Last week on his afternoon radio show, 730-AM Fox Sports host Chris Vernon joked that Memphis Grizzlies fans talk about the franchise's 50-win team from the 2003-2004 season like it was the '27 Yankees.
But can you blame them? After all, that squad, coached by Hubie Brown, is not only the best NBA team Memphis has known but also the most interesting.
It's hard not to think of that team midway through this season, as another Grizzlies team has unexpectedly risen from the muck. In overcoming a brutal 1-8 start and the public relations fiasco named Allen Iverson to climb into the Western Conference playoff race, the similarities between Hubie Brown's beloved charges and the current incarnation of the Grizzlies are hard to avoid.
Just as before, Coach Lionel Hollins — who had been a Brown assistant during the 50-win season — took over a young, struggling team the prior season, losing at first but building a new culture. In both cases, the teams finished with a dismal record (28 wins in Brown's debut, 24 for Hollins), but improvement was apparent and finally paid dividends in the season's final weeks (10-13 under Brown, 7-5 under Hollins).
Both teams added rookie projects the next summer, but the biggest off-season addition in each case was a tough-nosed veteran (James Posey then, Zach Randolph now) who met expectations to start then gradually exploded on the way to a career-best season, becoming a huge fan favorite in the process.
Posey became something of a cult hero that year, his aggressive, opportunistic defense, clutch three-point shooting, and chip-on-his-shoulder toughness all symbolizing the strengths of the team.
Something similar has happened with Randolph over the past couple of months. Long a productive player, Randolph came to the Grizzlies a journeyman, having been traded three times in the past three seasons, in each case for very little return. And Randolph's scoring and rebounding prowess had been obscured by a series of off-court problems and a history of wayward shot selection that was sometimes counter to team success.
Coming to Memphis was a chance for a career makeover, and Randolph has seized it, adding swagger to this young team much as Posey had before. Along the way, Randolph's strengths — his rebounding, his inside scoring, the chip-on-his-shoulder toughness, all of which mirror those of interior tag-team partner Marc Gasol — have also come to symbolize the team's. On the court, a rehabilitated Randolph has become a fan favorite, something of a cult hero. In the locker room, a quiet leader (named a co-captain, along with Gasol). Off the court, incident-free.
As with Brown's 50-win team, the climb of this year's Grizzlies has been gradual and unexpected. Both teams wobbled out of the gate (2-4 for Brown, a seemingly crushing 1-8 for Hollins) but steadied themselves for an ascent. And 36 games into their season, Brown's team was exactly where Hollins' is after last weekend: 18-18 and poised for a potential playoff run.
How Has It Happened?
As this season began, the focus for the Grizzlies was all on one player: Allen Iverson, the veteran superstar whom owner Michael Heisley pursued over the initial objections of his own basketball staff.
The Grizzlies got a short-term publicity and ticket-sales boost from the Iverson signing, but trying to integrate a past-his-prime player and notoriously difficult personality accustomed to playing heavy minutes and dominating the ball into a balanced team concept was always going to be a challenge. And then the experiment blew up even quicker than anyone expected: Iverson got injured, missed all of pre-season, complained about his role after one game, left the team after three games, and severed ties with the organization a mere 10 games into the season, after which the Grizzlies were 2-8 and their season was on life support.
What was happening behind the scenes was interesting, however. Hollins was taking a public hit for what many perceived as his ornery, resentful mishandling of the Iverson situation, but by treating the troublesome veteran star with fairness rather than favoritism, Hollins was really solidifying the respect he'd earned from his young team the previous season. And with the Iverson distraction out of the way quickly, the team still had time to rally around their coach — and, perhaps more crucially, each other — and save their season. The result through last weekend: The team was 0-3 with Iverson on the court, 2-8 with him on the roster, and 16-10 since parting ways. Along the way, the Grizzlies story has morphed happily from one about an individual player to one about an unusually balanced team (at least in the starting line-up).
Hollins, named Western Conference Coach of the Month after a 9-4 December, and Randolph, who nearly took home the same player award after averaging 24 points and 14 rebounds for the month, have been at the forefront of this transformation, but it goes deeper.
