When we last saw the Memphis Grizzlies, a good season had devolved into soap opera. The team was swept out of the playoffs for the second consecutive season, this time at the hands of the Phoenix Suns. Point guard Jason Williams provided unintentional comedy for the ages by blowing up at Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins post-game. Fellow malcontent Bonzi Wells might have joined him, but he'd already been banned from the arena by Coach Mike Fratello.
The controversy, in addition to the agony of another swift playoff exit, had fans upset with Fratello, who had taken over a mess of a team mid-season and guided them back to the post-season promised land.
Once the playoff debacle was finished, the team's combination of combustible personalities and free agents made an overhaul inevitable, and after promising big changes the previous off-season, president of basketball operations Jerry West delivered them this time.
Chemistry killers Bonzi Wells, Jason Williams, and James Posey were jettisoned in deals that netted older but steadier veteran guards Bobby Jackson and Eddie Jones. Unsatisfied second-teamers Stromile Swift and Earl Watson were allowed to walk in free agency, with the Griz spending less money on the more accomplished Damon Stoudamire. The rookie draft brought a couple of intriguing frontcourt prospects in Hakim Warrick and Lawrence Roberts. The final result could be as many as seven new faces on this season's opening-night roster.
Most NBA pundits seem to think that the Grizzlies gave up more talent than they got in these maneuvers, and the team has been routinely pegged as the prime candidate to fall out of the playoff picture. But the team's disastrous post-season obscures how impressive its regular season was, overcoming a coaching upheaval, myriad injuries, and simmering tensions to march back into the playoffs and outpace expectations for the second consecutive season. If you take a close look at how the pieces fit on this year's Grizzlies team, it's easy to see them surprising pundits for yet another year.
Though this year's roster is littered with new faces, on the court, Grizzlies fans can expect to see something quite familiar -- a blend of the styles that have garnered 95 regular-season wins over the past two seasons.
Rigorously using his trademark 10-man rotation, former coach Hubie Brown exploited his team's considerable depth two years ago to wear down opponents with a ball-hawking, shot-blocking pressure defense that in turn spurred an uptempo, fast-breaking offense. That team played at the 10th-fastest pace in the league, with the 7th-best offense and 11th-best defense, racing from obscurity to a franchise-record-smashing 50 wins.
When Brown protégé Fratello took over the team following Brown's abrupt departure last fall, the fissures that destroyed Hubie Ball -- corrosive chemistry problems that in large part prompted Brown's departure and successive injuries that disrupted the team's style of play -- were already apparent and about to get worse.
So things changed under Fratello. The new coach reined in Brown's aggressive pressure defense in favor of a compact style that emphasized quick, disciplined rotations and put the brakes on the team's transition offense in favor of a more deliberate half-court attack that was more reliant on three-point shooting.
It worked. Despite taking over mid-season and being plagued with injuries and locker-room volatility, Fratello led the team to an unlikely 45 wins and a playoff berth. Fratello's Griz were considerably slower, creeping along at the league's fourth-slowest pace, and the offense fell to 18th largely because of losing an injured Pau Gasol for 26 games. But the defense improved from 11th to 6th, an astounding feat considering that, for most of the year, the team started three mediocre defenders (Gasol, Williams, and Mike Miller). The team's best defender during the prior year's 50-win campaign (James Posey) was hobbled all season with a series of injuries; and the team finished 26th in the league in defensive rebounding.
The Grizzlies had been even worse -- 29th of 30 teams -- on the defensive boards the year before, but one of the hallmarks of Hubie Ball was how the team's pressure defense negated its rebounding woes, getting back through forced turnovers what it lost on the boards. What was impressive about Fratello's team was that, despite a defense that gambled less (and, therefore, probably gave up fewer easy baskets), the team was almost as good as the previous model when it came to forcing turnovers, falling from best in the league (per possession) to tied for second.
Judging from the preseason, Grizzlies fans have every reason to expect more of the same and with an uptick in defensive pressure reminiscent of Brown's teams. But there is reason for concern. Of the seven Griz players who were above the league average in steals per minute last season, five (Wells, Watson, Williams, Posey, and Swift) are gone, and another (Brian Cardinal) has been slow recovering from off-season surgery. The only leftover from this bunch is Shane Battier, who led the team in total steals. A brilliant team defender, Battier's astute, hustling play in place of the oft-injured Posey set the tone for last season's defensive excellence.
This year, Battier and Miller will be joined on the perimeter by a cast of aging veterans who may or may not be able to duplicate the ball-hawking defense that's become a Grizzlies staple.
Eddie Jones will likely step into the starting lineup, moving Miller to small forward and sending Battier back to the bench. In his prime, Jones was a steal machine, routinely ranking among the league leaders, but the swingman is 34 years old now and his steal rate has fallen off precipitously in the past few seasons. The 32-year-old Stoudamire and 32-year-old Jackson both registered lower steal rates than the players they're replacing. It may be that Jones, Stoudamire, and Jackson (each around the league average in steals per minute last season) pick up their production in this area within a team context that emphasizes deflections and -- in the preseason anyway -- more pressure defense.
