Reaching High

How good can the Grizzlies be this year?

| October 31, 2003
When Memphis Grizzlies majority owner Michael Heisley shocked the basketball world last year by luring Jerry West out of retirement to take over his lowly team, local fans could be forgiven for having large expectations. In Laker-land, West's management tenure had been associated with players such as Magic Johnson, Shaquille O'Neal, and Kobe Bryant, so fans were expecting a quick fix. But, alas, nothing moves quite as fast in Memphis as in L.A., and West's sometimes frustrating tenure in Memphis has been marked by steady change rather than earth-shaking moves.

West missed out on the team's few good chances at acquiring a potential superstar in the draft through a combination of bad luck, inherited problems, and questionable scouting. So, in lieu of the big score, West has rebuilt one of the least-successful franchises in professional sports with a series of ostensibly minor trades and free-agent signings, each of which has left the team with more talent (and, thus, more trade options) than it had before. In conjunction with an owner willing to spend to win, West has, in relatively short order, assembled one of the deepest teams in the league and, without question, the most talented in franchise history.

With quality depth at every position, the 2003-2004 Memphis Grizzlies are a team built around Coach Hubie Brown's system, which uses two five-man units and seeks to wear down opposing teams with a fast-breaking offense, full-court pressure, and waves of fresh legs. Unlike last season, Brown will be able to impose his style of play with a full rotation of NBA-quality players (nice knowing you, Mike Batiste), and the team will be better able to withstand the minor injuries that are unavoidable over the grind of an 82-game regular season.

The Grizzlies have performed so well in the preseason -- the only loss a hard-fought, jet-lagged battle with defending champion San Antonio in Paris -- that fans are wondering if the team may be ahead of the three-year schedule West outlined last year, when he implied that playoff contention was on the calendar for next season, the team's scheduled debut in FedExForum.

As a realistic Brown constantly points out, one shouldn't put too much stock in preseason results, especially when the team has played mostly mediocre Eastern Conference teams. But the way the Grizzlies have performed in those games -- winning convincingly without treating the games as anything other than preseason -- has instilled cautious optimism in the fan base. Could the Grizzlies give The Pyramid the goodbye present of a playoff game? There are still a lot of questions that need to be answered first, and here are a few that will frame this season.

What is Pau Gasol's ceiling?

Depth is great, but evidence suggests that stars win in the NBA, and the Grizzlies' only real shot at moving swiftly up the rungs in the Western Conference is for forward Pau Gasol to develop into an elite player. But Gasol's development this season isn't just crucial to the team's mild playoff hopes; it's the defining issue for the team's long-term future. Gasol will be eligible to negotiate a contract extension next off-season, and the Grizzlies must decide this year how much he's worth.

Gasol comes into this season with considerable momentum after thriving at the European Championships this summer, where he led Spain to an improbable second-place finish and scored at will against constant double- and triple-teams. And that performance has carried over into the NBA preseason, where Gasol has dominated offensively, shooting 56 percent from the field and scoring at a clip that, per 38 minutes (about the amount of time fans can expect him to play per game this season), comes to 26 points a game.

Gasol seems to have added much-needed muscle over the off-season without losing the quickness that makes him special. He also seems more confident and at ease with his starring role than ever before, a maturing process perhaps helped by the team's trip to Gasol's native Barcelona in the preseason, where Gasol's reception put his status in perspective for his teammates, and his much-celebrated hosting of a final-night team dinner implied a newfound willingness to exert some locker-room leadership.

It all has Gasol primed for a breakout season. With his deft footwork, freakish length, soft touch, and ambidextrous shot arsenal, Gasol is already one of the most adept post scorers in the game. Factor in his ability to run the floor and finish on the break and his ability to put the ball on the floor for soaring forays to the hoop, and Gasol has as much raw talent offensively as any big man in the league. As he becomes strong enough to hold his ground in the post -- an improvement that has been apparent in the preseason -- he'll become even more effective.

Because he does most of his damage on the inside, Gasol goes to the free-throw line a lot. In fact, last season, Gasol made more trips to the line per 48 minutes (9.3) than any other comparable power forward not named Tim Duncan or Karl Malone. As Gasol's star rises and his team improves, that number should go up, which brings us to the only chink in Gasol's gleaming preseason armor: He has struggled at the foul line, shooting just 64 percent.

While there's little doubt that Gasol is on his way to becoming an elite scorer, there are other elements to his game that must improve. For starters, Gasol has to become more effective in the clutch, which, given his skills and temperament, seems like a safe bet. More questionable is Gasol's room for improvement on the other end of the floor. As a defender and rebounder, Gasol will likely never be on a par with Duncan or Kevin Garnett, but he has shown that he can still be a factor on the defensive end. Last season, the Grizzlies went 28-54 but played .500 ball (8-8) whenever Gasol snatched at least 12 boards. Gasol has looked better this preseason, grabbing more rebounds and blocking more shots per minute than he has previously in his career. But, given the Eastern Conference competition the Grizzlies feasted on in the preseason, it's hard to gauge Gasol's improvement in those areas.

