With their up-and-down, death-defying, double-overtime victory over the Atlanta Hawks Monday night, the Memphis Grizzlies reached a milestone: With win number 48, they moved 20 games ahead of last season's record, putting them on the short list for the best single-season turnarounds in NBA history.
Since 1980, only 12 teams have accomplished this feat, and none of those historic turnarounds looks anything like the season Grizzlies fans have witnessed.
Three of these seasons can be directly connected to teams drafting the Rookie of the Year: The '94-'95 Dallas Mavericks improved by 23 games during Jason Kidd's ROY campaign; the '92-'93 Orlando Magic improved by 20 games after drafting some guy named Shaquille O'Neal; and the '81-'82 New Jersey Nets added 20 games to the win column behind the exploits of Rookie of the Year Buck Williams.
Three more of these turnaround seasons are linked to the acquisitions, through trade or free-agency, of elite talent: The '88-'89 Phoenix Suns improved by 27 wins after free-agent signee Tom Chambers and trade acquisition Kevin Johnson both made second-team all-NBA. The '01-'02 New Jersey Nets improved by 26 games after trading for MVP runner-up Jason Kidd. And the '89-'90 Portland Trailblazers added 20 more wins after trade acquisition Williams finished first-team all-defense and was Top 10 in the league in both rebounding and field-goal percentage.
Two of these seasons can be attributed to the return of stars who missed most of the previous season: The '95-'96 Chicago Bulls improved by 25 games after a player named Michael Jordan returned from retirement, and the '91-'92 Cleveland Cavaliers added 24 wins with the return of All-Star point guard Mark Price, who had lost most of the previous season to injury.
The '88-'89 Golden State Warriors improved by 23 games due to both Mitch Richmond's Rookie of the Year campaign and the return to form of All-Star Chris Mullin. The '89-'90 San Antonio Spurs improved by a whopping 35 games by adding both Rookie of the Year David Robinson and All-Star trade acquisition Terry Cummings. And the all-time champion of single-season improvement, the '97-'98 Spurs, added 36 games to its win total by getting Robinson back from an injury that caused him to miss the entire season before and adding Tim Duncan, who not only won the Rookie of the Year but made first-team all-NBA.
The lesson here? NBA teams simply don't make 20-game leaps without adding transformative talent. Yet that's exactly what this year's Memphis Grizzlies have done. And this is the beginning and end to the case for Hubie Brown as this year's NBA Coach of the Year.
The only exception to this rule, until this year, was the '97-'98 Boston Celtics, who improved from 15 wins to 36 in Rick Pitino's first season as head coach, when underachieving lottery picks Ron Mercer and Chauncey Billups were the major roster additions. But all Pitino really did was get his team to play NBA basketball after the debacle of previous coach M.L. Carr. Getting a team to improve from awful to bad is not as impressive as getting a team to improve from bad to good.
For the 2003-2004 season, two NBA teams have added 20 or more wins to their '02-'03 totals: the Denver Nuggets and your Memphis Grizzlies.
The Nuggets have gone from 17 to 38-and-counting by adding ROY contender Carmelo Anthony, signing an entirely new four-man backcourt in free-agency, and getting a full season from starting center Marcus Camby after he missed most of last season with injuries.
The Grizzlies, by contrast, returned four of five starters from the team that won 28 games last year and are the only winning team in the NBA in which none of the players on its roster have played in an All-Star game.
Put simply, the remarkable, magical transformation of the '03-'04 Memphis Grizzlies can only be attributed to coaching. Jerry West has done a fine job of adding talent and depth to the roster and an even finer job of not giving up the talent he inherited in order to do it. He lucked out a little with James Posey (according to media accounts over the past off-season, not West's first choice in free agency) but has manipulated the new financial nuances of team-building to exchange expiring contracts for immediate contributors such as Bonzi Wells, Bo Outlaw, and Jake Tsakalidis. But this triumph is still primarily Hubie Brown's, who, with West's help (and, more importantly, his unshakeable confidence and approval) has remade this team in the image of his hoops ideal.
Viewed in historical context, Hubie Brown's achievement hasn't merely been the best coaching job in the NBA this season but one of the finest coaching performances professional basketball has ever seen. The Brown family can start clearing their mantel now. n