Wise pick, “Cris” Broussard!
Get to da choppa! Forget about Predator, if I had to pick an 80’s Ahnold movie for the many deposed head coaches of tonight’s Hawks opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), I’d have to go with Raw Deal.
In that flick, during a catty exchange between Schwarzenegger and his Aqua-Netted damsel du jour, she tries him with some Tank Fan logic… “Losing builds character!” But he claps back with, “Winning improves your wardrobe!” Despite winning, and often exceeding reasonable expectations, Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, and David Fizdale barely had time to load up at JoS. A. Bank by the time the Grizzlies’ axe came for them.
Hollins guided the Blue Bears to their best-ever regular season finish, 56 wins, and their first trip to the conference finals, as a 5-seed, in 2013. Alas, his contract expired and wasn’t renewed, due in part to the cardinal sin of getting swept by Gregg Popovich’s Spurs.
Joerger took just two seasons to get the team back to 55 wins. But one series victory over the course of three seasons wasn’t enough for a Memphis management team whose Commitment to Excellence is ringing hollower than anything you’d see on an Oakland gridiron these days.
Fizdale thought he had the town wrapped around his finger following his first full season, in which his fiery 7-seeded Grizzlies took Pop’s Spurs to the brink of elimination in 2017’s opening playoff round. But along the way, he fell out with Memphian Marc Gasol, the stretchy pivot player who, by the year, is becoming more of a local civic mascot than an NBA All-Star candidate. The plop-plop that relieved Coach Fiz of his duties came just 19 games into last season, not long after Mike Conley went down and out (for the season, we would later discover) due to a heel injury.
Conley’s planned replacement was Mario Chalmers (“???”); Gasol was to be relieved by the undersized Jarell Martin. But somehow, the failure to conduct alchemy that would turn this weathered Grizzlies outfit into an annual Finals contender fell squarely upon the head coach. As has become custom around here. You could almost make a good blues song about it all. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes well with J.B. Bickerstaff.
“Oh, baby! Mmmm… gimme some o’ dem Bickerstaff Blues!” For Coach J.B., whose initials somehow don’t stand for “Junior Bernie”, the feeling of standing on shaky ground can’t be unfamiliar. Bickerstaff enters his third season as an NBA head coach, but for the first time, he has kicked off the season in that top-dog role. He has twice been the beneficiary when GMs/owners got a quick case of cold feet, in 2015 with Houston (when Kevin McHale got the early heave-ho) and last year after taking the reins from Fizdale. He certainly knows how this goes as well as anybody.
Robert Pera, the owner who himself was an uncertainty to hang around the Volunteer State this time last year, signed Bickerstaff to a three-year deal after the 2016-17 season concluded, despite the thin and injury-riddled Griz going 15-48 under the coach’s watch. But Pera set the bar absurdly high, even with the health status of the returning perennial near-All-Star Conley, and Gasol, still up-in-the-air, even before his organization knew what they would do with the #4 pick in the NBA Draft.
“I see no reason why we can’t return to being a 50-win-plus team,” Pera boldly declared to Grind City Media, the team-run media outlet. And no, he’s not talking about a “process,” he means, by April 2019. He added, “I have confidence in (Bickerstaff) to be that centerpiece of the culture we want to build.” We’ll get to see just how long that confidence wavers.
Chandler Parsons was not Bickerstaff’s fault. Neither was Ben McLemore. Stringing along JaMychal Green in 2017 restricted free agency to the point where the scrappy young pro was sapped of motivation, just when the team needed someone to fill in for departed icon Zach Randolph, wasn’t a coach-created problem. Nor was keeping a red-hot Tyreke Evans around for a pointless close to last season. Nor was rewarding former Hawk Shelvin Mack this summer after a disastrous run in Orlando. Nor was relying on Chalmers last year to do what they expect Mack to do this season.
Having next-to-nothing to show for three first-round selections between 2014 and 2016, or any first-rounders since Conley was taken back in 2007, can’t be laid at Bickerstaff’s feet. Or, to clarify, shouldn’t. The myriad of draft and free agency blunders this franchise has made has a common thread, and it’s not some sideline taskmaster.
It’s Chris Wallace, the general manager who gets to thrive off the past success of Gasol and Conley, and the mystique of having some hand in setting the foundation for the Celtics’ last championship. In a world where What Have You Done for Me Lately has become the norm, Wallace, and his sidekick stat-head boss John Hollinger, stand out as inexplicable exceptions.
In this space, I’ve long tied Wallace to the whipping post just as I have his welcome-overstayed peers in Washington, Sacramento, and Chicago. But none of my bi-annual griping should be seen as a suggestion that Memphis should pull a Suns and start pink-slipping people in the first month of the season. I’m just saying that when the knee-jerk reaction comes, and you can rest assured it will, you can be sure it’s the coach that gets the Raw Deal.
What happens when Gasol sours, again, this time because lottery pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. is deservedly gnawing away at the soon-to-be 34-year-old’s floor time? When summer free agent gamble Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson, filling Memphis’ oft-vacant swingman role, fails to deliver here, at the FedEx Forum, by elevating his level, and pace, of play?
What happens when an overreliance on Mack, Parsons, human lunchpail Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and the “Brooks Brothers” (Dillon and MarShon) to keep Memphis in games offensively, has exactly the effect everyone ought to expect?
Wait, wait, don’t give away the ending, Memphis! Just promise me that, this time, it will involve some bad dude in a helicopter, a grenade launcher, some C-4, and Schawrzenegger in a beret, slowly walking off as he lights his cigar.