So, how good can Gasol be? Most NBA observers would rank Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki as a Top 10 player in the league. Well, Gasol outplayed Nowitzki in the European championships and, though their games are different (Nowitzki is primarily a jump-shooter), there are some similarities. Nowitzki, as a 25-year-old entering his sixth season, is a dominant scorer, decent rebounder, and mediocre (at best) defender. Gasol, a 23-year-old entering his third season, can be all of that this year, and, because of his shot-blocking ability, actually has more potential defensively.

Will the real Mike Miller please stand up?

Mike Miller will showcase his all-around skills as a vital cog in the Grizzlies offense.

After coming over from the Orlando Magic at midseason, former rookie of the year Mike Miller seemed like a different player. His playing time fell drastically in Memphis as Miller found himself in and out of the lineup and hobbling up and down the court due to a fluke back injury. But relative to his playing time, Miller was still far more effective as a Grizzly last season. After making the move from Orlando to Memphis, Miller's shooting percentage and three-point percentage rose significantly, and, on a per-minute basis, he got to the foul line more frequently.

After signing a six-year contract extension in the off-season, Miller has come back to earth a little in the preseason, his 42 percent shooting a couple of points lower than his career average. And this has left Grizzlies fans with reason to wonder: Who is the real Mike Miller?

The thought here is that Miller's effectiveness with Memphis last season was no fluke but rather the result of finally being placed in the right situation. In Orlando, Miller was stuck in the role of one-dimensional sidekick to ball-dominating superstar Tracy McGrady, floating on the perimeter waiting for McGrady to kick the ball out for a three-point shot. But Miller's strength is his versatility. He's not an overwhelming talent in any one area, but, on offense, he is adept at pretty much everything.

As a featured player in the Grizzlies' offense, Miller got to showcase these skills more regularly, becoming less dependent on three-point shooting to generate offense. After taking 76 percent of his shots from the perimeter in Orlando, the number fell to 54 percent in Memphis.

The change of scenery has Miller primed for a breakout season as well, but there are still questions. One issue is Miller's three-point shooting. Miller's career 39 percent mark from behind the arc is more than respectable, but his success rate has declined each year of his career, and he was extremely erratic last season, his shooting fluctuating wildly from month to month. This concern has only been underscored during the preseason, where Miller's abysmal 2-16 shooting from three-point range is almost single-handedly responsible for creating what has been perceived as a team problem.

Miller may not be dependent on the three-ball to score, but with the team's two best three-point shooters, Wesley Person and Shane Battier, coming off the bench, Miller needs to be the top perimeter option in the starting five. If he continues to struggle with his shot, it could be a big problem.

Fans expecting Miller to dominate from the perimeter should understand that he isn't really that kind of player. Miller won't be the kind of player who routinely creates something out of nothing. Last season, with the Grizzlies, 74 percent of Miller's baskets were assisted; with the Magic, the number was 64 percent. By comparison, every two-guard in the league who scored 20 points a game had fewer than 60 percent of his baskets assisted. For dominant scorers like McGrady, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, and Paul Pierce, the number is under 50 percent.

But precisely because Miller will get his shots within the flow of the offense, he should make an excellent backcourt mate for Jason Williams. Miller never got to play with a quality point guard in Orlando and, since good shooting is partly dependent on good passing, should benefit mightily from having Williams around to find him on the move for open looks. Similarly, Williams has never had the luxury of sharing the backcourt with another dynamic offensive player during his Memphis tenure. The panoply of spot-up shooters, defensive specialists, slow-footed journeymen, and sub-NBA talents whom Williams has been forced to play beside over the past two years has put undue pressure on him to create offense from the perimeter, especially at the end of the shot clock. Miller's triple-threat ability to handle, shoot, and pass should correct that.

Who's the man in the middle?

At 7’ 2” and 290 pounds, “Big” Jake Tsakalidis gives the Grizz needed bulk.

After watching his team get pushed around in the paint all last season, West vowed to upgrade the center position. It wasn't easy, but after striking out on a few reported attempts to acquire an established center, West finally made a move at the start of training camp, trading three unneeded players to the Phoenix Suns for two post players who will help immediately: Jake Tsakalidis, a 24-year-old, 7' 2", 290-pound monster who might have been Phoenix's starter, and veteran energy guy and immediate fan-favorite Bo Outlaw. It was a salary dump by Phoenix, and West took advantage of it much as he had the previous off-season by shipping washed-up shooting guard Nick Anderson to Cleveland for Person.

