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Lost and Found

How Coach Mike Fratello transformed Hubie Brown's Grizzlies and redirected a season that once seemed lost.

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"Have you ever seen a team coming off 50 wins and a promising playoff appearance dissolve so quickly the following season? No offense to Mike Fratello, who is expected to take over as head coach any minute now, but no Xs and Os can pull together a franchise splintering from top to bottom."

-- Ric Bucher ("Grizzlies Going South Fast," ESPN The Magazine, December 2, 2004)

"Can Mike Fratello save the Grizzlies? Maybe the Grizzlies can leapfrog the Rockets, Clippers, and Jazz. But even that big of a leap only puts them ninth. Prediction: 12th in the West."

-- Chad Ford ("The Bad and the Ugly," ESPN Insider, December 20, 2004)

"Will this be a lost season?"

-- Chris Herrington ("Basketball Church Is Closed," The Memphis Flyer, December 1, 2004)

pparently, making a fool of virtually every NBA prognosticator in the country a year ago wasn't enough for the Memphis Grizzlies, who have followed up their seemingly one-of-a-kind breakthrough season with a campaign both impossibly similar and radically different.

Prior to the 2003-2004 season, Grizzlies president of basketball operations Jerry West made acquiring a true center his top priority, focusing on Golden State's Erick Dampier. After his pursuit came up just short, West went a different route, spending the team's mid-level exception in free agency on a hustling forward (James Posey), for whom pretty much everyone felt he'd overpaid. In the draft, West reeled in an experienced collegiate backcourt (first-rounders Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones) who didn't seem to have a clear role awaiting them.

In the lead-up to this season, what did West do? After his team had finished dead last in the NBA in defensive rebounding, he again set out to upgrade the center position, again focusing on Dampier and again failing to acquire the burly big man. (Which, given Dampier's age and salary demands, probably wasn't such a bad thing.) With the Dampier deal going nowhere, West turned to free agency, where he again spent the team's mid-level exception on a hustling forward (Brian Cardinal) who no one thought was worth the money. And in the draft? You got it, another experienced collegiate backcourt (second-rounders Antonio Burks and Andre Emmett).

Amazingly, these carbon-copy moves somehow led to nearly identical season arcs. Last year's Grizzlies plodded to a 15-17 record heading into the new year and then hit their stride, finishing 35-15 the rest of the way and marching into the postseason for the first time in franchise history. This year? The team was 14-17 as the calendar flipped to 2005. Since then the Griz have rattled off a 16-5 run, to plant themselves firmly back into the Western Conference playoff race.

But this déjà vu season has had some nightmares along the way. First was the unexpected departure of the beloved Brown, who'd become a folk hero in leading his band of unaccomplished charges to what seemed like a fairy tale season the year before. Then, unrelated to on-court performance but even harder to take, was the sudden loss of longtime play-by-play man Don Poier, who more than earned the overused broadcaster's tag "voice of the franchise."

Though in broad strokes this season looks remarkably similar to last season, the trajectory from preseason point A to probable postseason point B has been markedly different.

The chemistry and injury problems that fed the team's rough start have been well documented. The mystery surrounding Brown's at times defensive farewell press conference was somewhat solved by a profanity-laced (and rare) interview from point guard Jason Williams in The Commercial Appeal a couple weeks ago. There can be little doubt now that tension over the role of Brown's son, lead assistant Brendan, was a driving factor in Hubie's departure. But even though those issues may have been key to the team's slow start, there are also Xs and Os explanations for why the Grizzlies were slow out of the gate and for how new coach Mike Fratello has been able to turn this potentially lost season around.

Most of the problems that plagued the Grizzlies early this season centered around adjustments Brown and his coaching staff did and didn't make in response to a preseason league-office edict which dictated that officials allow more offensive movement by more stringently calling perimeter defensive fouls.

On offense, Brown responded to this change by calling for fewer three-point shots and more drives to the basket, which, given the new emphasis on defensive fouls, would likely result in more trips to the free-throw line.

