MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff believes he can make the franchise competitive immediately with a quick recovery from a 60-loss season.
That’s what his boss expects as well.
“We’re going into it with an optimistic view and we’re planning on success,” Bickerstaff said Wednesday, one day after having the interim tag removed from his title. “We’re planning on a playoff run. There’s no doubt about it.”
The Grizzlies announced Tuesday that Bickerstaff would remain their head coach after he worked the past 63 games of Memphis’ 2017-18 season on an interim basis. Bickerstaff began the 2017-18 season as an associate head coach on the staff of David Fizdale, who was fired in late November .
Memphis went 15-48 under Bickerstaff and finished the season 22-60, posting the second-worst record in the NBA and ending a string of seven straight playoff appearances. General manager Chris Wallace said he was encouraged by Bickerstaff’s approach during a season derailed by injuries.
“You learn a great deal about people in adversity, much more than watching them while they’re winning,” Wallace said. “J.B. was given a very difficult task this year when he took over as interim head coach and guided us through some very choppy waters. He kept the team together through very difficult times.”
Wallace also noted the Grizzlies shouldn’t have similar struggles next season.
Veteran guard Mike Conley should be healthy again after injuries to his left heel and Achilles tendon caused him to play just 12 games this year. Memphis’ poor performance this season also assures the Grizzlies an early pick in the NBA draft to join a nucleus that includes Conley and 33-year-old center Marc Gasol.
“Starting next year, we want to get back in the playoffs again and be a relevant team that’s pushing to win the Western Conference and go on,” Wallace said. “We think we’re well equipped to get back in again. We get Mike Conley healthy. Marc Gasol still has many good years in front of him. We’ve got a number of young players that have come on to develop. We’re going to have a top-five pick. We’re going to be able to use a midlevel exception.
“We’ve got a lot of tools to work with, and a lot of the heavy lifting has already been done.”
Bickerstaff, 39, is happy to have an entire offseason to prepare for his assignment, a luxury he didn’t have in his previous head-coaching stints.
He went 37-34 as the Houston Rockets’ interim coach in 2015-16 after Kevin McHale was fired. Then came the interim assignment with Memphis this season. Now he finally gets all the advantages that come with starting a season as a head coach.
“You truly can’t imagine how free and open and clear my mind is now because you have an opportunity to prepare,” said Bickerstaff, the son of former longtime NBA coach Bernie Bickerstaff. “In any situation that you’re going into, especially a high-pressure situation, the most important thing you want to do is have a moment to chart out your journey.”
Bickerstaff said Conley and Gasol give the Grizzlies a pair of “All-Star-caliber bookends” that make Memphis’ roster different from the typical lottery team. Bickerstaff also praised the way forward JaMychal Green has established himself in the NBA and noted the way younger players such as Jarell Martin, Andrew Harrison and Dillon Brooks developed during a trying season.
He expects Conley to come back with something to prove after an injury-riddled season.
“People have kind of forgotten just how good Mike really is,” Bickerstaff said.
Bickerstaff hopes the ballhandling abilities of Harrison, MarShon Brooks, Wayne Selden and Chandler Parsons could enable Conley to play off the ball on occasion next season. Parsons has dealt with his own injury issues, as he’s played a total of 70 games in two seasons with Memphis.
“We’d like to put (Conley) in more situations where he’s a secondary ball handler or a secondary playmaker, and the defense has shifted and all 10 eyes defensively aren’t just keyed in on him,” Bickerstaff said.