The move gives Brown options, and the center position was the only truly up-for-grabs spot in the starting lineup during training camp. Brown started Stromile Swift in the first four preseason games, Tsakalidis in the last four. Neither emerged as an obvious victor, and, as of press time, it was still unclear which way Brown would go.

Swift, who has been a cipher since being selected second overall in the 2000 draft, was having yet another disappointing season last year until the tragic death of Lorenzen Wright's infant daughter thrust him back into the lineup on March 1st. Swift responded to the opportunity, his numbers during March and April nearly doubling his output prior to that point, including an eye-opening five-game stretch in which he scored at least 20 points and grabbed at least 10 rebounds in each game, all Grizzlies victories.

There was hope that Swift would build on that finish heading into this, his fourth season, but the team decided to wait and see and has declined to offer Swift a contract extension. It's impossible to say for certain whether Swift's reaction to that decision has had a negative impact on his play, but he's had a rocky preseason, which only makes the front office's reticence to ink him long-term seem more prudent.

After a solid first game against Milwaukee, Swift has been his old sleepy, inconsistent self, mixing the occasional high-flying finish with an all-too-familiar repertoire: not being prepared for passes (he blew probably four dunks in the first half against Washington), freezing up with the ball in his hands, committing a couple of the worst bad-pass turnovers you'll ever see, and otherwise disappearing.

When Swift is on, he brings a lot to the table. He's an electric athlete whose physical gifts can make up for basketball skills that are distressingly limited for this stage of his career. On the other hand, at 6' 9" and a mere 225 pounds, Swift is a little undersized for power forward, much less center, and that lack of bulk can be exploited in the halfcourt defense, something demonstrated in the preseason by the ease with which beefy mediocrities like Milwaukee's Daniel Santiago and Washington's Jahidi White were able to back Swift down for easy buckets.

Going with Tsakalidis gives the team a completely different look. Big Jake is not quite as slow getting up and down the floor as you might expect from a man his size coming off back surgery, but his lumbering gait is still a problem in transition defense, as illustrated by Orlando's undersized center Andrew DeClercq beating him down the floor for lay-ups in the preseason. Tsakalidis' size isn't as much of a problem in the team's running game, because, unlike Swift, his primary role will not be to finish plays but to start them. A team can't run if it can't get stops and defensive rebounds, which is why Tsakalidis could serve an important catalytic role in the team's fast-breaking approach despite his lack of speed.

In the halfcourt, Tsakalidis isn't much of an offensive option. He's flashed a decent little jump-hook in the post, but he's got questionable hands and is remarkably slow finishing around the basket: He pauses to gather himself before declaring war on gravity to push his massive frame toward the hoop, which gives the defense more time to react, resulting in as many fouls as baskets. And this is a particular problem because he's such a poor free-throw shooter.

That said, Big Jake is probably better than his box scores. He doesn't garner as many rebounds and blocks as one might expect, but his size is a factor in the halfcourt defense. Tsakalidis' primary attribute is the way he alters shots and discourages penetration, assets that have been clear this preseason whenever he's on the floor. He also, for the first time in Memphis, gives the Grizzlies a wide body who can bang with the league's true centers.

If Brown isn't satisfied with either Swift or Tsakalidis in the first five, there's always local favorite Wright, who has played exclusively as the second-team center in the preseason. At 27 and entering his eighth season, there's no mystery left to Wright's game. At 6' 11" and 240 pounds, he's undersized for the pivot but gets by with aggressive rebounding and a crafty feel for the game's little tricks. Wright boasts a reliable 12-foot jumper, especially from the baseline, but has real problems catching passes under pressure.

Can the Grizzlies stop anybody?

Point guard Earl Watson should be a defensive menace again this season.

Last season, the Grizzlies were respectable offensively but horrible on the defensive end. Out of the league's 29 teams, the Grizzlies ranked 27th in points allowed, 28th in opponent field-goal percentage, and 25th in rebounding, and allowed more 30-point games from opposing scorers than any team in the league. Team defense was just plain bad from top to bottom and was so atrocious early on, before Brown took command, that it sometimes seemed as if Battier was guarding all five opposing players.

Grizzlies management responded to this by focusing on defensive improvement in every off-season move, adding the defensive-oriented big men from Phoenix, trading for athletic guards Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones on draft day, and, most importantly, using the team's entire mid-level exception to sign defensive specialist James Posey.

At first blush, it seemed that West had overpaid for Posey, a four-year veteran and role player whose career numbers of 9.4 points per game on 41 percent shooting aren't too exciting. But Posey came to the Grizzlies with a reputation as a lock-down defender and has been a true defensive force in the preseason, putting up five-steal games in limited minutes against Milwaukee and Orlando and brutalizing overmatched opponents against FC Barcelona.