The strategy worked to a degree. The Grizzlies did indeed get to the line more. But in retrospect, the style didn't maximize the team's talent. The Grizzlies' most aggressive slasher, James Posey, who is also an outstanding free-throw shooter, began the season trying to play on a sprained left foot. Unable to attack the basket the way he had the previous season, Posey garnered only two free-throw attempts in three games before heading to the injured list.

The team's quickest perimeter player, Williams, has long been loath to attack the basket and was playing in too much of a mental funk to implement the strategy. Bonzi Wells is athletic enough to get to the basket but is better as a post-up player. As for the team's other perimeter players, average athletes Mike Miller and Shane Battier are bigger threats shooting the ball from the outside, and Earl Watson -- heading into this season anyway -- wasn't much of an offensive threat at all.

Still, it's hard to fault Brown for his strategy, since the new officiating emphasis seemed to compel it and since his team had finished 20th in the league in three-point shooting last year. Watson and Wells had never been considered particularly good from downtown, and Posey's big season from beyond the arc the previous year might have been a fluke. Miller had one of the league's prettiest strokes but had always underachieved and seemed to be a serious injury concern in the preseason. Battier was okay from the corner but not the kind of guy you build an offense around. Williams wasn't shy about letting it fly but was the kind of shooter who runs hot and cold and had never shot better than 35 percent from three-point range. Deeper on the bench, Jones had been a dreadful shooter last season, and rookies Burks and Emmett weren't known as outside shooters (and might not play anyway).

True, the team's free-agent acquisition, Brian Cardinal, had finished third in the league in three-point percentage the season before and was a monumental offensive upgrade over departed Bo Outlaw, but there was still no real reason to think the Grizzlies could compete with the top teams in the league when it came to long-range shooting.

But that thinking turned out to be wrong. The team's increasing use of the three-ball has been the single biggest quantifiable correlation with the team's success.

Under Brown, the modest 16 three-point attempts per game the Grizzlies took a year ago fell to 14 a game. The team went 5-7 before Brown's resignation. In the first dozen games under Fratello, the three-point shooting ticked up to 17 a game, and the team went 6-6. Since then, the Grizzlies have averaged 23 treys a game and have reeled off an 18-5 record. Shooting percentages have increased with the attempts: .357 under Brown to .374 in the first dozen under Fratello to .408 since. And now, a team that was downplaying the three at the beginning of the season finds itself second in the league in three-point shooting.

The transformation has been a team effort: Miller's textbook stroke is finally finding net with a frequency commensurate to its loveliness; his career-best 45 percent shooting is good enough for fifth in the league. Next in line is Battier, who has become more versatile in where he finds his shots and whose career-best 42 percent is 12th in the league. Never known as a marksman, Wells is suddenly hitting from beyond the arc at a (yep, that phrase again) career-best 39 percent. His game rejuvenated under Fratello (as it has been under many a new coach before), Williams is dialing it up at a career-best 35 percent. His backup, Watson, has entirely transformed his game, raising his three-point shooting from an ugly 25 percent last season to a career-best 38 percent this season (and has taken nearly as many threes through 50 games this season as he did through 82 last year). Even the young players have gotten into the act. Jones has developed into a legitimate outside threat in his second season, especially from the corner, shooting 39 percent. And Burks' slingshot delivery might not be pretty, but he's been finding the bottom of the net from three-point range at a respectable 38 percent.

Even the two players not shooting a career-best from three this season are still solid threats. Struggling through injuries, Posey has shot only 33 percent on the season, but that includes a 40 percent January before hitting the injured list again. Cardinal has also fought injuries, but he's still at a solid 38 percent and has been picking up the pace of late, nailing a couple of clutch threes in the fourth quarter of last week's win over the Portland Trailblazers.

Add it all up, and the Grizzlies have nine(!) players who are legitimate three-point threats. Not even Seattle or Phoenix, the league's two most prolific outside-shooting teams, can compete with that. And equally impressive is how the team's three-point game has been viable within two entirely different offensive styles.