By the way, how does a Washington Wizard play a part in this revolving Shakespearean tragedy? Bradley Beal isn’t the first misguided soul to overestimate the value of Jeff “Almost Like LeBron” Green. Wallace and the Grizzlies departed with a loosely-protected (top-8) draft pick, in a 2015 three-team deal to bring Green, from Boston, into the fold, where he quickly became the second-best J. Green on Memphis’ roster.
They tried to recoup some value a year later, by getting a lottery-protected 2019 first-rounder in swapping Green for the Clippers’ Lance Stephenson. Oh, but then they gave that pick away, too, months later, to – you guessed it -- those same Celtics. That pick was relinquished for the rights to rent second-round rookies Deyonta Davis (discarded, along with McLemore and another second-rounder, this summer for Temple) and Rade Zagorac (just flat-out discarded, before last season started). Does Danny have some compromising pictures of you that we (don’t) need to know about, Chris?
The looming probability of putting yet another lottery pick (9-through-14, this time) into Ainge’s hands could quickly change the calculus for the Grizzlies (0-1), particularly as the sobering reality of a not-50-wins season, or even a playoff spot in the Wild Wild Western Conference, comes into view. Who gets burned at fire sale time? Does Memphis find takers for some of the veteran contracts? Can they make deals without further tampering with their future? So long as Wallace continues running the show, I have a lingering suspicion about how this phase ends.
Wallace will probably be here, regardless, as local reports suggest he’s been reduced to a media figurehead in lieu of Pera’s guys, including the G-League GM. But his and Hollinger’s long-term job statuses may have been buoyed by the second-biggest Atlanta Compromise in history.
ESPN draft insider Jonathan Givony reported that Travis Schlenk and the Hawks’ front office was dead-set on drafting Jackson, but Atlanta’s fan-frenzied ownership clamored for the showmanship that Luka Doncic could provide. Splitting the baby, reportedly, is why Trae Young is rocking the three-tone triangles, while Triple-J dipped to Memphis.
Surprising many with his jumper, Jackson outshined Young, and everybody else on the SummerHawks, in their teams’ July exhibition matchup. The 19-year-old rookie cooled shortly thereafter, and is he expected to be brought along slowly as a backup behind Green and Gasol. That is, except on nights when the Grizzlies are getting grounded-and-pounded inside.
Wednesday’s season-opening game found Memphis getting gashed in the paint, 60-16, on the road in Indiana. Gasol was unable to even show up on the scoreboard until the third quarter, where he contributed all his (team-high!) 13 points in a resounding 111-83 defeat. Jackson chipped in 10 points, most of his offense coming from the free throw line (2-for-6 FGs, 6-for-6 FTs).
Giving up all those interior points wouldn’t have been so horrific, had the Grizzlies been capable of shooting above 30 percent from the field (29.8 team FG%) themselves. Finding a perimeter defender to cool off Bojan Bogdanovic (3-for-3 on threes, team-high 19 points for the Pacers), would not have hurt either.
Fortunately for the Grizzlies (for Bickerstaff, really), they return home to face the Hawks. Or, at least one would think they’re fortunate. Some people have “bad hair days”, but Atlanta had itself a “bad hair quarter” in the second frame of Wednesday’s tipoff game. Hemorrhaging 49 points along the way to a 126-107 loss, the Hawks (0-1) had the Knicks looking like the Harlem Globetrotters before halftime. I could swear I saw Curly Neal assisting Tim Hardaway, Jr. on some of his 31 points.
Hasty shot selection, wild passing out of traps, and deficient transition D combined to allow the Knicks to sprint away in a New York minute. You will often hear coaches talk about young players improving their games “once the game slows down for them,” but that notion is merely figurative for Coach Lloyd Pierce.
Pierce wants his charges to charge ahead with a high-tempo (ATL-NYK second-highest pace of the season-openers, behind only LAL-POR), but understands that driving full-bore along the learning curve at this speed will lead to some hair-raising hairpin turns during games. The T-n-T duo of Trae (5-for-14 FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs, minus-20 in his official debut) and Taurean (7-for-15 FGs, 6 assists, 6 TOs for Prince, minus-23 @ NYK), may literally get to see things “slow down” tonight, if Conley and Memphis (MEM-IND second-slowest season-opener) play a lot of keep-away with the rock.
With Conley and the high-post-passing Gasol setting up plays, and Bickerstaff espousing the values of player movement and quality reads in lieu of putting the ball on the floor, Memphis intends to again keep turnovers low (7 TOs @ IND), which could present a sizable advantage against a Hawks squad (24 team TOs @ NYK) that is still getting acclimated.
For the Grizzlies, it is a matter of taking advantage of any miscues and defensive lapses by this young Atlanta team, not allowing them to hang around for four quarters. After suffering a 44-point paint deficit two nights ago, if you’re not building an interior advantage versus a Hawks team that’s rehabbing of trio of big-man ankles (John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon, probably Omari Spellman) and pressing Prince and two-way stalwart Alex Poythress into 4-man duties, you’re doing it wrong.
They’ve got six road games among the first nine on their schedule, including visits to Utah (twice) and Golden State. But this home opener at the Grindhouse, against the half-baked Hawks, is almost custom-made for the Grizzlies to lick their wounds after stumbling out of the gate in Indy. If they find a way to blow it tonight in front of the home crowd, and then fail to turn it around anytime in the next couple weeks? You know how the saying goes, J.B. -- “Hasta la vista, baby!”
Let’s Go Hawks!