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Know The Coaching Candidate: David Fizdale

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Take this for data.

Memphis Grizzlies v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Here are things players have said about David Fizdale, plus one of the six current coaches to have led a team to a championship:

  • Chandler Parsons: “He’s just real. He’s such a realist. He calls it how he sees it. There’s no sugarcoating with him. He’s got this aura and this attitude that he’s young and he’s cool and he knows how to relate to players, but without going nuts, without screaming, without degrading players. He has a way of getting his message across...the way he delivers everything is key.”
  • Mike Conley: “[He only criticizes] because he wants the best for you...it’s hard to dislike a guy like that. He’s constantly preaching service and trying to help other people and wanting to see the next guy succeed. When you have that kind of a leader, it’s easier for your team to follow. It’s easy to want to jump on board and do whatever he asks you to do because you know he’s on the other end trying to make sure that you are in the best position that you can be in.”
  • Vince Carter: ”He just wants to win, and his approach is all about winning, period. He’s been to the mountaintop, so he understands what it takes as a coach to put us in the position to win. He’s all about making it as easy as possible for players, whatever that entails.”
  • Parsons again: ”At the end of the day, you want to play good for him because you love him. You have a personal relationship with him outside of basketball. Not only is he a great coach, but just a great person, fun to be around, and he understands everything that we’re going through off the court and he understands the positions that we need to be in to succeed on the court.”
  • Erik Spoelstra: “Fiz is a great fit anywhere. He’s a brilliant basketball mind that has exceptional, gold-standard level communication skills. He’s one of my best friends. But I say that objectively. I just think he’s one of the most talented coaches I’ve been around. I feel very grateful that we had an opportunity to work together for so long...I hope he goes West (laughs). That’s the kind of respect I have for him. I don’t want him going anywhere in the East.”

What team wouldn’t want a coach with such reviews? The only one he’s ever coached, for one. The issues that led to Fizdale’s firing after 101 games in Memphis — and despite the Marc Gasol: Coach Killer rumor becoming the Salieri-murdered-Mozart of our time, there were multiple issues — both indict and absolve him. 1100 miles separate Madison Square Garden and FedEx Forum, but there are enough shadowy reflections that it’s worth examining whether the 43-year-old is a good fit in New York.

Fizdale says his coaching roots stretch back to a cousin named Bernard who made him study film of the great St. John’s teams of the 1980s, particularly a former point guard who God forbid if his name doesn’t pop up whenever we talk about any of these coaching candidates. “Your [sic] half white...and you’re slow,” Bernard told him. “You’ve got to watch Mark Jackson if you want to play basketball. You got to learn how to play like Mark Jackson, because you’re never going to be fast.” Fizdale played four years at the University of San Diego, where he put up Frank Ntilikina stats without any of the length, youth or Frenchness.

Coach Fizdale broke in as a 29-year-old assistant in 2003 with Eric Musselman’s Golden State Warriors. A year later he began a four-year stint assisting Mike Woodson in Atlanta. Fizdale joined then-rookie head coach Erik Spoelstra’s staff in 2008 and spent eight years in Miami, the last two as associate head coach. In 2016 he reached the big time, succeeding Dave Joerger in Memphis, winning 43 games and giving the Spurs a tough go over six first-round playoff games.

The Grizzlies’ golden age began under Lionel Hollins, under whom Memphis fashioned a top-10, sometimes top-3 defense. This continued under Joerger until his last year, when the Grizz slipped to 19th in defensive rating. In Fizdale’s first season the team reasserted its identity, rising to 7th. Conley and Gasol enjoyed career years, even as the team’s offense transitioned from two-pointers in the paint toward an embrace of the three-point shot; Gasol himself went from 66 attempts over his first eight seasons to 268 in 2016-17. Fizdale seemed a success, both on the bench and virally.

But even after opening this season 5-1, including wins over Golden State and Houston, pink flags, if not red, were being raised. “[H]e had rotation issues,” said Joe Mullinax, site manager for the Grizzly Bear Blues, on Mark King’s 3andD podcast. “He had schematic issues. The defensive scheme in particular was struggling at times to be executed. On offense, there was a lot of standing around in pick-and-roll, isolation-type situations.”

A sore left Achilles knocked Mike Conley out of commission and paved the way for an 11-game losing streak that effectively ended the Grizzlies’ run as a Western Conference middleweight. It was the eighth game of that losing streak, a 98-88 defeat to the Nets where Fizdale played Deyonta Davis over Gasol late in a winnable game, that saw their relationship go boom. The next day he was fired. “Sometimes when you take a risk, you may (upset) a player or two,” Fizdale told The Commercial Appeal. “That’s part of this position. I can own the decision and I have my reasons why. I’m trying to win a game. I’m desperate.”

Counterpoint: Big Spain has been a fixture in Memphis basketball since playing high school ball at Lausanne Collegiate School. He may feel more entrenched where he is than your average $100M NBA player. “Gasol had been chafing for a long time,” a person familiar with the player’s thinking told Bleacher Report. “He had two pretty good coaches in Dave and Lionel, and he felt [Fizdale] was a little bit of a [phony].”

Beyond Xs and Os, coaches are liaisons, dealing 24/7 with the players, the front office, the ownership, the trainers, the medical staff, the media, public relations — the list goes on and on. One relationship does not a coaching candidate make. But if the Gasol incident didn’t cause Fizdale to be fired, it at least suggests correlations to other issues, issues worth examining for any parallels that might be made with the Knicks. Spoiler alert: there are.

