Before the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, where I followed the recently established Minnesota Timberwolves through a transition that is relevant to the current state of the Grizzlies.
I can remember former Wolves coach Flip Saunders saying once that, in basketball, "chemistry" means having a pecking order and having players buy into it.
When Saunders said that, he was reflecting, in part, on an earlier period in Wolves history, when the team underwent a dramatic reordering of its pecking order via the drafting of preps-to-pros pioneer Kevin Garnett, who quickly challenged incumbent frontman Christian Laettner's status on the team. Laettner bristled at Garnett's swift elevation and was traded before the end of Garnett's first season.
That situation in Minnesota isn't entirely analogous to what's happening with the Memphis Grizzlies right now: Second-year forward Rudy Gay isn't a talent of Garnett's magnitude, while incumbent team star Pau Gasol is both a better player and better teammate than Laettner was.
But make no mistake: This season represents a shift at the top of the team's pecking order for the first time since Gasol's unexpected rookie-of-the-year campaign in 2001-'02. Gasol has been the team's leading scorer every season of his career, but, through 17 games this season, it's been Gay leading the way. The 21-year-old Gay is leading Gasol in points per game (18.1 to 16.6), minutes per game (34.2 to 33.8), and field-goal attempts per game (14.3 to 12.7). And, fewer than 100 games into his NBA career, Gay is still on a steep upswing.
Unlike in Minnesota, this seems to be a case of Gay joining Gasol rather than jettisoning him. Unselfish and accommodating, perhaps to a fault, Gasol is unlikely to resist sharing leading-man status with Gay the way former teammates Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells, and James Posey resisted playing a supporting role to Gasol. In fact, Gasol's personality probably makes him better suited to being "1-A" in the pecking order than clear-cut top dog.
Fans have been clamoring for the Grizzlies to add another player as good as or — preferably — better than Gasol. Now that the team finally seems to have that player, the dissatisfaction with Gasol is unabated. It's as if fans have gotten so accustomed to only having one all-star-caliber player on the roster that they struggle to conceive of a roster with two (or more!).
Of course, Gasol hasn't helped with the longest stretch of mediocre play in his career. A couple of recent Commercial Appeal articles have done a good job of describing how new coach Marc Iavaroni's more free-flowing offense has served to reduce Gasol's previously central role in the offense: how the team doesn't revolve around Gasol's post play anymore and how this impacts the numbers Gasol is putting up.
But this analysis understates how poor Gasol's recent play has been. The shrinkage in his per-game scoring and rebounding averages aren't as important as his declining efficiency. Gasol is still getting plenty of touches in the post or on the move; he just isn't converting them at the same rate he has throughout his career. Gasol no longer appears hurt, but I suspect his ankle and back problems from preseason are having a lingering effect — a confluence of poor conditioning, confidence, and timing seem to be holding Gasol back more than the new offense.
Unless Gasol is traded — and that doesn't seem likely — it's imperative that the team's two best players play well and play well together.
The Grizzlies' recent two-game homestand was encouraging in this regard: Half of Gasol's eight assists came on passes to Gay. Meanwhile, Gay was more deferential to Gasol without sacrificing his own production. The ability of Gay and Gasol to maximize and mesh their respective talents could be the story of the season, and their ability — or inability — to do this may be the key to whether the current core of this Grizzlies team is one to build on or eventually tear apart.