With a disappointing 6-12 record heading into Tuesday night's game with the New York Knicks, the Memphis Grizzlies have a lot of decisions to make about their future. And those decisions start at point-guard, where backup Earl Watson is looking ahead to free-agency and is sure to demand a starting role (and commensurate contract). Do the Grizzlies risk losing Watson next offseason, or do they make a decision now between their two point-guards and make a trade? If you believe all the trade rumors swirling around Jason Williams, that decision may have already been made.
Most Grizzlies fans seem to perceive Williams as a feast-or-famine wild card, while Watson is viewed as a steady hand. But in reality, each player's game is incomplete in a completely opposite way.
Williams forces too many shots from beyond the arc; Watson forces too many shots around the basket. Williams is brilliant in the open court but is a poor defender. Watson is an excellent defender but turns every fastbreak into an uphill struggle.
If you want a primer on the negative peculiarities of Watson's game, all you had to do was watch his play Saturday night in a 91-96 loss to the Orlando Magic, where Watson started as Williams sat out with a sore foot.
In the first half against Orlando, the Grizzlies were outscored on the break 20-4. The Grizzlies had five break opportunities in the half, and none of them ran smoothly:
On the first one, Watson finished a 1-on-2 break, attacking the rim despite being outnumbered. The next break was a 4-on-2 in which Watson scooped the ball to Pau Gasol just inside the free-throw line with a Magic defender planted right in front of him. Gasol was forced to stop and back the ball out to avoid picking up an offensive foul. On another 4-on-2 break, Watson passed the ball to Gasol on the wing with no lane to the basket and Gasol sent a touch pass back to Watson, who drove into the defense and left the ball for a trailing Stromile Swift to lay in. The game of hot potato resulted in a made basket, but it sure wasn't pretty. It went that way for most of the game. Most transition opportunities were botched.
The same tendencies were evident in Watson's other start this season, a November 30th loss to the Sacramento Kings. Watson's taken 49 percent of his shots around the basket, an extraordinarily high percentage for a point-guard, and has had 17 percent of those attempts blocked, also too high. Williams, by contrast, has gotten into the paint for only 16 percent of his shots, which is certainly too low for a lead guard with so much quickness.
Watson's insistence on going to the basket could be seen as cojones or stubbornness, but I think it's in large part attributable to a lack of court vision. Last season at The Pyramid, media seating was behind the basket, so I could look into Williams' and Watson's eyes as they came up court. On the break, Williams' eyes are electric, buzzing and flashing around. By contrast, Watson seems to be looking straight ahead or at the floor. And the difference is apparent in what they create. Williams doesn't just see all the angles and passing lanes, he often creates them by altering his tempo in relation to his teammates. When he's on his game -- which hasn't been often this season -- it's akin to watching Picasso paint: hoops as high art.
And maybe that's why point-guard play is the one area of Grizzlies basketball where my eyes and head are at odds. Statistically speaking, the Grizzlies have been more effective offensively and defensively with Watson at the helm this season, and on defense it isn't even close. Watson leads the team in plus/minus statistics, a measure of how effective a team is with specific players on the floor. Against the Kings and the Magic, Watson made his share of mistakes, but he also held all-star-caliber opponents Mike Bibby and Steve Francis below their season averages. And as a shooter, Watson has improved considerably this season.
Of course, there are other differences between Williams and Watson. Watson is four years younger and hasn't had any public shouting matches with assistant coaches. He also hasn't been accused of taking plays off, quitting on games, faking injuries, or causing problems behind the scenes, all charges -- true or not -- that have been levied at Williams.
It's too bad the Grizzlies can't have the best of both worlds -- Williams' open-court creativity with Watson's defense and toughness. The only available player who fits that description is New Jersey Nets point-guard Jason Kidd, whose name has begun to pop up in connection with the Grizzlies. But that scenario is a long shot at best. •