On Saturday, August 15th, the New Orleans Pelicans announced the end of head coach Alvin Gentry’s tenure and executive vice president David Griffin made clear that the organization will be in no rush to hire a successor, preaching patience in their process.
“We will not be quick with this at all. This is not a rush,” Griffin said in response to a question regarding the timetable. “We have a job that we believe is going to be the most attractive in the NBA, quite frankly. With all of the candidates still in the (Orlando) bubble – and there are some that may not be – candidates you may want to talk to are still with teams, in many circumstances.
If creating a culture of toughness and accountability is a priority for the New Orleans Pelicans, placing a call to David Fizdale should be one as well.
It wasn’t that long ago when Fizdale was considered one of the NBA’s rising stars in coaching.
After serving an eight-season apprenticeship under Erik Spoelstra with the Miami Heat, a run that included two championships and 399 wins, Fizdale took over has head coach of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2016.
Upon replacing Dave Joeger, another name that will come up often during this coaching search, Fizdale led the Grizzlies to 43 wins, and a postseason appearance where seventh-seeded Memphis pushed the San Antonio Spurs to six games before bowing out.
The Grizzlies were a team in transition. As the “Grit N Grind” era came to a close, mainstays Tony Allen and Zach Randolph were gone that offseason, along with key reserve Vince Carter. The rest of the core was soon to follow.
Out the gate, Memphis got off to a solid start in 2017-18. They took five of their first six, including wins over Golden State, and Houston twice. And they did it with a lineup consisting of Mike Conley Jr., James Ennis, Marc Gasol, Andrew Harrison, and Jarell Martin.
Conley was injured shortly thereafter, playing in only six more games the rest of the season. The Grizzlies faded quickly, and Fizdale was fired after only 19 games and a 7-12 record.
Though there were reports of a rift between Fizdale and Memphis-icon Gasol (ironically over the coach’s desire to have Gasol take more perimeter shots), players on the Grizzlies and from around the league were quick to come to his defense.
Just as he had come to theirs in the past.
It was Mike Conley who reached out to Fizdale in the early hours of the morning to insist that he and his teammates pay the $30,000 fine levied by the league.
Memphis had become one of the more unstable franchises in the league, despite its on court success, and it was a lot easier to move on from Fizdale than address the failures of the franchise.
Ultimately, Fizdale was right about the Grizzlies. It was time to start moving on from the past. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph have retired. Conley was traded this past offseason to Utah, after Gasol was moved to Toronto during the 2018-29 season.
Over the first eight seasons of his career, Marc Gasol attempted a total of 66 three-pointers. Since the 2016-17 season, he’s made 369 while shooting almost 37 percent from distance. Gasol also hasn’t been an All-Star since Fizdale’s first season.
As someone who follows the Knicks closely, I had conflicted emotions when Fizdale was hired in May of 2018. I wanted Fizdale to be the one who pulled the franchise out of its decades-long death spiral into irrelevancy, but it’s the Knicks.
Reports at the time indicated that Fizdale had turned down offers from the Atlanta Hawks, Phoenix Suns, and Charlotte Hornets. He was also rumored to be on the short list of candidates for the Milwaukee Bucks job that ultimately went to Mike Budenholzer.
The Knicks were a disaster from the outset. The roster was led by an overpaid role player in Tim Hardaway, as an injured Kristaps Porzingis missed the entire campaign. First round pick Kevin Knox was a disappointment, and New York tried and failed with 30 different starting lineups on its way to a 17-65 record.
Yet, hope persisted that the Knicks could win the lottery and claim Zion Williamson in the draft, or that they could finish high enough to become an enticing trade partner to pry Anthony Davis out of New Orleans.
Instead, both New Orleans and Memphis jumped past the Knicks, leaving them with RJ Barrett, aka “The Maple Mamba.”
New York then essentially punted on this season before it began.
After striking out on the big names in free agency, the Knicks used their offseason to surround Mitchell Robinson, their lone bright spot from the previous season, with volume-shooting, ball-stopping mercenaries.
A 4-18 start doomed Fizdale. The Knicks were dead last offensively and 23rd defensively when he was fired on Dec. 5, 2019. After lasting for 101 games in Memphis, he was out after 104 in New York.
Some things only exist to destroy. Hopes. Dreams. Careers. That’s just what the Knicks do.
Despite how things have ended at his previous two stops, there is still plenty of reason to believe that Fizdale can be a high-level head coach in the NBA.
The 46-year-old is no retread. He took on two highly disfunctional situations and exited both with his reputation intact.
Why is that? Why such loyalty for a coach with a career 71-134 record?
Fizdale is known for his incredible passion and ability to communicate with players, Gasol notwithstanding.
When he was hired by Memphis, he spent the first two months focused on building the culture of the team, something that has to change in New Orleans.
