Sports » Sports Feature

Basketball Church Is Out

Now that Hubie's gone, how will the Grizzlies respond?



What a difference a week makes. Last Monday, after a rousing home win against the San Antonio Spurs, Hubie Brown was talking about how good his team would be later in the season when everyone was healthy. Now he's gone, and his team is in total disarray.

Brown's sudden departure over the Thanksgiving weekend wasn't shocking, but it was horribly depressing. I was going to write an homage to Hubie this week, but writer Eric Neel beat me to it Monday morning with a lovely column that pretty much says it all. I'll just add that I'll miss Hubie terribly -- not as a Grizzlies fan and not because of his on-court successes. I'll miss Hubie as a basketball fan, because every press conference, every open practice was like attending basketball church. I'll miss Hubie's crackerjack cadences and professorial exactitude, his combination of a codger's crankiness and a middle-schooler's enthusiasm. Most of all I'll miss how deeply he went into the game itself whenever he spoke about it. I never went to Hubie fishing for a quote; I went to learn more about the game. And as a hopeless hoops fan, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity to have listened to him talk about basketball for the past two years.

That said, now's the time to look forward. Reports have Jerry West negotiating with Mike Fratello to become the next Grizzlies coach, and there's a chance an announcement could have been made by the time you read this column. But whoever the next coach is, many of the storylines for the rest of this season are now in place:

What happens to the 10-man rotation? The centerpiece of Hubie Ball also became one of the alleged sticking points that drove Brown's departure, with reports of some players, and even Jerry West himself, questioning Brown's substitution patterns and minute distributions.

There are bound to be changes to the rotation with a new coach in place, and those changes are almost certain to start with an uptick in Pau Gasol's minutes. But unless injuries continue to play a role or trades are made, those changes will likely be minor. This team simply has too many good players and not enough great ones for anyone other than Gasol to warrant 40 minutes a night.

Can the team regain its chemistry? Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders was asked about this most intangible of sports clichés early last season and gave an interesting response. Chemistry, Saunders said, is having a pecking order and having players accept it. For the Grizzlies, that pecking order has had Brown at the top. His stature combined with the youth and lack of accomplishment of his players fed this, as did the relative player anonymity encouraged by the 10-man rotation. That all changes now.

It might be that a transition in emphasis from coach to players is an unavoidable growing pain for a young team, but given the lack of a clear-cut veteran star and the onslaught of issues around players with new contracts (Gasol, Brian Cardinal, Shane Battier, and Jake Tsakalidis), without new contracts (Stromile Swift), and looking toward free-agency (Swift, Bonzi Wells, and Earl Watson), applying Saunders' definition of chemistry to this team seems a daunting task.

Who's on the block? The Grizzlies have been a constant focus of trade rumors since the end of last season, and though nothing has happened yet, this week's presumed coaching change makes a deal even more likely. Players most likely to go? The bet here is Wells and Lorenzen Wright. Players most likely to come? Chicago's Eddy Curry and Toronto's Vince Carter have been mentioned in connection with the Griz, and both might make some sense. Other names are sure to pop up as well.

What's West's status? Suggestions that West may soon follow Brown out the door seem to amount to nothing more than pure speculation. But the way West deflected questions about his future at last week's press conference rather than confronting them sure won't make those questions go away.

Will this be a lost season? It sure looked that way over the weekend, as the shell-shocked Griz lost two depressing games. Given the team's injuries and the rough early schedule, the team's poor start wasn't all that bad. But with each loss this discombobulated team piles up waiting for a coaching resolution, the battle back to playoff contention steepens.

In December, the Grizzlies' schedule becomes a feast of lower-tier Eastern Conference teams. If the Grizzlies can get healthy and get their act together enough to make a push for .500 heading into the new year, then there's no reason this team can't still be a playoff contender. But, as Hubie would say, this is a very fragile situation.

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