By Aggrey Sam

Memphis struggled last season, finishing with a league-worst 22-60 record. Yeah, they lost Pau Gasol for most of the year before the season even started after the bearded wonder suffered a foot injury in the 2006 World Championships (his country, Spain, still ended up winning the chip), but if you saw them play, it was pretty obvious (especially after Mike Fratello was fired as coach) they were tanking to ensure themselves the best chance to win the Oden-Durant sweepstakes. With Doc Rivers and Danny Ainge’s shenanigans up in Boston, that was probably one of the more overlooked stories of last season. Regardless, after making the playoffs for three straight seasons before 2006-07, there was a lot of anticipation around the moves they’d make in the summer.

The Grizzlies clearly made some big moves in the off-season, starting with hiring former Phoenix assistant Marc Iavaroni, one of the hottest names among young head-coaching candidates over the last few years. Iavaroni was brought in to install a Suns-like up-tempo system, as well as embrace the strengths of the international players on Memphis’ young roster. Then, after the The Logo, Jerry West, stepped down, ex-Celtics GM Chris Wallace was named as his replacement to run the team’s front office.
The Grizzlies’ plan to get one of the top two picks in the draft backfired, as they were awarded the fourth selection. So what do they do? A year after taking a young, jet-quick point guard with a shaky J with their second pick in the first round (Kyle Lowry; Rudy Gay was their top pick), they draft Mike Conley, a young, jet-quick point guard with a shaky J. I became more and more of a believer in Conley as I watched Ohio State last season, but with the Grizzlies professing to be so high on Lowry before he broke his wrist and was lost for the season last year, the pick seemed a little redundant.

And of course, there was the Pau Gasol saga, where the big man wanted out of Memphis and was strongly rumored to be heading to Chicago, among other places. Partly to keep Gasol happy, the Grizzlies acquired his buddy Juan Carlos Navarro, a fellow member of the Spanish National Team, from the Wizards. How could I forget their big free-agent signing? Memphis outbid what had to be damn near the entire league for Darko Milicic, hoping the signs of potential he showed in Orlando will carry over. A less acclaimed acquisition was bringing over ex-Stanford star Casey Jacobsen from Germany, where he was the MVP last season. Jacobsen, who’s just about automatic when he’s left open—but does virtually nothing else at an NBA level—is already familiar with Iavaroni from his days as a Phoenix reserve.

While the Grizzlies lost a lot of players from last season’s roster, no one significant to the team’s future or even success this season (maybe my fellow Temple alum Eddie Jones) left the team. In addition to the very fast, non-shooting and youthful tandem of Conley and Lowry at the point, they bring back veteran Damon Stoudamire, who, like Gasol, lobbied to be dealt in the off-season (I think he’d be a good fit in Boston, if the Celtics had anything the Grizzlies wanted; Big Baby anyone?), but will probably play a mentor role to the two youngsters. Look for Stoudamire’s PT to decrease throughout the season and possibly get traded before the deadline. I see Conley as more of a true playmaker, while Lowry should be more of a defensive demon, who can pressure the ball and finish at the rim. Navarro, while more of a shoot-first combo guard, is also in the equation. The Spaniard’s style (think a smaller Ginobili, with less athleticism and D, a better stroke and point-guard skills and the same amount of stupid faces and constant flopping) seems like it could win over Iavaroni and if he and Pau have good chemistry, he’ll definitely get a lot of tick.

On the wing, they bring back long-haired shooter Mike Miller, who played for USA Basketball this summer, which sometimes leads to slow starts, down years or nagging injuries. Coming off a career year, I wouldn’t be surprised if he takes a step back this season. The enigmatic and talented Rudy Gay returns at the 3 spot and in his second season, his issues remain consistency, decision-making and shaking the soft tag that’s haunted him since his UConn days. I could see his production and numbers improving a lot this year, but not necessarily his weaknesses. Underrated defensive stopper Tarence Kinsey, who was undrafted as a rookie out of South Carolina, also comes back. Best known for frustrating Kobe and outscoring the superstar 24-23 in a late-season win, the second-year pro could be an important piece to the puzzle. The aforementioned Jacobsen adds another pure shooter to the mix outside of Miller.

Up front, Memphis has an odd rotation that doesn’t feature a true center. I know, in today’s NBA, you don’t need a classic center to win, but hasn’t the biggest issue with Gasol been the fact he doesn’t have a bruising center next to him who allows him to play the 4? By the way, I fully expect Pau to get back to his pre-injury numbers, as long as he’s fully healthy. However, I doubt Darko will provide him a true enforcer next to him in the paint, despite his summer post-game rant after a loss in the FIBA European Championships that made him sound like Marlo’s main competition in West Baltimore. I saw Hakim Warrick (along with Lowry) working on his game and playing in summer leagues this summer in Philly, so I’d like to say he’s taken the necessary steps to be an improved and consistent performer this season. Unfortunately, the things the wiry leaper probably should work on to help the Grizzlies (his skinny body, post moves) were not what I saw him focusing on (his outside jumper, isolation moves). Still, he has a high motor, is a tough matchup for slower big men, doesn’t need to dominate the ball to have an impact (I could probably say this about 90% of the players in the League, but wouldn’t he be a perfect fit in Phoenix?) and is always good for a highlight or two. Another guy who’s good for a highlight is Stromile Swift, who quietly returned to Memphis last season after stealing money for a year in Houston, which was extremely funny to me after interviewing him for a story I wrote for SLAM’s ’05-06 NBA preview, where he kinda trashed Pau and the franchise as a whole. Then there’s the underappreciate, albeit underskilled, Brian “The Custodian” Cardinal, who should be a steady veteran influence on the young squad.

The keys to the Grizzlies’ season are Gasol’s health and the development of their young players. I don’t think anyone expects them to make the playoffs, as they’re obviously the worst team in the tough Southwest Division, so I’d peg them for about 30 wins and another trip to the lottery. Don’t be surprised, however, granting the players buy into his style, if Iavaroni’s bunch shocks a few of the League’s upper-echelon teams this season. And with all of their promising young players, I’d definitely expect them to be in conversations with teams looking to deal some high-profile players who inevitably end up on the market.