It's Fair to Question J.B. Bickerstaff's Coaching in Memphis
Following a red-hot start to the season for the Memphis Grizzlies, the team has fallen to .500, stumbling to 3-7 in their last 10 games. The strength of the Grizzlies' roster, especially on the wing, has been much-lamented as Memphis has tumbled from an early season perch atop the Southwest Division to the outside of the Western playoffs, but the real culprit is head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.
Memphis parlayed an injury-filled season into an uncommonly high draft pick, snagging a talented rookie that would fit in with Mike Conley and Marc Gasol after one down year. Memphis got their rookie with fourth overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr., but Bickerstaff hasn't put him into position to succeed. Some might blame inexperience, but Jackson Jr. isn't getting on the court in crunch time of close games, often after an apparently great first half of basketball; it is clear that Jackson Jr. is the Grizzlies third-best scoring threat already as a 19-year-old.
Overall, Bickerstaff's rotations are highly questionable. He's prone to overreaction, and will follow games where Memphis blew a double-digit lead by playing the entire active roster -- throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. There have been multiple instances of late leads turning to losses as the offense stagnates, and the coaching staff is either unwilling to take a timeout to turn the tide, or unable to make an adjustment to improve offensive execution.
In a pair of games in Sacramento, though, the failure of the coaching staff to think creatively and position the team to succeed has become crystallized. The first match-up came in just the fourth game of the season, and featured a one-time fourteen-point lead that ended in a five-point loss; the second came in the thirty-second game of the season, almost two months to the day later, when a nineteen-point lead turned into a three-point loss.
In the former, Bickerstaff watched his big lead deteriorate over a span of nine minutes from the end of the second quarter till the middle of the third: he only used his second timeout of that stretch when the lead had been cut to one. In the latter, a 74-57 romp late in the third quarter was allowed to atrophy into an 82-78 slugfest before Bickerstaff intervened. While one team adjusted to getting punched and resolved to dodge and counter-punch, Memphis went the opposite direction. That's on a coaching staff.
If Bickerstaff wants to keep his job as the calendar turns over to 2019, he needs to change his approach. At 18-18, Memphis isn't far from the playoff picture, but the Grizzlies are clearly moving in the wrong direction. Most teams would love the consistency he has enjoyed with his starting line-up -- trotting out the same five for tip-off 31 of their 36 games thus far this year -- however, with the recent swoon, it's a .500 starting line-up, and that won't cut it in the West.
Garrett Temple and Kyle Anderson may be putting up some of the best numbers of their careers, but that's clearly just not enough. Shelvin Mack has been a steadying presence off the bench -- right now the Grizzlies need more than steady. Dillon Brooks needs his minutes aggressively ramped up now that he's back from injury. A rookie like Jevon Carter should get a real look. Even Jackson Jr. isn't playing Conley and Gasol minutes -- and he has far more bounce in his young legs. When the known quantities fall short, the unknown must be given a chance.
The beginning of the season made it look as though 'Grit 'n Grind' might still be alive and well in Memphis, and indeed it may be -- but it also may be grinding to a halt. If Bickerstaff and company don't start coaching like their jobs are in jeopardy, they might find themselves looking for new ones soon.