Prior to last season, its ninth as a professional basketball team, the Memphis -- formerly Vancouver -- Grizzlies had never appeared in a playoff game. The team had never won even 30 games in a season, the starting point for mediocrity at the highest level of pro hoops. Only twice over the previous eight years had it managed to finish out of last place in its seven-team division. It had the worst franchise winning percentage in the league. In statistical terms, to find an equally inept franchise you'd have to travel back to the NBA of the 1940s and acquaint yourself with the likes of the Providence Steamrollers and Pittsburgh Ironmen. Other than the splashy hire of NBA legend Jerry West the summer before, the Grizzlies franchise had never made much of an impression on NBA fans or media outside the suffering cities in which it toiled.
But things changed last season, for James Posey and for his new team. After signing a modest, entirely unheralded contract as an off-season free agent, Posey put on a Grizzlies uniform and then put up career-best numbers in virtually every offensive category. By the end of the season, his overall play matched any small forward in the game. As a result, Posey finished fourth in the league's voting for the season's most improved player and probably should have won.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies bested their franchise record for wins in a season before the All Star break en route to a 50-win season, the starting point for excellence in the NBA. Together, Posey and his new team made their playoff debut, and even though they fell swiftly to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, it was undoubtedly a sweet reward for years of struggle.
As the most significant NEW addition to a team that had stumbled to 28 wins the season before, Posey can be credited as the primary catalyst for the Grizzlies' historic turnaround, especially when you consider that the collective style of play that the team used to surprise the rest of the league -- a combination of opportunistic defense and efficient offense -- exactly mimicked the individual style of play that drove Posey's personal breakout season.
Even though the Grizzlies won 22 more games than in the season before, the team's offensive improvement was only modest. The real story behind the turnaround was a defense that improved from one of the league's worst to well above average, allowing only 94 points per game after giving up over 100 per game the season before.
In this respect, the addition of Posey was only one of a host of seemingly subtle moves that resulted in a major defensive transformation. Earl Watson shifting over to his natural point-guard position in place of Brevin Knight: upgrade. Bonzi Wells replacing Wesley Person early in the season: upgrade. Bo Outlaw usurping departed journeyman Mike Batiste: major upgrade. But with his long arms, quick hands, and constantly revving motor making him the best defender in the starting lineup and the player most likely to match up with the other team's top scorer, it was Posey who was the feature attraction in this team-wide overhaul.
The Grizzlies' defense improved so much last season that whenever the offense clicked, the Grizzlies won, going 25-3 when scoring over 100 points and 14-1 when shooting over 50 percent. And, like Posey, the team just kept getting better as the season progressed. After starting the year 15-17, the Grizzlies caught fire after New Year's Day, going 35-15 the rest of the way.
But what may have been most impressive was that the Grizzlies were able to win 50 games and were able to play effective defense, despite being the worst defensive rebounding team in the entire league. With all of its significant frontcourt players more wiry and athletic than bulky and strong, the Grizzlies were routinely pushed around in the paint. It was so bad that fans became quite accustomed to seeing such beefy mediocrities as Phoenix's Jahidi White or Utah's Greg Ostertag dominate games.
And yet the Grizzlies were able to offset this potentially crippling deficiency with a pressure defense that forced turnovers in bunches. The Grizzlies were first in the league in steals, second in blocks, and third in forced turnovers. Essentially, the extra possessions opponents got because of the Grizzlies' shoddy rebounding were negated by the turnovers the Grizzlies forced. And Posey -- the poster child for Hubie Brown's favorite obscure statistical category, deflections -- led the way. Posey finished among the league leaders in steals despite playing fewer than 30 minutes a game in Brown's 10-man rotation, and, with his penchant for stepping into passing lanes, he was the player most likely to turn a deflection into a fast-break heading the other way.
Or, if you're the kind of sports fan who favors the romance of the unprovable over the clarity of statistical analysis, you can say that James Posey is the player who finally gave the Grizzlies their growl.
To back up this assertion you can cite the inspirational performances and symbolic gestures that transformed Posey from an unknown quantity to the team's most beloved player: tackling the showboating Sacramento Kings star Peja Stojakovic and then shutting him down a month later; ripping the ball, and the upper-hand in a battle for a playoff spot, from a scrum of Houston Rockets in a dramatic, nationally televised game; sinking that midcourt prayer to force double overtime in Atlanta; outplaying LeBron James at both ends of the court to will his undermanned team to win number 50. This is the Posey who inspired Brown's oddly endearing endorsement at a post-game press conference that "he's neat to be around" and "his parents did a wonderful job with him."
Statistically speaking, when individual players past a certain age have big single-season increases in their numbers, as James Posey did last season, they tend to fall back to their career norms the next season. Basketball writer John Hollinger, whose provocative work is a hoops equivalent to the Bill Jamesian baseball research detailed in the best-seller Moneyball, calls this the Fluke Rule. In Hollinger's study, players who qualify for the Fluke Rule regress the following season about 90 percent of the time. Posey was a little too young last season to technically meet Hollinger's parameters, but in the current edition of the author's annual Pro Basketball Forecast, he still cites Posey as a likely candidate for a drop-off this season, primarily because Posey's statistical improvement was driven almost entirely by an increase in his shooting percentages, which Hollinger has found to be the category most given to wild fluctuations.
