The Memphis Grizzlies started the season as one of the NBA’s surprise hot teams, beating the Rockets and Warriors early and jumping out to a 5-1 record. Since then, Memphis has sputtered, going 2-11 with an eight-game losing streak that has coincided with an Achilles injury to star point guard Mike Conley.
The Grizzlies are ill-equipped to handle an injury to either of their stars, Conley or Marc Gasol, so their struggles in Conley’s absence come as little surprise. That’s not to say they aren’t frustrating and some of the losses still aren’t disappointing in recent weeks, as Memphis has dropped games to the lowly Mavericks and, most recently, the Nets in their losing streak.
Against the Nets, Memphis clawed to within five with eight minutes to play while Gasol took a breather on the bench. Coach David Fizdale decided he would try to ride with the reserve unit, led by Tyreke Evans, to the finish line, leaving his star big man on the bench for the entire fourth quarter. Fizdale insisted after the game it wasn’t supposed to be a message to Gasol and his decision was just an effort to ride the “momentum” of the unit on the floor.
The problem for Fizdale and the Grizzlies is that Gasol took his benching as something personal against him and wasn’t pleased by the decision, as he told reporters after the game.
“You take it personally,” Gasol said. “Obviously, you get frustrated, and I did, and mad and start wondering.”
Gasol went on to point out what hurt him the most was that he couldn’t be out there playing, and being on the court was the thing he valued the most. He also noted he didn’t think they would do the same thing with Conley, and it’s clear there’s a bit of a divide building between he and Fizdale.
It’s easy to get along when you’re winning, but this is the first time in a long time the Grizzlies appear to be on the outside looking in on the Western Conference playoff race. Memphis is now 12th in the conference at 7-12 and, while only 1.5 games back of the eighth, a continued slide would create a difficult hole to dig out of in the competitive conference. Whether Fizdale meant it or not, a message was sent to Gasol with his benching and it wasn’t well received.
Gasol has been one of the faces of the Grizzlies franchise for years, and he has two years (plus a player option) remaining on his deal. There’s always been the feeling that, so long as he wanted to stay there, Memphis would keep him, but teams come calling about the star center regularly and if he pushed to get out, Memphis may have to consider blowing up the final remnants of the Grit ‘N Grind era and start over.
They certainly don’t want to, and if Conley can come back sooner than later, they might not have to even think about that option. However, those teams that have had interest in Gasol previously and were told no will undoubtedly start circling and calling again if the Grizzlies are firmly out of the playoff picture when we start nearing the trade deadline.