MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace on Tuesday defended his decision to fire coach David Fizdale, saying the overall product — not the decision to bench star center Marc Gasol for an entire quarter of the team’s eighth straight loss — prompted the move.
Wallace also defended Gasol against criticism in which the center as labeled a “coach killer.” Gasol said Tuesday that he didn’t know about the firing until after the decision was made.
“Nobody likes to be in the situation we are in,” Gasol said. “We were not finding a way to win collectively, and we were breaking apart. Me and David didn’t see everything eye to eye all the time, but we both had the same intentions of making the team a collective thing. … We couldn’t find the formula to do that.”
Said Wallace: “There were bigger trends than just the relationship between the two of them. It just hasn’t been going well for us after a good start. And there was no indication that it was going to change magically any time soon.”
The Grizzlies on Monday unexpectedly fired Fizdale, the coach hired away from his assistant’s job with the Miami Heat with great fanfare in May 2016. Memphis (7-12) is mired in its longest skid since 2009 after starting the season 5-1. J.B. Bickerstaff is taking over as interim head coach.
The timing of the firing raised questions about Gasol’s role. The move came a day after the center was benched during the fourth quarter Sunday of a 98-88 loss to the Brooklyn Nets.
“Nobody likes to see a coach change during the season because you don’t have enough time to work on stuff,” Gasol said Tuesday. “I was a little bit shocked by it.”
The 7-foot center is the team’s leader in scoring, assists and rebounding, and Gasol had expressed confusion and anger over the late-game benching. He said he didn’t talk to Fizdale after the benching, and that “emotions were running very high” as they “crossed paths” in the weight room after the game.
“All I can do is win,” Gasol said. “Try to figure out on my part a responsibility of why we have the record we do. Try to keep the guys together, being encouraging to them, giving them trust. Showing more consistency, being a better leader all around.”
The Grizzlies are 14-26 since March 1 of last season, and questions have swirled over Memphis’ desire and level of play.
Memphis has suffered through injuries, most notably point guard Mike Conley missing the past seven games with a sore left Achilles. Free-agent signee Ben McLemore is just getting back into the rotation after missing the first 11 games rehabbing an injury. Starting forward JaMychal Green has returned after spraining his ankle in the first game of the season.
Still, the Grizzlies seemed to regress more than expected for a franchise that has reached the postseason each of the past seven seasons. The losing skid has featured poor performances in a quarter or two of games.
“Unfortunately, we are underperforming, [by] even the lowest of preseason expectations” Wallace said. “We are an organization of high expectations for our team, so a change had to be made.”
Wallace said Bickerstaff would hold the job the rest of the season.
“You can put any coach out there and it doesn’t really matter,” Gasol said. “Players need to execute. We don’t do that consistently. It is going to be hard. If you don’t want to play D, you aren’t going to play defense. Players need to be held accountable and take responsibility and ownership of their part.
“Lately, we’ve had too many ‘my bads,’ excuses. Obviously, this doesn’t work out, who knows what is next.”
Bickerstaff, who had been the Grizzlies’ associate coach, takes over hoping to reverse their struggles. Bickerstaff experienced a similar situation when he took over as interim coach of the Houston Rockets after Kevin McHale was fired shortly after the start of the 2015-16 season. He went 37-34 with the Rockets.
This promotion is much tougher personally for Bickerstaff. He and Fizdale are close friends, and Bickerstaff said he has known Fizdale since he was 17. Fizdale was in Bickerstaff’s wedding, and the interim coach came to Memphis to help Fizdale succeed. Bickerstaff called Monday a very difficult day personally because of that relationship, but now he has work to do.
“Through the emotions, you have to come up with a plan, and hopefully that plan rights the ship a little bit,” Bickerstaff said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.