This year's edition of the Memphis Grizzlies will begin the season — their ninth in Memphis — with as wide a range of possibility as any squad in franchise history. This is the result of following a third straight terrible season (24 wins) with a high-risk/high-reward summer, a controversial strategy manifested in every realm of player acquisition — draft (7'3" project center Hasheem Thabeet with the second overall pick), trade (trouble magnet Zach Randolph, the league's most productive journeyman), and free agency (Allen Iverson, 34 years old and otherwise unwanted, but arguably one of the five most famous basketball players on the planet).
This is the most talented Grizzlies roster since the playoff years: It features a league-high four of last season's top 50 scorers, four former top-five draft picks, four seven-footers, and, for the first time ever, a key player who knows what it means to succeed at the highest level (former MVP and NBA finalist Iverson). But it's also a team full of question marks: Those four scorers are used to dominating the ball, not sharing it. Despite importing two high-profile veterans, the Grizzlies still will be expecting five-to-six rookies or second-year players to play important roles. And head coach Lionel Hollins, despite acquitting himself well after taking over for an over-matched Marc Iavaroni late last season, will be leading an NBA team to start a season for the first time in his career.
The national media has been fairly universal in its disapproval (notable exception: the high-minded Pro Basketball Prospectus, which projects playoffs), but it's equally easy to envision this team combusting en route to another sub-25-win campaign or coalescing for a push toward a winning record.
Most of the consternation about the Grizzlies' prospects this season has focused on the potential detrimental impact of adding two ball-dominant scorers (Iverson and Randolph) to a team that was already the worst assist team in the league last season. There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking. One is the implication that the goal of an offense in basketball is to create assists rather than score points. The other is the idea that there was much of an offense for Randolph and Iverson to mess up. The Grizzlies' meager assist numbers from last season are troubling but not as much as the team's meager scoring, which ranked them 28th out of 30 teams.
The apparent selfishness of the Grizzlies offense last season, which regularly resulted in Rudy Gay or O.J. Mayo going one-on-one, especially early in the year, was a big problem. But so was a lack of scorers. The team got very little offense from the point guard position until Mike Conley began to bloom under Hollins' tutelage late in the season. Darrell Arthur was an offensive disaster as a starting power forward. And off the bench, the Grizzlies gave major collective minutes to a quartet of perimeter players — Kyle Lowry, Marko Jaric, Greg Buckner, and Quinton Ross — who all shot under 40 percent.
Adding Randolph (career 17 points per game on 47 percent shooting) and Iverson (a career 27-point scorer and one of the great shot creators in basketball history) is almost certain to improve the team's 28th-ranked offense. How much will depend on how well Hollins can blend his team's talents together, deploy scoring threats throughout his lineups, and get his four main scorers to adjust their games to each other.
While this Grizzlies team's four primary scorers are known as shot creators, most of them can still be offensive threats without dominating the ball. Randolph has shown in the preseason that he can get several shots a game off his own offensive rebounds and has done a good job so far of limiting the three-point attempts that infected his game last season. Mayo can flourish in catch-and-shoot situations. Gay is a catch-and-shoot threat but is even better as a catch-and-dunk threat. Of the core group of scorers, only Iverson is truly dependent on dominating the ball to create shots. If his minutes are maximized in lineups filled with offensively deferential players, such as the team's three rookies — Thabeet, DeMarre Carroll, and Sam Young — then Iverson could still be a ball-controlling, high-volume shooter that could be beneficial to the team.
Iverson is one of the most charismatic athletes — on and off the court — in any sport. He's raised the team's profile and should sell more tickets. He can also be a huge help on the court if he's willing to accept an "instant offense" bench role that best fits his skills at this stage of his career and that would help Hollins distribute offensive firepower throughout the team's playing rotation. So far, however, Iverson has publicly bristled at the idea of being a sixth man and hasn't suited up with the team after tearing his hamstring early in training camp. What becomes of the Iverson experiment is anybody's guess, but it should provide intrigue throughout the season.
Defensively, the Grizzlies were more respectable last season (20th) than most would probably guess. Randolph has a history of inattention on this end of the court, but his strength and rebounding ability should make him a slight upgrade on the sieve (Hakim Warrick) whose minutes he's primarily replacing. But the Grizzlies' best hope for defensive improvement will come from internal improvement (particularly from the perimeter trio of Conley, Mayo, and, especially, Gay) and its defensive-oriented rookie class. Of the latter, top pick Thabeet, while a potentially dominant defender down the road, hasn't looked ready for a major role this season. But Young and Carroll should, at the least, be able to duplicate the solid defense of departed veterans Ross and Buckner while bringing more offensive ability.
On media day, the Grizzlies led with a Iverson and Randolph press conference. Mayo and Gay paired up next. The symbolism was clear: Iverson and Randolph were the main event. Mayo and Gay, the undercard. On the court, however, Mayo and Gay remain the team's most important players — this season and especially long-term.
And long-term is the real issue here. After preaching youth and patience for the past couple of seasons, owner Michael Heisley, now the team's de facto president of basketball operations, seemed to short-circuit his own plan with the acquisitions of Randolph (two years on his contract) and Iverson (on a one-year deal).
The Grizzlies could be substantially better this season, but that won't mean Heisley made the right decisions. When an NBA team is coming off a 24-win season and has three draft picks (including #2 overall) and massive cap space and it uses all those assets on players, getting better should be a given. Any reasonable scenario the Grizzlies would have pursued this summer would have improved the team. But there was an opportunity cost in the team's decision to bank on the short-term boost from high-risk/high-reward acquisitions such as Iverson and Randolph — the cost of not adding a serious long-term piece before the team's young core starts coming up for more lucrative contract extensions.
The hope for the Grizzlies this season is that the combination of Iverson and a competitive team will bring more fans to FedExForum and that Mayo, Gay, and the rest of the team's young talent base will exhibit the kind of growth that can make these advances sustainable. If not, Grizzlies fans — and perhaps Heisley himself — may wonder if smart team building was sacrificed to starstruck gimmickry.
1) The Grizzlies will be one of the most improved teams in the NBA — and still miss the playoffs. The Grizzlies offense will make a big leap from terrible to average. The defense will maintain its mediocrity. The result? Respectabilty! Predicted record: 36-46.
2) The attendance bump will be real but modest. The Grizzlies' average announced home attendance will get a four-figure boost but remain in the bottom quarter of the league. Game atmosphere will improve, however, with considerably fewer empty seats.
3) The Grizzlies will have an all-rookie-team member — and it won't be Hasheem Thabeet. The #2 pick will struggle with foul trouble and a lack of NBA strength. The number 28 pick, DeMarre Carroll, however, will be among the league's 10 best rookies, playing close to 30 minutes a game at both forward spots, filling up the stat sheet, and winning over fans and inspiring teammates with constant hustle plays.
4) Zach Randolph will stay out of trouble. Randolph's rap sheet with the Portland Trailblazers is infamous, but his off-court issues have declined in both frequency and severity the past couple of seasons. That trend will continue, and fans will be more concerned about his listless defense than what he does after games.
5) The Allen Iverson experiment will be a partial success. Iverson will struggle to get in game shape and stay healthy, missing 20-plus games, and will also mope about his bench role before ultimately accepting it. On the court, he'll be exciting and effective, well worth his contract if but a shadow of his former dominance.
For an expanded preview of this year's Grizzlies and game coverage throughout the season, see Chris Herrington's blog, "Beyond the Arc," at memphisflyer.com/blogs/BeyondtheArc.