When the Grizzlies' perimeter attack first came together under Fratello, it fed off of the interior play of Gasol, whose ability to draw double-teams and willingness to pass the ball served as the catalyst for quick, unselfish ball movement that regularly resulted in open outside looks. Gasol rarely picked up an assist in these situations, but he was the engine, something that fans locally and nationally (on TNT) got a tutorial on in the Grizzlies' Martin Luther King Jr. Day victory over the Houston Rockets.

When Gasol went to the injured list in late January, there was every reason to believe that the team's offense would fall apart. But the adjustments made by the coaching staff -- and their execution by the players -- has been inspired. With no post player capable of consistently drawing a double-team, the Grizzlies' offense has looked entirely different. Rather than relying on ball movement and deft passing to create open looks, the Griz have installed more player movement. The double-team/kickout/kick-around dynamic has disappeared, replaced by an equally effective matrix of cuts, penetrations, and picks-and-rolls that have allowed the team to go 7-3 without its best player.

On defense, it's been a different story for the Grizzlies. If Brown's seemingly correct adjustment to the new officiating style backfired on offense, it was the adjustment the former coach didn't make on defense that hurt the team early on.

The Grizzlies' 50-win outburst in 2003-2004 was driven in part by an attacking, pressure defense that led the league in steals and negated the team's rebounding problems. This season, with the league tightening up on just the kind of aggressive perimeter defense the Grizzlies stressed (and with team-best defender Posey hobbled by injury), some of those steals were becoming fouls. As noted by CNNSI.com columnist and stat guru John Hollinger in a November 30th article, Grizzlies opponents increased their free-throw attempts far above the league average.

Fratello exchanged Brown's fullcourt pressure for a rotation-focused halfcourt scheme that has developed an amoeba-like cohesion, feeding off of the team's recovered oncourt chemistry. Steals are down (from first to ninth), but the overall performance is better: third, behind only Detroit and San Antonio, in opponent scoring and sixth in opponent shooting. The glory of a steal leading to a fastbreak layup has been replaced as the primary symbol of Grizzlies defense by the more workmanlike display of forcing the other team into a shot-clock violation.

There are other changes, of course: The deft way Fratello has exploited the team's depth while quietly discarding Brown's rigid 10-man rotation has allowed him to mix and match lineups (and thus, minutes) without provoking the kind of resentments (from inside and outside the organization) that Brown's substitution patterns caused.

Part of the reason the Grizzlies are holding teams to fewer points this season is the same reason the Grizzlies are also scoring fewer points: They're playing at a slower pace. This goes against the conventional wisdom about a team with Williams at the point and frontcourt players who are quick and agile but not very strong. The assumption about this team, which I certainly shared, was that it had to run to win. Fratello hasn't slowed this team down like he did in his previous coaching stint in Cleveland, but he's sacrificed the transition game in order to promote more active team rebounding. That the Grizzlies have improved on the defensive boards (from last a year ago to a still-poor 26th) without upgrading personnel is a testament to this subtle strategic shift. And the team's three-point shooting has more than offset what they've lost in fastbreak buckets.

The more things have stayed the same for the Memphis Grizzlies, the more they've changed. In a season that once seemed lost, the Grizzlies find themselves in the same unlikely place they were a year ago -- firmly in the playoff race. As this is written, the Grizzlies sit seventh in the West, a game behind division-rival Houston Rockets and with a decent lead on the Los Angeles Lakers and Minnesota Timberwolves, two teams that are struggling through in-season coaching changes.

But being a sixth or seventh seed in the West this year isn't like last year. Last year, the top of the conference was a murderer's row of historic proportions, including the defending champion San Antonio Spurs and MVP Tim Duncan; the league-leading Timberwolves and impending MVP Kevin Garnett; the three-time champion Lakers with Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal; and the deep, explosive Dallas Mavericks and Sacramento Kings just behind those three.

