MEMPHIS – Having gone through it before doesn’t make it easier for J.B. Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff is attempting to right the ship in Memphis. And he’s doing it having been named interim head coach of the Grizzlies after one of his best friends — David Fizdale — was fired 20 games into the season.
Bickerstaff, who played for the Gophers and was a Timberwolves assistant for four seasons, has done this before. He was named Houston Rockets interim head coach 11 games into the 2015-15 season after Kevin McHale was fired. He was 37-34 in that position, guiding the Rockets to a 41-41 record, securing the eighth and final Western Conference playoff spot.
But the personal nature of this go-around adds a layer of difficulty.
“Most people know that Fizz and I go way back to when I was 17 years old,” said Bickerstaff, who was Fizdale’s associate head caoch. “He was in my wedding. But the thing that has been fortunate for me is he’s been super supportive. We haven’t had to go through any awkward moments where he was upset. The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘Now go do a good job.’ ”
Fizdale was fired with the Grizzlies on an eight-game losing streak. It was that eighth loss, to the Brooklyn Nets Nov. 26, when Fizdale benched center Marc Gasol in the fourth quarter, something the veteran was very upset about.
The Grizzlies announced the coaching change the following day.
It was going to be a challenge this season anyway. Looking to retool on the fly, the Grizzlies let veterans Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Vince Carter go, trying to get younger. A thinner roster was rocked when point guard Mike Conley was hurt.
The schedule didn’t help Bickerstaff. The Grizzlies lost back-to-back games to San Antonio and one to Cleveland after he took over. But his experience in Houston has taught him this:
“Just take things in small steps,” he said. “You’re not going to change things overnight. You need to play attention to the small things. If you continue to make small gains, by the end of it, those small gains become huge gains. And it will ultimately show up in the win-loss column.”
To Bickerstaff, his responsibility now is to the players, the organization and the fans. Right now, he said, that has to be in the forefront.
Not that it’s easy.
“You have your emotions that are involved in it,” said Bickerstaff, 38. “You have feelings. We came here to do something together. We didn’t come here to do something alone. So you go through that emotion. But you realize you have a responsibility to these guys who are out there on the court. It’s one of the messages that Fizz always says: It’s bigger than me. That’s the position we’re in.”
And the future? Bickerstaff said he can’t worry about whether the job will be his after this season.
“You can’t let it affect you,” he said. “The most important thing is doing what’s best for this team. It’s not about me getting a job of whatever. It’s trying to get this group to have as much fun as I can, and reach their potential.”
Bickerstaff said he has kept in contact with Tubby Smith, his coach at Minnesota and now the head coach at the University of Memphis. Smith attended Monday’s game.
• Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen, a five-time WNBA All-Star and part of four WNBA titles, will be a guest analyst for eight Timberwolves telecasts this season. She will start Wednesday in Los Angeles for the game with the Clippers, taking part in the pregame show, then joining the broadcast team of Dave Benz and Jim Petersen at courtside for the game. She will also join Benz and Petersen for games on Dec. 12, Jan. 1, Jan. 14, Feb. 7, Feb. 23, March 2 and April 5. Whalen did this one before, two seasons ago, in a game against the Clippers.
• Forward Nemanja Bjelica missed his seventh game because of a left mid-foot sprain. He was not with the team in Memphis, but will join the Wolves in Los Angeles.