The Unlikely Turn Around
An unorthodox film session paves the way for Grizzlies recent success.
The Memphis Grizzlies began the season giving up nearly the same opponent three-point percentage as their own field goal percentage. While Memphis made 45.5 percent of their field goal attempts, opponents sunk 42.7 percent of their shots outside the arc. The Grizzlies allowed 111.1 ppg, while scoring fewer than 100 en route to a 1-8 start. Nine games into the season, the only thing to do was break down the film—but Head Coach Lionel Hollins wasn’t going to be the one to do it.
What was supposed to be a routine film session turned into a players-only forum. Hollins said, “I threw the remote on the floor [before leaving] and said one of you guys has to run this meeting. DeMarre Carroll got up and took it. It was probably a good thing that it was him, because I don’t know if anybody else would’ve called everybody out in a meeting the way somebody who’d just gotten there would have.”
So with nine NBA games under his belt, the first year forward conducted the meeting. “I was shocked… but in the end I said that it was probably best he was the one,” said Hollins, “Because if OJ got up there, how much is he going to criticize Rudy; if Rudy got up there, how much is he going to criticize OJ? Plus, those guys are playing all the time and if I’m criticizing you and I’m doing the same thing you’re doing it’s a little bit more difficult.”
Hollins describes the need for a coach to provide the foundation and manage personnel, but ultimately accountability is determined by the players. “If there’s somebody that’s not passing the ball, then somebody has to call him out on it. But you can’t call him out if you’re taking the same bad shots as that person. You can’t call somebody out for not hustling if you’re not hustling. We had a little bit of that early on,” said Hollins.
In the first nine games, the Grizzlies averaged 18.8 assists and 17.1 turnovers per game. Opponents made half the shots they took, and off-court issues including Allen Iverson’s three-game foray into the lineup created a team disjointed both on and off the court.
The Grizzlies now sit at 10-15 after going 9-7 in their last 16 games. “We started to trust one another,” said starting point guard Mike Conley, “We started playing good basketball together…I think that was our biggest hurdle. We got to believe we can win these games.”
Rookie center Hasheem Thabeet, who is averaging over 2 blocks in his last five games, also mentions trust as a factor determining success. When asked what his defense brings to the team, Thabeet says, “Trust. You know a lot of times now my teammates are going to trust in me even more I trust in them… growing up as a team and having trust in one another will help us in the long run.”
When asked about the effect of Iverson on the team’s development, Conley stated it helped to be able to concentrate on just basketball after all the media attention and off-court focus. Regarding his role as the starting point guard, Conley said, “I never really worried about it. I think it was going to work itself out. But Allen Iverson is Allen Iverson and he’s going to do the things he wants to do.”
Allen Iverson’s dissatisfaction with his role on the Grizzlies was not only a distraction, it was ironic. In 2007, I interviewed Ohio State Associate Head Coach John Groce after the Buckeyes made it to the NCAA championship game and the Grizzlies drafted Conley 4th overall. When speaking about the impact of the age rule and championship game appearance, Groce said, “No one had Mike Conley on his radar screen. NBA guys had opportunities to see him play in different tournaments leading into college. People were saying he needs more time, he needs more strength. All of a sudden, five months later, he’s a lottery pick.” No one can say these same words about Iverson.
And consequently, Iverson came off the bench, voiced his displeasure, and left the team after playing in only three games. Could anything good come from his experience with Iverson, a player who had inspired confidence in Conley that he too could play in the NBA at his size? “His competitive attitude is what stuck with me more than anything…the way he goes out and competes regardless of what people say about him or what’s going on with the team.”
While the Grizzlies did not play with the same insular concentration as Iverson, the team’s season began to form based on intangibles rather than fundamentals. Along with trust, Hollins mentioned that for the first time players got together outside of work. OJ Mayo said, “We have to sacrifice a little bit and make sure the most important thing for all of us is winning.”
The Grizzlies strung together some impressive victories including on the road against the Trail Blazers and at home against the Mavericks and Cavaliers. Even the losses aren’t looking so bad. On Monday, the Grizzlies suffered a 5-point defeat to the Celtics, in which Memphis brought the game to within two points with less than a minute left. “We accept no moral victories,” said Mayo on the loss to Boston. “It was a game we could have won, and we let it slip out of our hands a little bit.”
Rudy Gay, who’s averaging a career-best 20.9 ppg on 47.5 shooting, doesn’t shy from the phrase ‘good loss’ when asked about the game against Boston. “It kind of shows where we could be,” he said, “Honestly, we had that game until they made a tough shot…Just one more stop could have had us that game.”
Gay mentions that the Grizzlies have improved defensively, and that the team must continue to rebound and contest shots. When informed that the Grizzlies led the League with 13.3 offensive rebounds per game entering Wednesday night’s game against Atlanta, Gay said, “I knew we were a pretty good offensive team because we fight each other for rebounds, so we just have to prevent them from getting easy shots.”
Hollins agrees that improved defense is the reason the Grizzlies won 8 of 12 games after the 1-8 start. Memphis’ defense of the arc improved as opponents shot 35.6 percent from three in those 12 games. In that stretch, the team gave up 100.8 ppg on 47.9 shooting. After 25 games this season, the Grizzlies rank 25th giving up 104.8 ppg, and 29th with a 48.7 opponent field goal percentage.
“When you start off so poorly, those numbers aren’t going to go down that dramatically; but hopefully by the end of the season, they will be down to where they’ll be respectable,” said Hollins. “But me, personally as a coach, I’m not hung up on the [opponent] shooting percentage…I came from an era where a lot of teams shot a high percentage every night.” He says good teams will get good shots, and it is up to the Grizzlies to challenge those shots and stay in the game by rebounding and making timely plays.
While this year already appears to be a tale of two seasons for Memphis, it seems to be the intangibles that are enabling the talent to come together as one unit. As Conley says, “It’s just us in this room and we’re going to work out and work together as a team and try to win these games together.”