Randolph, known as a "20-10" player throughout his career, has changed his game this season in ways that a mere glance at his scoring (20.4) and rebounding (11.5) averages don't capture. In his seventh season as a full-time player, Randolph is notching the best shooting percentage, offensive rebound rate, combined block/steal averages, and highest concentration of interior shot attempts of his career. By playing closer to the basket more often and hitting the boards with unprecedented ferocity, Randolph has increased his interior attempts and dramatically increased the tip-ins and putbacks that are his trademark. Essentially, he's exchanged a couple of low-percentage jumpers every game for high-percentage lay-ups and tip-ins. And by dialing back his perimeter shots, he's promoted better floor balance on a team that already has two dynamic perimeter scorers (O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay), incorporating his own game into a team context better than ever in his career. This season, Randolph has become a different kind of scoring and rebound machine.
This kind of personal change has reverberated through the team's "core four" of Randolph, Mayo, Gay, and Gasol.
Gasol, who came into his second season with a noticeably thinner physique, built an immediate rapport with Randolph in the form of a high-low game that seems to produce a couple of baskets each game and has mirrored Randolph by concentrating his game more inside and, as a result, increasing his shooting percentage (currently third in the NBA). He's also upgraded his rebounding on both ends of the floor. But the biggest difference with Gasol has been defensively, where his ability to guard power forwards has allowed the team to play him and rookie center Hasheem Thabeet together. During his rookie season, the Grizzlies were six points worse defensively (per 100 possessions) with Gasol on the court. This season, the team has been six points better with Gasol, a dramatic swing symbolized by Gasol making a game-winning defensive play with his blocked shot against the Utah Jazz Friday night.
Rounding out one of the league's best frontcourts, Gay has bounced back from a listless third season to put his career back on track. Like Randolph and Gasol, he's improved his field-goal percentage by improving his shot selection, and he's used his own physical makeover — a bulked-up body — to attack the basket, resulting in a dramatic increase in his free-throw attempts. And after a particularly weak start defensively, Gay has improved his effort at that end of the court, something reflected in the numbers, where he's turned a huge negative defensive rating last season into a slightly positive one this season.
In the backcourt, second-year guard Mayo's improvement has been more subtle and more gradual. Early in the season, Mayo's more deferential offense and faltering three-point stroke suggested a sophomore slump. But he was quietly expanding his game — shooting a better percentage inside the arc, getting to the basket more, finishing better when he got there. He's also reduced his turnover rate sharply and improved on last season's poor defense.
So when his outside shot came back a few weeks ago, Mayo was primed to make his move. Since then, Mayo has become more assertive — 20-plus points and 4-plus assist games becoming more common — and is again looking like an emerging star, something indicated by his series of clutch late-game plays over the past week: stealing the ball from Portland star Brandon Roy and getting fouled late in a road win against the Trailblazers; hitting a go-ahead pull-up jumper in the final offensive possession to set up a home victory over the Utah Jazz; and tying the game with a contested three-pointer in the final seconds at Charlotte before the Grizzlies lost on a Bobcats buzzer-beater.
With this core four all playing well individually and as a unit, the Grizzlies have been able to carve an unusual team identity.
When the team acquired shot-heavy vets Randolph and Iverson last summer, most critics sounded an alarm because the Grizzlies had been the league's worst assist team the prior season. The reasoning — always flawed — was that the team was compounding its biggest problem.
But the Grizzlies' biggest problem wasn't passing. It was scoring, and those two factors don't always march in unison. The Grizzlies' scoring woes last season weren't merely a result of poor team play — though that was part of it. It was the result of not having enough scorers.
With the addition of Randolph and the improvement of Gasol providing an inside counterbalance to the perimeter exploits of Gay and Mayo, that's no longer a problem. And the Grizzlies have transformed their offensive performance without dramatically improving their assist numbers.
While the Grizzlies' assist ratio has improved modestly from a dead-last 30th to 27th, the team's overall offensive performance has jumped from 28th last season to 11th. This is the result of adding a more efficient Randolph to a trio of incumbent scorers who've made similar improvement. But it has also been spurred by the combination of better offensive rebounding and fewer turnovers (28th in turnover ratio last season, up to 18th this season), giving the team more possessions.
