VOL. 133 | NO. 20 | Friday, January 26, 2018
NBA Coaches Often ‘Interim’
By Don Wade
In one sense, maybe just about every NBA head coach not named Gregg Popovich should have the word “interim” in his job title. Certainly in Memphis the position of head coach is a lot closer to being an adjunct member of the faculty rather than a tenured professor.
In recent times, Lionel Hollins got the boot after being the first and only coach to take the Grizzlies to the Western Conference Finals. David Fizdale had a solid a rookie season as a head coach last year as the Grizzlies made the playoffs and stretched their first-round series vs. Popovich’s San Antonio Spurs to six games.
But with a 7-12 record and a fractured relationship with star Marc Gasol, Fizdale was gone after 19 games.
Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) drives against San Antonio Spurs center Pau Gasol during the first half of an NBA game Wednesday, Jan. 24, in Memphis. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
His associate head coach and good friend, J.B. Bickerstaff, stepped into the role of interim head coach. Although just 38 years old, Bickerstaff has been in this position before.
Two years ago, the Houston Rockets fired Kevin McHale just 11 games (4-7) into the season and opened the door for Bickerstaff to take over. He led the team to a 37-34 record the rest of the way and the Rockets snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed, getting bounced in five games by Golden State.
It was more than a credible coaching performance, but the organization decided to change the locks and hire veteran coach Mike D’Antoni.
What did today’s interim Grizzlies coach learn from yesterday’s interim Rockets coach?
“How to deal with the stresses of the job and what to look for at the end of the day,” Bickerstaff said. “Understanding you’re not going to make huge leaps in small periods of time. You’re going to go through times of frustration. But, at the end of the day, there are small gains.”
His father, Bernie Bickerstaff, was a head coach before him. That helps.
As Brevin Knight, a former NBA point guard and now a commentator on Grizzlies telecasts, said: “He’s a young guy in age, but he’s not young in terms of NBA action. He’s been around the league since he was a young kid.”
Wednesday night at FedExForum the Grizzlies played the Spurs and while Bickerstaff was still without Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green and Jarell Martin because of injuries, he also didn’t have leading scorer Tyreke Evans because of illness.
Of course, on the other side the Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard, Rudy Gay and Manu Ginobili because of injuries and Popovich chose to rest LaMarcus Aldridge.
Bickerstaff ended up starting one rookie on a two-way contract (Ivan Rabb) and playing another (Myke Henry) in the rotation. And yes, all of it goes with the territory whether you’re a guy on an interim deal or you’re the NBA’s elder statesman, who has been coaching the Spurs since stepping in for Bob Hill early in the 1996-97 season.
“There’s not much preparation as the year goes on the NBA, as far as getting out and practicing,” Popovich said before Wednesday’s game here. “You get a little bit sloppy in a lot of different ways. So you use film, and if you have a shootaround you use that to try and keep people focused.
“But you focus on your own stuff,” he continued. “You can’t change things because somebody else is injured or you’re injured. You just have to do what you do.”
Popovich, in his first season, inherited a team that was 3-15 and then went 17-47 the rest of the way. He survived, the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan the following summer, and by 1998-99 San Antonio was winning the first of five NBA titles under Popovich.
And no, we do mention that to suggest it is the bar or should be a basis for comparison. Rather, to show that a hasty front office decision more than two decades ago would have forever altered the history of the NBA.
Bickerstaff became interim coach in Houston one season after the Rockets had been in the Western Conference Finals. Expectations were high. Even after that 4-7 stumble under McHale.
“Even more pressure to get back in the playoffs and have success in the playoffs,” Bickerstaff said.
The situation here is obviously different. After Wednesday’s 108-85 loss, the Grizzlies are 17-30. Short of divine assistance, they aren’t making the playoffs. And they will be trading Evans before the deadline and very possibly not playing Conley and Parsons again this season.
That’s a great scenario for organic tanking and enhancing their chances at a top-five pick in the NBA Draft Lottery this summer. But it doesn’t do much for Bickerstaff’s resume as he juggles all the moving parts and has to rely on a lot of young players.
“It’s a tough spot, but it’s an opportunity,” Knight said. “He has shown more than enough to be this team’s head coach going forward. Who else out there can you go it and would have the familiarity and the energy and the youth for the transition our team is going through? He has all those things.”
Perhaps because he is young and has a respected coaching pedigree, Bickerstaff seems at peace with the circumstances. After all, it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.
He has known since he was a kid and his father was getting hired, fired, hired, fired … that, well, coaching titles don’t mean much
“It’s one of those things where there are no perfect situations,” Bickerstaff said. “Especially in the middle of a season, to take over a position like this. But it’s not about your opportunity.
“It’s about doing what’s best for those 15 guys in the locker room, the organization, the fans. Whatever happens with my situation will happen at the end of the day. If we as a staff have done a good job, then whatever is will be and we will move forward knowing we did our job.”
Even if for only a small interval of time.