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New Wave?

Two or three things I know about the Griz.

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With apologies to Jean-Luc Godard, here's a series of discrete observations on the Grizzlies after nine regular-season games:

1) They're better than their record. The Grizzlies may have a new coach and lots of new players, but this is still a franchise with a fan base that's long past celebrating moral victories. That said, this team has played better basketball than its 2-7 record (heading into Monday night's game against the Sonics) suggests. Of the seven NBA teams with two or fewer wins, none has played closer games against a tougher schedule than the Grizzlies. Over the course of a 1-3 stretch last week, the Grizzlies' opponents had a combined 21-9 record, with the Grizzlies beating the then 6-1 Rockets and losing to the Bucks, Hornets, and Mavericks by a total of eight points. Since this Grizzlies team seemed predestined to start slow and improve over the course of the season, the team's ability to be so competitive against such quality competition is a legitimate reason for optimism.

2) Pau's not right. Rather than stepping up his production early on to help a young roster get through early-season struggles, Pau Gasol has been less productive than even during his rookie season. If you don't think the problem is primarily physical — a result of the phalanx of minor injuries (back, ankle, finger) Gasol has been struggling through and the fatigue that comes from another summer of international competition — then take a look at the dramatic reduction in Gasol's rate of blocked shots. After averaging 1.9 blocks in 35 minutes a game through his career, Gasol is averaging 0.6 blocks in 34 minutes a game so far this season. This indicator of athleticism confirms what the naked eye sees: Gasol is showing less lift and quickness this season.

3) They still need a closer. One reason the Grizzlies have lost so many close games this season is that they've struggled to score on half-court possessions at the end of games. Other than a flurry of desperate three-pointers (three in the final 13 seconds) to send their game against New Orleans into overtime, the Grizzlies haven't been able to convert on crucial possessions late in games, searching fruitlessly for reliable scoring options: Kyle Lowry getting stripped against the Bucks; Gasol getting stripped against the Mavs; Juan Carlos Navarro missing consecutive open threes against the Mavs. Rudy Gay is developing nicely as a scorer, but his off-the-dribble game is still too suspect to be a reliable go-to guy.

4) The future is now or should be. Heading into the season, the conventional wisdom on the Grizzlies' point-guard situation was that veteran Damon Stoudamire would give the team a better chance to win now than "raw" rookie Michael Conley. Nine games in, I think we can put an end to that assumption. At 34, age and injuries have robbed Stoudamire of the quickness he had in his 20s. His advantage over Conley was supposed to be his superior shooting and ability to lead a team. But, over last week's four-game stretch, Stoudamire shot 6-21 and left the Grizzlies with a first-quarter deficit in three of four games.

Conley has played only 72 minutes in five games (all on the road) but has outplayed Stoudamire in virtually every way: better shooting percentage, more prolific scoring, a higher assist rate, and a lower turnover rate. He's not just the point guard of the future; he's the better player right now. Conley strained his shoulder against the Mavericks, but as soon as he's back to 100 percent, he deserves to supplant Stoudamire in the rotation.

5) There's a missing piece. The Grizzlies are still a bad defensive team. There's plenty of room for internal improvement in this area, but the team could use a physical defender off the bench who can guard both wing positions. Tarence Kinsey is too slight for this role; Casey Jacobsen is too slow. If there's an in-season trade, look for a player of this type to be the target.

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