He's always been one of my favorite TV analysts, so I jumped at a chance to ask NBA on TNT analyst (and NBA great) Chris Webber a few questions about the Grizzlies and this year's Western Conference.
Webber will be on the call with play-by-play broadcaster Marv Albert and reporter Rachel Nichols when the Grizzlies visit the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night at 9:30 p.m. Central on TNT.
Beyond the Arc: So the Grizzlies have changed some things up this year, but mostly it's the same Grizzlies team that's been in the playoffs the last few years.
Chris Webber: Well I tell you, my first thoughts are Gasol has been, you know, if not the top then one of the top 2 or 3 defensive players in this league the last five years. I'm not just talking about when he won Defensive Player of the Year, and I definitely think teams like the Clippers with their big men have learned from the inside play and passing of those two guys, where they don't play above the rim, but they're still passing, getting each other involved with ducking in, and just the post game of Gasol himself. Any time you have those two guys, and Conley... even though it's the beginning of the season, you're gonna expect great things barring injury and things like that.
I do know coach Elston Turner, he was my coach in Sacramento, and I know he's a hell of a defensive coach—in my mind one of the best defensive coaches in this game—and I know whereas they're trying to become more fluid offensively, you know, that he can still hold them down defensively, and on that sideline. And, you know, Tony Allen... I'm just a big fan of that team and how tough they are, and with the addition of Matt Barnes and Jeff Green.
So I really don't know what to expect with the first week of the season. You see how everybody kind of meshes and gels together. But with their four starters, they have a piece to have a good team for a long time.
Speaking of it being early in the season... This is more a question for you as a guy who played in the league a long time than as an analyst. They just lost to the Warriors by 50 points the other night. The cliche is that you lose like that and just move on to the next game, but is that true?
I'm just thinking about me, personally, that would bother me. I don't know that I'd be able to look past it. What's that like in the NBA, when you lose a big game like that? How do you get past that?
Well, I tell you—if we start with college, or let's say football, where you have a bye week, and you have to sit on a loss, that's terrible, or in college, when you have a loss and you have four days in between. I remember when I first got to the NBA, one of the best feelings was even though it's a lot of games, you can't sit on a loss. Because you have a game the very next day. And that really helps. That focus helps as a distraction.
You can't survive if you're worried about one game. You know, if they're worried about the Warriors, they could make it to the playoffs and the Warriors could be out the round before them. There are no guarantees. There's no way to predict, and those that are strong are the ones who say 'This game is one game.' And as long as it's just one game in the loss column, you have to fix it, and you have to come out and play better—and the next time they play them, I'm sure it'll be in their head—but as far as the next night, no.
Teams that are under .500, that's who they are. When they win a big game, they're still excited about it, and they take back because they can't leave that at home, and vice versa.
I'm like you. I've done it in basketball, but if I were a pitcher, I don't know how I would pitch in a big game after giving up a home run. Friends of mine that are pitchers say the best pitchers have the worst memories. It's a skill that you kind of have to take and hone and make it a skill, because it's not natural.
They are going to remember it the next time they play. If they say they don't think about then, that's not true. When you get blown out, you can not remember it the next day because you can't get that back, but the next time they play, I definitely... especially at home, I bet Memphis looks good.
The Warriors, though. They definitely seem to be the team to beat in the West right now. Who are those other teams, to you? That could really win the West and make it past the Conference Finals. Are the Grizzlies one of those teams to you?
I think when you look at the West, you really have to go top to probably seven. So I do think they're one of those teams. I agree with you—the Warriors look great, and Stephen Curry looks like an MVP, but having played in the league I know there are ebbs and flows in the league. And having watched the league you know injuries come into play, road trips come into play, other things. It's not about—you can't win the championship right now. You have to get into the playoffs and your team has to get better and that has to be your focus.
When you look at a seven game series, some would say the Clippers are favored. I would say that they're really good and they can be favored but they may have trouble with Memphis in a seven game series. Or Memphis may have trouble with Houston in a seven game series. Basketball is all matchups when it comes to the playoffs, and none of those are true scenarios I mentioned, but those are examples that teams one through seven in the West, actually one through eight, because you may have OKC who wasn't there last year, or Phoenix or someone else that slides in with momentum. Definitely the top six teams can have something to say about who's going to be champion, and if you take out the favorite, it's a free-for-all.
So that's what I expect in the playoffs. I don't expect to see anybody win series that are 4-1, 4-1, 4-1. We haven't even talked about San Antonio, and they may have one of the best power forwards in the game playing with Tim Duncan, and that pick and roll is so hard to stop.
So I think the West is wide open.
The Grizzlies have been a playoff team the last five years. They've made it to the Conference Finals once, and they've been in the second round a few times, but they've never quite gotten over that hump. When you watch this team, what is it to you that has kept them from being able to get to the Finals and win a championship? What is the one thing the Grizzlies need to do to make that leap? Is it just luck? Do they need to catch the right team?