The same trend is true of teams: Ones that make huge leaps from one year to another, as the Grizzlies did last season, tend to take a step back the subsequent season. According to another Hollinger study, teams that improve by more than 15 games in one season average four fewer wins the next season. These statistics suggest the Grizzlies should fall back to earth a little this year -- with 45 wins as a more reasonable expectation than 50. Given the improvements made by teams such as the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets, Utah Jazz, and Phoenix Suns, that would probably place the Grizzlies on the playoff bubble. And there are plenty of reasons to conclude that the Grizzlies had more than their fair share of good breaks last season, starting with the team's 5-0 record in overtime and the fact that all three wins against the Spurs came with star Tim Duncan injured.
Given that Posey's potential fluke season was instrumental in spurring the Grizzlies' potential fluke season, perhaps asking the team to repeat its unlikely performance from last season means asking the same of Posey.
Luckily for Grizzlies fans, there's an alternate explanation for a fluke season in which Posey showed huge improvements in his shooting both inside and beyond the three-point arc. The one shooting number that didn't change for Posey was his always-excellent free-throw percentage, a measure of pure shooting ability unrelated to the ability to create shots. That this demonstrated shooting touch had never translated to other facets of the game until last season begs the question: Did Posey become a better shooter last season or just take better shots?
Hollinger is wrong when he says that Posey's shooting percentages were the only things different about his game last season. Other things that changed were the uniform Posey was wearing, the coach he was playing for, the teammates he was playing with, and the system he was running.
If you look closely at the difference between how Posey played in Denver and Houston the season before and how he played in Memphis last season, you can see a change in how Posey was used. Not only did Posey's shooting percentages go up in Memphis, the percentage of his baskets that were assisted did as well. This means that Posey created fewer shots for himself using the dribble and became more of a catch-and-shoot player, a situation more similar to the free-throw line where Posey had always thrived. Posey also took a higher percentage of his shots around the basket in Memphis, shots typically coming either in transition or off designed cuts. Add in that Posey's assists and turnovers were both down (something Hollinger acknowledges but dismisses too casually), and it's clear that Posey handled the ball far less in Memphis than he had during his time in Denver.
In other words, in Memphis Posey stopped being used as a creator of offense, a facet of the game where he struggles, and was used almost exclusively as a finisher. The result was that a previously low-percentage offensive player was transformed into one of the league's most efficient scorers. (Posey was fourth in the league in points per shot attempt.) Posey scored on the break and around the basket and off his own steals. He knocked down spot-up three-pointers. He attacked the basket aggressively, getting to the free-throw line, where he's a fantastic shooter. And that was it.
As the season wore on and Posey got more comfortable with the Memphis system, he just got better and better. Late in the season, he was frequently scoring 30-plus points without ever forcing the issue. Since he was already established as an elite defensive player, this improvement on offense turned Posey into one of the league's better players. In this respect alone was Posey's transformation different from that of his team.
So instead of Posey's season being a fluke, it was the result of finally finding a role that maximized his strengths and minimized his weaknesses, Posey finally found his true level of play. That Posey is not the only but merely the most dramatic example of a player maximizing his skills in a Grizzly uniform (see Jason Williams last season) is the best evidence of all that perhaps the team's big leap wasn't such a fluke either. To put it another way: Hubie Brown really earned that Coach of the Year award.
Of course, Posey isn't the only Grizzlies player with SOME- thing to prove this season. Offensive focal point Pau Gasol will be pressured to live up to the max-salary contract extension he signed over the off-season. Mike Miller, who has already missed time in the preseason due to his chronic back problems, will try to prove he isn't on the verge of becoming a Michael Dickerson- or Bryant Reeves-style albatross. After failing to reach an agreement with the Grizzlies, or any other team, Stromile Swift will be playing for a new contract as he faces unrestricted free agency. New signee Brian Cardinal, a marginal player prior to last season, will try to show he was worth the long-term commitment West made to him. And one-time problem child Bonzi Wells will try to show that his character rehabilitation after coming to Memphis last year is the real deal.
That's a lot of players but only a start to the list of names that will impact the Grizzlies this season: There's the odd-couple point guard tandem of Jason Williams (a brilliant playmaker but still a defensive liability) and Earl Watson (a sometimes overpowering defender who couldn't shoot straight last season). There's fan-favorite swingman Shane Battier (like Watson, a defensive force who needs to shoot better this season). There's gritty Lorenzen Wright and lumbering Jake Tsakalidis, two thirds of the team's stylistically varied center troika. There's defensive pest Bo Outlaw (who could be pushed out of the rotation by Cardinal). And then there's the quintet of young players (Ryan Humphrey, Dahntay Jones, Andre Emmett, Troy Bell, and Antonio Burks) currently fighting for a spot on the roster, much less on the court.
The Grizzlies were renowned for their team depth last season and for how Brown used that depth in a trademark 10-man rotation about to get copied around the league as much as the "West Coast Offense" was in the NFL a decade ago. But they're even deeper this season, adding Cardinal (who finished 10th in the most-improved voting) and rotation-worthy second-round steal Emmett while losing only undrafted rookie Theron Smith. Throw in noticeable improvements from previously marginal players like Jones (his jump shot the revelation of the preseason) and Tsakalidis (in better condition than a year ago), and Brown has more options to work with than ever before.
Another key to the Grizzlies' turnaround last season was how much of a money team they became in the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies were an NBA-best 35-2 when leading coming into the final period and also sported a league-best 14 fourth-quarter comebacks. Was this a fluke or the result of fresh legs, good coaching, and clutch play? As with the astounding play of Posey and so many other pleasant surprises from last season, we're about to find out how real it is. •
Editor's note: For Grizzlies news and coverage throughout the season, check out Beyond the Arc, Chris Herrington's Grizzlies blog, at memphisflyer.com/grizblog.html.