Posey was miscast in Denver early last season as a primary option on one of the worst offensive teams in NBA history. Though he averaged an impressive 14 points per game for the Nuggets, it took him a lot of shots to get there. Posey shot the ball both considerably less and considerably better -- far from a coincidence -- after a mid-season trade to the Houston Rockets.

With the Grizzlies, Posey will be the defensive stopper, guarding the other team's most explosive perimeter scorer each night, and a complementary scorer in an offense built on ball- and player-movement rather than isolations. After struggling to find his place in the offense, Posey has been an extraordinarily effective and judicious scorer, shooting 58 percent in the preseason.

Posey will start ahead of Battier at small forward even though Battier, who has also been wonderful this preseason, is a better shooter. Though it might sound odd to a lot of Grizzlies fans, he'll do so because he's a better one-on-one defender. Battier is a brilliant team defender and in transition because of his smarts and hustle, but while he's solid straight-up, his athletic limitations are sometimes exposed when isolated against the McGradys and Bryants of the league. Posey (whose ball-denial defense on McGrady in the preseason was stellar) is quicker and stronger at the same size and is better equipped to handle such assignments. And Battier's increasing prowess as a spot-up shooter will be more useful on a second unit in need of scorers.

Combining Posey and Battier with Earl Watson gives the team three first-rate perimeter defenders in the 10-man rotation. Watson will step in as the full-time backup point guard and should garner significant minutes behind Williams. Watson was arguably the team's best defender last season, quick enough to stay with point guards and strong enough to body-up scoring guards, and he was the engine that drove Brown's full-court-pressing defense that was so effective late in the year.

Watson is an improving shooter with a knack for knocking down big shots. His problem has been his lack of speed, vision, and creativity as a ball-handler and passer, especially on the break, but he's shown clear strides in those areas in the preseason. If Watson's offense keeps improving, it'll be interesting to see if his pronounced defensive superiority to Williams gets him more court time.

Which leads to what is perhaps the crux of the Grizzlies' problems on defense: Though the team has added a lot of defensive talent over the off-season and though the team defense has looked much-improved in the preseason, the team's three most talented offensive players -- Williams, Gasol, and Miller -- are largely ineffective defenders. That trio will likely lead the team in minutes played, so for the Grizzlies to improve from bottom-of-the-pack to at least mediocrity on defense, they will have to step up their play as well.

What to expect?

As the Grizzlies began the Jerry West era last season, whatever optimism fans may have felt was undercut by two nagging problems -- coaching instability and a brutal early schedule. And these problems fed off one another, an 0-8 start leading to the entirely predictable firing of lame-duck coach Sidney Lowe.

Coaching is no longer an issue, but once again the league's schedule-makers have done the team no favors. The Grizzlies won't play a home game against a non-playoff team until December 3rd, a full 18 games into the season. Of those first 17 games, 11 are on the road. Conventional wisdom suggests that the seven best teams in the NBA this season will be the Lakers, Kings, Spurs, Mavericks, Timberwolves, Nets, and Pistons. In their first 17 games, the Grizzlies will play those seven teams eight times.

If the Grizzlies open this season with another long losing streak, how will it affect the team's psyche? What damage will it do to the optimism fans are bringing to the season? The irrational exuberance of playoff talk could turn swiftly to irrational malaise if the team stumbles out of the gate.

All of which makes Halloween night's season-opener against the Boston Celtics more compelling than an early contest in an 82-game schedule has any right to be. The Celtics, while a playoff team, were an uninspiring 44-38 in a soft Eastern Conference last season and traded their second-best player, forward Antoine Walker, late in the preseason, so they'll still be trying to make all the new parts fit. The game also affords an early read on Posey's ability to "d"-up the league's best perimeter scorers when he matches up with Paul Pierce. And fans can see if Gasol can continue to dominate mediocre frontlines when he matches up with the Celtics' undersized interior defenders. Winning on opening night would soften the blow if the team struggles in the tougher games to follow.

How will the Grizzlies do? Realistically, they'll finish anywhere from 7th to 12th in the 14-team West this season. The top six slots in the conference playoff picture seem set, with the Houston Rockets and Portland Trailblazers favorites for the final two slots. But Houston has been beset with chemistry issues all preseason in adapting to new coach Jeff Van Gundy, and Portland will field perhaps it's thinnest and least-talented team in 20 years (during which they've never missed the playoffs). If one of those teams stumbles, someone has to be there waiting to step in. And if the Grizzlies can survive that early schedule to the tune of 6-11 or even 5-12, they'll have a great chance to bypass soft Seattle, in-transition Golden State, still-a-year-away Denver, perennial disappointment L.A. Clippers, and rebuilding Utah to become that team.

Playoffs? Don't count on it. But don't rule it out either.

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