“He’s clear with his message about his culture,” Gasol said after the team’s first practice together in 2016. “He’s coming from a place that went four straight times to the Finals. We haven’t talked much about X’s and O’s. The last two months, it’s been about culture and trust. His message has been so profound from Day 1…and I needed that.”
“He’s just real,” said then-Grizzlies forward Chandler Parsons. “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, and I think the way he delivers everything is key.”
Culture. Communication. Honesty. Accountability.
Without those elements, there is no foundation for success. Those values create the tone for the organization and the template for the types of staff and players you bring into the franchise.
Fizdale described his type of player when he was introduced in New York.
“Long and tough. But he’s gotta have an edge to him. I don’t want soft guys here,” he said. “I want guys that have an edge to them, that enjoy defending. That get joy out of locking teams down.”
A couple of the criticisms aimed at Alvin Gentry over the years were his commitment to allowing players to have incredible freedom on the court, and his lack of definition for roles within the rotation.
That hasn’t been something said about Fizdale.
Vince Carter characterized Fizdale as “very upfront and forward with everyone as far as what he expects of us,” and praised him for his ability to implement a new system.
“He just wants to win, and his approach is all about winning, period,” Carter said. “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.”
That translates to his philosophy on the court. Fizdale was one of the driving forces behind Chris Bosh’s transition from low post dynamo to stretch four in Miami.
But everything starts and ends with defense for David Fizdale.
He turns teams around immediately on that end of the floor. Memphis improved from 19th to seventh in his first season, even while starting 25 different lineups that year.
In a 2017 column for CBS Sports, James Hebert wrote about Fiz’s desire to set a physical tone early. He encouraged aggression, sometimes by opening games by having his guards pick up their men with half-court or full-court pressure.
Fizdale stresses the importance of keeping turnovers low and not allowing opponents to convert turnovers into points — something the Pelicans have struggled with mightily for a decade.
Over the last 11 seasons, New Orleans has finished 21st or worse in points allowed off of turnovers five times, including finishing 20, 27, and 29 the last three seasons.
In his first season in Memphis, the Grizzlies improved from ninth to sixth in that category and were ranked first when he was let go in 2018.
He repeated the trick in his first season in New York, improving the Knicks from 23rd to 16th in the NBA.
The Pelicans have also allowed teams to get out and run with little resistance. In Alvin Gentry’s first season, New Orleans ranked seventh in fast break points allowed. In the four seasons that followed, they finished 16th, 26th, 25th, and 28th.
Memphis was flat in points given up on the break in Fizdale’s first season, but the Knicks improved from 13th to 3rd.
If the Pelicans are going to get closer to reaching their immense potential, it’s going to start with a commitment to defense. Fizdale has shown that even with a rotating cast of characters, that his defensive principles remain consistent, and that they translate.
Offensively, the understanding of what Fizdale wants to do is a bit more murky. Neither Memphis nor New York supplied him with really versatile or explosive offensive talent.
He ran a modern NBA offense that created dribble hand offs and isolation plays in New York. Unfortunately, the Knicks just didn’t have the ballhandling or shooting to execute. Fizdale was criticized for his lineups that slowed the pace that he was trying to accelerate, and for giving in to some of the players’ worst instincts.
With the Knicks, Fizdale ran a system that he attempted to tailor itself to the individual talents of each player.
One of the more consistent features of his offense were sets designed to get the point guard moving downhill.
Here’s one for Frank Ntilikina, a more passive guard, typically reluctant to shoot.
And this time he creates space for Emmanuel Mudiay for a strong drive to the hoop.
Getting into the ear of Lonzo Ball, who will be entering the final year of his rookie deal and trying to prove last season’s highs were no fluke, is a must. Forcing Lonzo to take advantage of his quickness and athleticism by removing some of his ability to freelance, could be just what the doctor ordered.
But the staple of the David Fizdale offense is the double pindown.
It’s basic but effective for teams with versatile offensive players and is a go-to play that can be set up at any time. Most importantly, it allows players to do what they do best. The Pelicans were often confused when the first action of their offense was denied, and the end of shot clock scramble became all too familiar.
The Pelicans need to go back to the basics. They need to learn the responsibility that comes with freedom to make mistakes on the offensive end.
Fizdale’s offense isn’t dependent on the three-pointer, but he hasn’t run from it either. The Grizzlies finished one spot behind the Pelicans in three point attempts per game in 2016-17. The Knicks did the same in 2018-19.
Fizdale has the capacity to expand the offense and any coach hired should expect be given the resources to assemble a quality assistant coaching staff, so concerns on that end shouldn’t be too great at this time.
The Pelicans have to find a leader, someone who can inspire the team and be the public representation of what the next era of Pelicans basketball is going to look like.
I believe that person is David Fizdale. No coach has a perfect resume. They need a combination of talent, timing, skill, and preparation.
If he’s learned the lessons taught by his previous two stops, the timing is right for Fizdale to finally make those who have believed in him so strongly over the years look prescient.