Holding On

How the Grizzlies have thrived even without Damon Stoudamire.

| January 13, 2006

The first Grizzlies follower I talked to after point guard Damon Stoudamire went down with a season-ending injury a week and a half ago summed up the fears of most fans: "We're doomed." But five games into the "post-Stoudamire" era, reports of the Grizzlies' demise seem somewhat exaggerated.

Already the team's primary scorer, rebounder, and shot-blocker, emerging all-star Pau Gasol has stepped up in Stoudamire's absence to seize the role of primary distributor as well, averaging seven assists per game and leading the team in that category every game en route to an impressive 4-1 record.

Gasol's effectiveness at creating shots for his teammates has been much more expansive than the familiar post-up/draw-a-double-team/kick-out dynamic that helped set up the team's three-point attack early in the season. In fact, Gasol has probably been more effective facing the basket, where his combination of size and quickness outclasses most defenders and where he more often sets up teammates for point-blank looks. In his dominating all-around performance against the Utah Jazz last week, Gasol created shots in a variety of ways. Three times he drew double-teams in the post and found Bobby Jackson for long jump shots, but the rest of his assists came from more aggressive catalytic play: facing up and finding Battier for a layup; ripping an outlet pass to Eddie Jones for a buzzer-beating three; leading a fastbreak off a defensive rebound and finding Jones for an open three; snatching an offensive rebound and flipping a slick no-look pass to Jones for a layup along the baseline.

If Gasol can keep this up, the Grizzlies can continue to thrive even without Stoudamire. By running their slow-down offense almost exclusively through Gasol, the Grizzlies don't rely on a traditional point guard to create shots for teammates. Instead, what is most needed from the position is someone who can bring the ball up the floor and throw an entry pass, knock down open jump shots, and defend opposing point guards. No pure pass-first point guard himself, Stoudamire filled this role ably. New starter Bobby Jackson is even less of a pure point guard than Stoudamire but can fill these roles just as well, if not better.

So, if Jackson moving into the starting lineup isn't a problem, the real question is second-year guard Antonio Burks moving into Jackson's back-up spot. And Burks' play has been decidedly mixed so far. The former Memphis Tiger played very well in his only career start at Seattle after Stoudamire's injury and was the team's second-best player in an otherwise dismal loss to Chicago last week. But, by contrast, Burks was simply terrible -- much worse than his stat-line indicates -- against Golden State.

But even when Burks is playing well, his skills don't seem to fit the team's style. Burks' lack of shooting range takes away a three-point threat for Gasol to find. Instead, with his speed and strength, Burks thrives in a more up-and-down game where he can apply pressure defense and aggressively push the ball up court. His most productive play of late has come from using these skills to create shots for himself by attacking the hoop.

With Jackson's injury history and Burks' inexperience, adding another veteran point guard to the roster -- as insurance if nothing else -- is a necessary move. But it might not be the most important one. So it would be a shame to see the Grizzlies use a significant trading chip for a four-month point-guard rental when the team could also desperately use some frontcourt help for Gasol. With Lorenzen Wright struggling through the worst season of his career and Hakim Warrick and Brian Cardinal failing to provide any consistent frontcourt scoring off the bench, West has more to worry about than just the loss of Damon Stoudamire.

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