Along the way, this year's Grizzlies have become an unusually versatile offensive team, with an ability to play multiple styles. The power game, led by Randolph and Gasol, has provided an identity. The Grizzlies lead the league in offensive rebounding and points in the paint and have dominated interior match-ups all season. But with solid defensive rebounding feeding a speedy perimeter trio of Mayo, Gay, and inconsistent point guard Mike Conley, the team is also effective in transition. They've become a rare thing: an uptempo power team, one of only two teams in the NBA currently in the Top 10 in both rebounding and pace of play. The other? The Los Angeles Lakers.
Can They Keep It Up?
In overcoming their 1-8 start and creeping into the Western Conference playoff picture, the Grizzlies seem to be slowly combating the fan apathy that had settled over the franchise the past three seasons.
Last month, CBSSports.com reporter Ken Berger acquired league records on real attendance — not the "tickets sold plus comps used" formula the league uses for announced attendance figures — through the first quarter of the NBA season. The news was mixed on the Grizzlies front. While Berger found the team's real attendance to be last in the league, the trend was moving up (+6.8%), against the grain of a league-wide decline (-3.7%).
At the time, that modest improvement seemed to be the result of the small boost the team got from the Iverson signing, but as the team has improved over the past month, that upward trend seems to be continuing. Over the team's first five home games following opening night, the average announced attendance was 10,478. Over the last five home games prior to Tuesday night's game against the Los Angeles Clippers, the average announced attendance has been 13,643.
Though any major improvement isn't likely to happen until this summer, when a new round of season tickets and other packages are pushed, this attendance increase should continue if the team can manage to stay in the playoff race deeper into the season.
But what are the chances of that happening? Given what is almost certainly the most talented starting lineup in franchise history, the Grizzlies' recent good play is not a fluke. And the schedule going forward should be helpful: After playing 20 of their first 36 games on the road, the Grizzlies will get 25 of 46 at home the rest of the way. Similarly, the remaining schedule will feature a higher percentage of opponents from the weaker Eastern Conference. And built around youth — the youngest roster in the NBA — the Grizzlies are packed with players who should continue to get better.
Standing in the team's way is the tough competition in the loaded Western Conference (even at 18-18 and two games out of the last playoff seed, the Grizzlies are still last place in the Southwest Division and 11th of 15 teams in the West) and the specter of injury and fatigue.
The acquisition of Randolph has been such a huge win for the Grizzlies that it's obscured how shaky the rest of the off-season was: The combination of the Iverson signing, the relinquishing of free-agent forward Hakim Warrick, and the acquisition of the dead-weight contract (for cash and draft considerations) of Steven Hunter has left the team with little in the way of veteran help on the bench. The hope was that the team's trio of draft picks would help, but project center Thabeet has been just that, contributing sporadically while passed-over guard prospects such as Tyreke Evans, James Harden, and Stephen Curry have all had successful rookie seasons. And late first-rounder DeMarre Carroll has struggled to find a consistent role. Second-rounder Sam Young has been productive but has been asked to do too much as the primary bench scorer.
This lack of help on the bench has resulted in the team's starters playing more minutes together — by far — than any other unit in the NBA. Hollins has tried to manage minutes to maximize what he refers to as "rest time" during games, but fatigue is a concern: The team is 0-8 on the second night of back-to-back sets.
Serious injury to any of the starters could derail this season in a hurry. The team has been fortunate so far, with only Conley (two games) and Gay (ditto) having to sit, but minor aches and pains are starting to build.
That is really the biggest difference between this season's Grizzlies and Hubie Brown's surprise 50-game winners. Brown's team was built on depth, with only one all-star-level talent (Pau Gasol) surrounded by quality role players. This year's model has four all-star-level talents but terrible depth. That roster dynamic made the earlier version perhaps more sustainable (witness Mike Fratello continuing to win without Gasol the following season), but it also limited the upside.
That 50-win squad — or a version of it — made it to the playoffs the next two seasons, but never got better. And Brown didn't stick around much longer than that first playoff appearance. While comparing Hollins — or almost anyone else — to the likes of Hubie Brown seems too strong, Hollins, like his team, is likely to have more staying power.
It remains to be seen if this year's Grizzlies can similarly demolish expectations en route to a highly unlikely playoff appearance (much less, gulp, 50 wins), but if they do — or, really, even if they fall short — fans will have more reason to believe they can push things ever further in the years to come.