You know, there are so many factors that play into it. We could ask the Clippers the same thing, or San Antonio a couple of years ago. It's all of that. It's luck, it's magic, it's having the right players. I remember during the series in the Grindhouse a couple years ago—the series they lost to the Clippers in seven games, I think they were going to play a team they'd dominated in the regular season, San Antonio or something.
I think one obvious thing is that defense has been great and they can bang inside and set the tone inside-out, but some knock-down shooters would be great.
But really, they can win with this style. I would say they're one of five teams with an identity. You look at San Antonio, you look at the Clippers because of the high-flying, you look at Cleveland because of how LeBron plays... this team has an identity. I think that's the biggest thing to be proud of in the chase for a championship, because everyone else—a lot of other teams search and search and search. And as a player it's frustrating to be searching, and be part of a new program every year, starting back at ground zero. These guys have had some tough roads, but they've always been consistent with how they play and their attention to detail, and that's really all you can ask.
Maybe some more knock-down shooters, that type of thing, maybe that would spread the floor even more for those guys, but I really don't see a glaring weakness in one of the toughest teams in the NBA. I think that's a pretty good identity to have.
I know when you were playing, there may not have been a lot of people at the games in Memphis, but when you come back to cover playoff games here, does it surprise you how much the fanbase has grown here?
No, not at all. When I played, I loved it. The games I played there were pretty well-attended. I always loved the culture of Memphis, and the museums I would go to—Stax, and the school of music there, and the food. I have family that's there in Tunica nearby, so it's always been great for me. I know people that represent Memphis in sports are very tough, so I'm not surprised. I knew the culture there.
I'm happy that they don't have to be a culture that just loves their team, that they can be a culture that has a really good team that they can support. As a fan, every year for the last five years, I think you can say honestly every year that your team has a chance to win it. You have to feel good about that. As a fan, I think that's all you want, is to be a part of the conversation.
You talked about Gasol and his defense a little bit. Last year was a big contract year for him. He's locked up on a long term deal now, and he didn't play for Spain this summer like he always has. So he's come in a little bit rusty because he took the whole summer off.
When you're a player and you sign a big contract like that, does it change your motivation a little bit? You always hear "so and so is having a big year because it's a contract year", but is that real? Or is that just an excuse people make?
I think it's definitely true for some guys. But that's when you see inconsistent effort, and I don't think you've ever been able to see inconsistent effort in Gasol. And I think, with the new contracts, that you got him for cheap. With the way these contracts are going to happen in the next three years.
I think it's good that he took the summer off. Basketball isn't a year round sport, but because endorsers and camps and what not require you to be that way, you have to rest and play for the NBA. I love him, I love his Olympic team and all that, but he's NBA first. So the fact that he took off this summer, that really shouldn't be controversial, because he's supposed to take the summer off.
I talked to him about it a little bit and he was saying it was weird not playing, that it was the first summer he hasn't played for Spain in years. And I was thinking that has to play into fatigue down the stretch of the season, in April.
You know? Exactly. And think about it. Let's just say if it was four summers, that's two seasons. And if I'm a Memphis fan... I'm just being honest about that. And the same goes for our Olympians.
But I do think, you know, you look at LeBron and his back, you look at other things—it really does take a toll. It's surprising when Kobe gets older and hurt but I remember him playing with broken hands and thumbs... it takes a toll. And the only way for it not to take a toll is with the proper rest and rehab.
I would say that maybe that's the one thing with all the technology and the great way all these guys are working out, all the nutrition, that the old common sense of rest is not being adhered to. So I'm actually glad that he got some rest this summer.
You played against Zach Randolph. How hard is that? Do you just feel like you got hit by a train the next day? What's it like to face off against Zach Randolph?
He and Marc, but Zach... Zach reminds me a lot of when I first came into the league, the older players I would play against that, after the game, your sternum is bruised because they would take their shoulder right up into your sternum. There's an art to bang in the paint and not foul or get frustrated. He's a frustration artist. Because he doesn't hold, he doesn't...
You know, if there was a tape, on anyone in the league, of how to post up and get open the correct way, that I was going to show kids in middle school, high school, college, it would be of Zach Randolph. He's not the most athletic, he's not the strongest, but he uses his space, his low center of gravity—and just like Bill Laimbeer and some others that maybe didn't have the highest jumping ability, you know, Bill Laimbeer led the league in rebounding because of his positioning. He plays position defense.
It's frustrating playing a guy like that. Because you really have to keep your balance and slow the game down, because the faster he moves and frustrates you, the better. But I love watching those guys play because it's like the basketball I grew up watching. It reminds me of the Bad Boys, and the Bulls, and that stuff. So I like watching those guys play inside.
Big thanks to Chris Webber for taking time to talk to Beyond the Arc. —KL