what he was allowed to do. He’s held the guys accountable as much as he could. He’s been positive. He’s done a great job, to be honest.”

No, I’m not saying Marc Gasol should officially be in charge of firing and hiring coaches. But clearly Gasol’s comfort level matters. Conley, who didn’t get to actually play for Bickerstaff because of a foot injury, was a close observer. He believes Bickerstaff earned a chance to coach without both hands tied behind his back.

“I got to see him when things were rough,” Conley said. “Everybody’s a good coach when you’re winning and everybody’s healthy. But things were not going right, he was able to lead by example, hold guys accountable and still have the Memphis culture on the team.”

That 140-79 humiliation at Charlotte perhaps being the exception that proves the rule.

So let’s look around the NBA and see what’s happening with coach searches. Most of the so-called top candidates, the big-name guys, have something in common: They carry around the word “former” in every mention.

Fizdale is the former Grizzlies coach. Steve Clifford is the former Charlotte coach, Jeff Hornacek is most recently the former New York Knicks coach, and Mark Jackson is the former Golden State Warriors coach.

When Frank Vogel was the former Indiana Pacers coach the Grizzlies reportedly had some interest. He is more recently the former Orlando Magic coach. David Blatt is the former Cleveland Cavaliers coach sent packing by LeBron James. Jeff Van Gundy has been a former head coach for more than a decade and that’s probably not an accident.

No, Bickerstaff’s 52-82 (.388) career record is not inspiring. But as an interim coach in Houston two years ago he did go 37-34 and get the Rockets into the playoffs. His 15-48 mark with the Grizzlies is largely reflective of many injuries, playing young players heavy minutes, and the franchise having no incentive to improve this season’s record at the expense of draft position.

Meantime, other teams looking to make a hire have concerns about every candidate. Fizdale is rumored to be in the hunt for the Knicks, Hornets and Phoenix Suns jobs. To get one, he has to explain how things went sideways with Gasol.

Hornacek, who was let go in New York, has been deemed out of touch with the modern player. Jackson has that rap, plus didn’t have the best relationship with the Golden State front office and once he was out of the picture Steve Kerr had the Warriors winning titles.

Blatt walks around with a frown frozen on his face and Van Gundy can irritate millions of people at a time just by talking on a TV broadcast. Clifford had a losing record in five seasons at Charlotte and though his teams made the playoffs twice, they never won a series. Vogel didn’t have much of a roster in Orlando, but also did little with it.

So where’s the obvious upgrade if the Grizzlies were to go away from J.B. Bickerstaff? Why create unnecessary complications?

“You learn who you really are,” Bickerstaff said of coaching through the difficult season that now is in the rearview mirror. “It tests you.”

He deserves a fairer test to see where he can take these players that want him as their coach.

If it doesn’t work out, then the Grizzlies can reach into the over-stocked coaching recycling bin.

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.