The competition doesn't look quite as fierce this season. The Spurs, with the elevated play of ultraquick backcourt Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, look like the best team in the league and a must to avoid. But if the Grizzlies can stay above the eight seed, then they might have a chance to do some damage in the postseason. The most likely opponents are the upstart Phoenix Suns and Seattle Sonics, neither of whom boasts much playoff experience. The Grizzlies have lost twice to the Sonics this season, but both games pre-date Fratello. And the Grizzlies have played the Suns very well, holding a 2-1 season advantage. Longshot opponents Dallas and Sacramento don't look as formidable as past editions, with the Mavs losing point-guard Steve Nash to the Suns and the Kings losing much of their past depth.

Can this year's version of the Grizzlies do what last year's couldn't? Not just make the playoffs, but make something happen when they get there? Winning a series still seems like a far-off dream. But for a franchise without a single playoff-game victory to call its own, extending a first-round series past the minimum four games sure would be a nice start -- and would really stick it to the NBA analysts who left this team for dead in December. n

Czar Power

Seven questions for

Mike Fratello

Flyer: With all the injuries, you haven't had the full roster at your disposal for a single game. But isn't it accurate to say that Pau Gasol is the one player whose loss changes team-wide strategy and style of play?

Fratello: As our primary post option, he probably has the most effect on our offense being altered, forcing us to play a different way. With him in the game, defenses have to collapse and play more than one man on him. And, because he's unselfish, we can then play off of him with our other people. That we've been able to adjust [to not having that dynamic] is a tribute to the other players and to the fact that Jerry [West] has put together a roster flexible enough that it allows us to play a couple of different ways. This is a team with a high basketball I.Q., and that gives you the chance to make those kinds of adjustments.

There seems to be a strong correlation for this team between three-point shooting and winning. Under Hubie Brown, the team took about 14 threes a game and was 5-7. In the first dozen games after you took over, those attempts were up to 17 a game and the team was 6-6. Since then, the team has been averaging 23 threes a game and has gone 18-4. That can't be a coincidence, can it?

I can't answer the Hubie part of it, because I don't know. There may have been an emphasis there on taking the ball to the basket more and getting to the foul line more, which may have been something they were trying to improve on from the year before. When I first came, I was trying to get a handle on what this team was all about. I was trying to learn. And as we moved along through those first eight to 10 games, and I became more comfortable with what this guy could do, what that guy could do, we tried to get guys shots in spots we felt they could be most productive. And a very positive weapon for us has been the three, because we have more than just one or two guys who can operate from out there and make a high percentage of shots. So we've stayed with it, and they've made shots.

So, has it been a conscious decision to emphasize that or more of an evolution?

An evolution. It's not like I ever said to them that I wanted to take four more threes a game. It never came to that, and I still feel the same way. There are good three-point shots and bad three-point shots. I don't have a problem with the good three-point shot if you're a player who should be shooting it. And if that's the case, we want you to shoot it with confidence. But players have to know the difference, and that comes through practice.

What impact has the new emphasis on making hand-check calls had on the game this year?

I think it's part of the reason why points are up around the league. You're just not allowed to get into players physically the way you used to. The reaching-out calls are more frequent now, which puts teams in the bonus quicker and gives them more free-throw attempts.

And what kind of impact has this had on your own defensive philosophy?

You have to clean up your defensive end of the court, because otherwise you're gonna put other teams on the foul line too early each period. It forces you to just stay down in your defensive stance and have good footwork and get more help from teammates to ward off penetration.

One reason I ask is that this team led the league in steals last season. This season the steals are down but, and this is just an unconfirmed observation, it seems like forced shot-clock violations are way up.

Yeah, we're probably a more compact defense this year. Not as much gambling and stuff like that, which won't produce as many steals. I want us to be able to know going into those last few minutes that we can get defensive stops when we need to. Now, I'd love to have the steals they had last year. We still chart deflections. But I also want us to be solid when you have to be solid.

One last thing, non-basketball. Have you had much of a chance to get a feel for the city, or have you been too busy?

I wish. People ask me all the time, "You been here? You been there? You seen this?" I just chuckle and say, 'Nah.' I know where the airport is and where my office is and where I sleep at night, and that's about it. But the season demands your time. There are no shortcuts with this job.

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