Of course, there's much more to defense than forcing turnovers. Jones may be old by NBA standards, but he retains the athleticism to serve as a solid defensive stopper on the wing. Last year, with Posey injured, that job often fell to Battier, who is a splendid team defender but lacks the quickness to keep up with the likes of Kobe Bryant and Tracy McGrady. Jones will be an upgrade as a one-on-one wing defender, freeing Battier to guard bigger small forwards and, occasionally, power forwards.
At the point, Stoudamire doesn't have much of a defensive reputation and may not get into the passing lanes quite as frequently as the departed Williams, but he's almost certain to be an upgrade anyway. At 5'10", Stoudamire is as likely to be exploited in the post but should be a more willing and active defender on the perimeter and has already proven more effective at applying pressure full-court. At the backup spot, Jackson is probably a downgrade defensively from Watson but is still a quality defender. And the team defense could get a boost from young guards Dahntay Jones and Antonio Burks, who both have the athleticism and demeanor to make an impact.
If the Grizzlies' perimeter defense has a chance to be as good as a year ago, it also needs to be, because it's hard to imagine an upgrade on the interior. The other component to their opportunistic defense -- shot blocking -- is almost sure to decline this season. The Grizzlies were fifth in the league in blocked shots a year ago after finishing second the year before, but no one on this roster is going to replace Swift when it comes to rejecting opponents.
Of course, Swift's electric athleticism often obscured his otherwise disappointing defensive play. Gasol, believe it or not, was actually more effective on the boards a year ago than Swift, when both slumped, and has been comparable in years past. In fact, one reason to hope the Grizzlies could at least retain their very modest rebounding improvement from a year ago is the prospect of a full season from Gasol.
Gasol, who should be the team's best shot blocker this season, has always been a mediocre rebounder and was something worse than that a year ago. But consider the alternatives. Beyond Gasol and ever-steady Lorenzen Wright, the primary frontcourt options are Brian Cardinal, Jake Tsakalidis, and Hakim Warrick.
Cardinal played a crucial role last year when Gasol went down. His outside shooting, passing, and underrated defense helped keep the team afloat. But Cardinal's blue-collar style has apparently convinced some fans that he's a good rebounder, when nothing could be further from the truth. Undersized for the paint at 6'8" and with no vertical lift, Cardinal is one of the worst rebounders in the NBA at his position.
Tsakalidis, who has had some good moments in the preseason and will likely play a larger role, has great size, but his lack of quickness keeps his rebounding numbers down. The rookie Warrick is an extraordinary athlete but is simply too slight of build and too inexperienced to bang in the paint with the pros right now.
Deep reserves Lawrence Roberts, a second-round pick who dominated the boards in the summer league but has missed all of preseason so far with an injury, and John Thomas, a veteran wide-body who hasn't been an effective rebounder in previous NBA stops, might be the best defensive big men on the bench, but their overall games might be too raw or limited to see much action.
The team's deficiencies on the interior will make rebounding a team effort again, and in this respect the Grizzlies will be in better shape than a year ago. Jackson and Stoudamire are among the best rebounding point guards in the game and should provide significantly more help than the middling Watson and terrible Williams, while Jones should be able to match Wells' contribution.
But even if the Grizzlies slip a bit from last season's defensive excellence and can't improve on the boards, the big picture is still promising because the team is almost certain to be better offensively.
As I mentioned earlier, the Grizzlies' slip in offensive efficiency a year ago from 7th in the league to 18th was largely predicated on the loss of Gasol, who missed 26 games to injury and was slowed by foot problems in games he did appear in.
After passing up international play this summer, Gasol has come to camp with noticeably more energy than a year ago. It's the first year of the max-dollar contract extension he signed last season and he's in line for the uptick in minutes his injury prevented last season. With his ability score in the paint, willingness to attack the rim, propensity for getting to the line (where he shot 77 percent a year ago, a good number for a seven-footer), and smooth passing, Gasol is one of the league's most effective offensive big men, even factoring in the flaws most Grizzlies fans are familiar with. If he limits his turnovers and responds more forcefully to physical play in clutch situations (that beard's a good sign!), he could be the franchise's first All Star representative next February.
But the prospect of a healthy Gasol isn't the only reason to expect a significant scoring boost this season. The other primary factor is Bobby Jackson.
In replacing Watson for 20-25 minutes a game off the bench, Jackson represents a massive offensive upgrade for this team -- provided he can stay healthy. Jackson has missed 112 games over the past three seasons with a variety of unrelated injuries (torn wrist ligament, abdominal strain, broken hand). But when the 32-year-old guard has been healthy, he's been perhaps the best back-up point guard in the league.