It’s easy to frame Gasol vs. Fizdale as a conflict of personalities. Undoubtedly, tensions existed. “I don’t think [Gasol] was the type of leader Fizdale wanted,” Mullinax said on King’s podcast. “Mike Conley is. Marc Gasol is not. And those personalities just didn’t jibe. And you can say the same thing about Dave Joerger. You could say the same thing about Lionel Hollins. Marc Gasol is kind of an acquired taste, in terms of how he is. You could say the same thing about Pau Gasol ten years ago. A similar situation, in terms of how he viewed the game, how he viewed his role, and what he was supposed to be in the organization...Marc does have a challenging personality.”

I’d wager all the money in my pocket versus all the money in yours that if Gasol were in the last year of his deal, or if Memphis actually ever paid their coaches legit salaries (by NBA standards) the Grizzlies would have found a way for player and coach to make it work. What if Fizdale gets the Knick job and Kristaps Porzingis, in year two of his nine-figure deal, starts clashing with him? Would Porzingis have any reason to feel any less entitled than the much older Gasol did? Would one imagine the Knicks, who over 35 years have only had four coaches enter a third full season, to be any less likely to fire Fizdale?

“I cannot remember another coach in NBA history who quit so early in his career. The first thing you learn when you become an NBA coach is to come to an understanding with the team’s elite players. The second is not to pit players against each other. They will take sides, but inevitably will side against the coach. Fizdale would say stuff about Gasol behind his back to his teammates. By the time, he was ready to say what he had to say in front of the whole team, Gasol already had been alerted.”

Conley seemed to like Fizdale, and Conley’s on the books for $32M-$66M more than Gasol. It’s hard to imagine the firing boiled down to Gasol simply not liking the coach. Fizdale spent most of of his formative years with the Heat under Pat Riley, not exactly a bastion of happy endings and seamless transitions. It’s possible what Fizdale learned as “culture” came across as callousness.

Two weeks ago, the Knicks front office laid out what it’s looking for in the next coach. “It has to be someone that understands today’s player,” Steve Mills said, “and today’s player is very different than yesterday’s player. You have to be a person that understands who these guys are, where they come from, what their basketball journey is.” The guy Parsons, Conley and Carter talked about at the top of this article sounds like the guy Mills and Scott Perry want. The guy who lost Gasol and may have made a bad situation worse by politicking in the locker room? He doesn’t.

  • When Robert Pera sought to purchase the Grizzlies in 2012, he partnered with two men, Daniel Straus and Steve Kaplan, who assumed 30% ownership. As a condition of that deal, the minority partners could exercise a buy/sell clause allowing either to become majority owner by naming the price of Pera’s shares and having a 2-3 month window to buy him out. Right around the time of the Fizdale firing, news broke that the clause had been triggered. The team was not only dead in the water on the court last season, but management was basically handcuffed making any moves while the ownership question was unsettled. Pera recently announced he is retaining ownership, so maybe now there’s a plan in place going forward. Maybe if the ownership question had been settled before last season, things would have turned out differently for Fiz. Maybe New York would be a stabler environment? What a time to be alive.

Fizdale’s no ingénue. He knows how fast and unforgiving the business of basketball can be. Jerry Stackhouse chose coaching in the G-League over assisting on an NBA bench precisely because he was afraid of the invisibility that comes with the latter gig. Fiz waited 10 years for his shot and now, due to numerous factors having little to nothing to do with his actual job performance, he may never get a second chance. “I don’t really know how picky I can be,” he said, smiling. “I really just wanna get back on that sideline.” Deep down, we all just want to be loved.

In isolation, an uncertain ownership and an unhappy player shouldn’t determine a head coach’s viability. While James Dolan’s ownership is so assured it’s the stuff of Parmenides’ dreams, the Knick front office’s ever-changing nature would make Heraclitus blush. When was the last time New York had a head coach and star player on the same page? When was the last time such a pairing was given time to grow together and create a culture?

In 1995 the Knicks hired Don Nelson, a Hall of Fame coach, to replace Pat Riley. Nelson tried to promote Anthony Mason and Hubert Davis to greater roles, turned off Patrick Ewing and John Starks in the process, and was fired after 59 games. The issue wasn’t Nelson’s ability; it was him trying to pull the team in a direction they didn’t want to go. Jeff Van Gundy isn’t a better coach than Nelson, but he was a better fit. Is Fizdale the victim of the same?

It’s difficult evaluating Fizdale’s candidacy. The only team he’s coached was for basically one season, and that team wasn’t clay waiting to be molded in his image. It was already defined and formed. The first time his reign hit a rough spot, there was no stable ownership in place to help manage the situation. With a veteran-laden team slipping into a lost season, was the organization invested in turning things around and fighting for an eighth seed? Or would the powers-that-be, knowing their next meaningful present lies somewhere in the future, knowing their best chance to attract (underpaid) superstar talent is the draft, decide to cut ties with a (relatively) inexpensive coach who has no ties to their present or future?

Given the availability of unsullied young coaching prospects like Jerry Stackhouse and James Borrego and accomplished candidates like Mike Budenholzer and David Blatt, Fizdale seems like a bit of a long shot. Then again, Kenny Smith and Juwan Howard were interviewed. Experience is just time, and time is relative. Indiana Jones said it best.

Somebody say Indiana Jones?

Whether Fizdale is overlooked or underwhelming, it’s up to the Knick front office to buck history and hire a meaningful, sustainable coach. In a little under a year in power, Mills and Perry have been refreshingly, if not un-spectacularly, competent. Making the right hire would elevate them in the fan base’s vantage from shoulder shrugs to top men. That’d be nice.