Jackson isn't a pure point. His assist rates are consistently among the lowest at his position, but as a scorer he can be lethal and as a replacement for the offensively challenged Watson, he should be rocket fuel to the Grizzlies' second team. Jackson scores in bunches (per minute, he outscored everyone on the Grizzlies' roster last year, including Gasol) and without committing many turnovers.
Even if nothing else changed, a healthy Gasol and the addition of Jackson might be enough to push the Grizzlies' offense back up among the league's better teams. But the Grizzlies should also be able to count on a team-wide improvement in perimeter shooting.
An improved three-point attack drove the Grizzlies' turnaround under Fratello last season. At one point in early February, the Grizzlies were leading the league in three-point percentage. But that shooting outburst was built on career-best performances from too many previously erratic shooters and it didn't hold up. Watson shot 39 percent through January but only 23 percent the rest of the way. Wells was at 40 percent through January but came crashing down to 24 percent from February on. Williams' shooting declined from 36 percent to 26 percent after January, and even normally steady Battier joined in the slump. By the end of the year, the Grizzlies had tumbled from the top spot to a still-respectable 12th in three-point shooting.
This season, the Grizzlies won't have to have a string of career performances to be among the NBA's best outside-shooting teams. At every spot on the perimeter, the Grizzlies upgraded their shooting this offseason. Stoudamire, Jones, and Jackson are all more prolific and more efficient outside shooters than the players they replace. Stoudamire and Jones were 7th and 16th, respectively, in the league in three-point attempts last season, joining Miller (32nd) among the league leaders. Miller's 43 percent shooting from beyond the arc was good for fourth in the league, with both Jones and Battier also claiming spots on the league-leader boards. Add in a hopefully healthy Jackson and potential rotation members Cardinal (39 percent from downtown in an otherwise rough year) and the ever-improving Dahntay Jones, and the Grizzlies boast seven (!) perimeter threats with career three-point percentages of at least 36 percent.
Put all of these shooters around Gasol, who commands double teams and is a good passer, and the Grizzlies have a chance to be one of the league's best offensive teams even without a dominant, slashing scorer on the wings. And the offensive performance will only get better if the team can maintain the more aggressive transition game it's experimented with in the preseason.
To the extent that the Grizzlies get out on the break this season, it'll look different from past editions -- not as smooth as with Williams at the helm but considerably less bumpy than Watson's frightening full-court forays. Stoudamire and Jackson both fit somewhere in between Williams and Watson when it comes to proficiency at running the break, but another difference this season is that the team will be less dependent on their point guards to ignite the transition game. By design, Fratello has his wing players pushing the ball on their own off defensive rebounds rather than looking for a point guard to dump the ball to. This has the dual purpose of getting the break started faster and also allowing Jackson and Stoudamire to use their scoring ability. (Look for both players to also play off the ball in half-court sets at times.)
A year ago, Fratello chose to sacrifice his team's transition offense for the sake of better team rebounding. After practice last Thursday, Fratello sounded hopeful -- if still uncertain -- that his team could do well enough on the boards to push the tempo a little bit more this season. To the degree that the Grizzlies do play a more uptempo style, Gasol will be helped. With the team playing a slower style and Gasol nursing his foot injury, the normally fleet seven-footer didn't get the same open-court opportunities he's gotten in seasons past. A more aggressive, uptempo style would also help ease the transition of perhaps the team's most important new player, first-round pick Warrick.
Warrick is unlikely to make as big an impact as Jones, Stoudamire, and Jackson this season, but at 22 and with off-the-charts athleticism, he could be a very important player for the Grizzlies in the long term.
A combo forward -- small-forward size with power-forward game -- Warrick has the makings of a match-up nightmare, though potentially as much for the Grizzlies as their opponents. Warrick doesn't look ready to defend anyone at the NBA level in a half-court setting, but in the preseason he's shown that he can be a disruptive force, much like Bo Outlaw two years ago, in a pressing and trapping defense. And on offense, his ability to run the floor and his superior leaping ability could make him a force in transition.
Warrick's development might be more a subplot to this season than a primary narrative, but in the long term it falls just behind Gasol's potential breakout and whether Miller can solidify himself as an elite shooter in determining what the Grizzlies' future holds.
As for the short term, West and Fratello have assembled a team that should be very competitive even in a deep Western Conference. The Grizzlies should be a blend of the past two seasons. They won't play as fast as Hubie Ball but also not as slow as last year. The defense might fall off slightly, somewhere closer to where they were during the 50-win season. But the offense will almost certainly improve. Defensive rebounding will remain a problem, as always. Injuries surely can't be as bad as a year ago. Neither can team chemistry. Add it all up and you get the feeling that widespread reports of the Grizzlies' imminent decline are premature. Will the script change once the post-season begins? It's too soon to tell. But any coach or athlete with a working knowledge of sports clichés can remind you of the obvious: You've got to get there first.