Memphis Grizzlies Season Preview

by October 22, 2008
14

We continue previewing the Southwest Division with the Memphis Grizzlies. You can read past previews here.

by Adam Sweeney

There is another dimension beyond what is known to a basketball fan. It is a dimension as vast as Shaq’s basketball shorts and as timeless as M.J.’s jumper over Craig Ehlo. It is the middle ground between Yao and Earl Boykins, between the science of the finger roll and the superstition of Kevin Garnett’s pre-game chalk hand slap, and it lies betweens the pit of Dwight Howard’s fear of free throws and the summit of his vertical leap. It is an area which we call the Baller’s Zone.

Submitted for your approval, the Memphis Grizzlies, a team that not so long ago enjoyed playoff runs that ended quicker than Kevin Federline’s rap career. They are a squad with a seemingly endless number of former lottery picks like O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, and Mike Conley, and have more guards than a VIBE Awards show. Can the “Griz” improve when they have little veteran leadership, unless you count Antoine “I shoot more reckless threes than a gamer on NBA 2K9” Walker a veteran leader, a tendency toward defense that makes Sasha Vujacic look like Ron Artest, and a smaller fan base than Vanilla Ice? Read the preview, valiant hoop enthusiast, and find out.

Key Additions:
O.J. Mayo
Marc Gasol
Darrell Arthur

Sign me up as a supporter of the O.J. Mayo for Kevin Love trade on the Memphis end. While you can never have too many talented white NCAA prospects, and Lord knows the Grizzlies miss Cherokee Parks, Mayo will turn out to be the better player. You can question his dealings with agents but you can not question his work ethic or scoring capability. Mayo will step into the starting lineup from day one, as most lottery picks do on awful teams, and could wind up winning the Rookie of the Year award. He will be asked to shoulder a world of expectations but that’s something Mayo has been doing since seventh grade. Now if he can just decide to quit camping out by the three-point line and attack the basket …

Another player that has the Grizzlies brass shining is center Marc Gasol, the Spaniard was acquired in the Pau Gasol trade to L.A. and stood out last year n the ACB league, the top pro basketball league overseas. Aside from being a natural for a classic TV sibling sitcom, Gasol to Gasol, the center will be able to crash the boards and facilitate the ball to the real scorers on the team, which is basically everyone outside of Antoine Walker. Yeah, you thought I was gonna go with Darko Milicic, huh? Keep your eyes open, we may hit the “Diss Antoine Walker” hat trick soon enough.

The main weakness of last season’s team was defense and bench players like Darrell Arthur, the power forward from Kansas, are more than willing to get after it. Arthur inexplicably dropped to the 27th pick in the draft because of a rumored kidney condition, as well as a lack of heart on the court. Then he was passed around like Paris Hilton before winding up in Memphis. Hmm, an athlete that gets passed up by teams because of bogus reasons. That never backfires, now does it? Memo to all the teams who passed on Arthur: You will regret it in the future. Arthur is a solid scorer when facing the basket and has a world of potential, something that could help the Grizzlies as their young core grows together.

Key Losses:
Mike Miller
Juan Carlos Navarro

Every team needs a long-range shooter and the Grizzlies gave up their two best players in that respect. The veteran Miller, who I will always remember for his last second shot versus Butler in the 2000 NCAA Mens’ Tourney, was the team’s second option overall offensively and their best rebounder, oddly enough. That should not be happening when you’re a shooting guard. The pressure will fall on Mayo and superstar in waiting, Rudy Gay, to start firing from deep. Miller was known for his three-point prowess but he also was effective at driving to the basket. Both abilities will be missed in a big way this season. The one thing that won’t be missed, however, is that 80s style Olivia Newton John headband Miller wore.

Navarro headed off to Spain after an impressive rookie season in which he averaged 10 points a game. He nearly set the NBA record for three-pointers made in a season, falling two short to the High Socks Hall of Famer Kerry Kittles. Ultimately it was the lack of certainty concerning playing time, an understandable issue in the guard carousel of Memphis, that sent him packing. It’s a shame, the Griz definitely could have used him. The guy’s nickname is La Bomba for Pete’s sake, that screams a Mexican Heritage promotions night. Free sombreros for the first 10,000 fans! I’d make a road trip to Memphis if only for that. Okay, let’s be real, it’d be only for that.

Starting Five:
PG — Mike Conley
SG — O.J. Mayo
PF — Rudy Gay
SF — Hakim Warrick
C — Marc Gasol

“The future is now” might be a good slogan for this season’s group of Grizzlies, seeing as the starting five could mature into one of the most exciting, if not successful, teams in the Association. Mike Conley averaged 14 points per game last April, has improved his shooting, and is starting to separate himself from the pack of point guards hungry for minutes on the roster. There will continue to be growing pains for Conley, not to mention the rest of the roster, but that’s to be expected with a roster that won’t have any starter over the age of 26.

The starting five is full of guys that are used to being “the man” at their old stomping grounds. This will be both a blessing and curse for the team. No team can succeed without role players, the “glue guys” are extremely undervalued. When Memphis is firing on all cylinders, like their college counterpart, they will shock a lot of teams that look past them on the schedule. But when they’re not it will get uglier than Amy Winehouse with her makeup off…or Amy Winehouse in general. Either way, the trio of Conley, Mayo, and Gay will be fun to watch. Feel free to have drinking games, if you’re old enough, for every time an announcer yells, “They better hold the Mayo.” It is going to happen more times than you think.

And you thought the only good thing about Hakim Warrick was his block on DJ Chili Bowl aka Kirk Hinrich? I’ve got news for you, my friend. Warrick has improved greatly, particularly in rebounding and weakside defense, and if he commits to both ends of the court could serve as one of the most important players on the team.

These five will also likely improve on the defensive end of the floor and how can you not when you gave up almost 107 a game last season? Mayo’s game starts on defense and he will push his teammates like Terrance Howard. I can imagine Mayo sitting next to Gay in the locker room with a steering wheel saying, “We in control.” Still, there are going to be times where the pickup game player comes out and they get schooled on transition baskets. What will compound that is a lack of a traditional post player that could allow for the Griz to wear down opposing defenses as they slow down the clock. Until they get that it is going to be a day at the races for their opponents.

Bench:
Kyle Lowry
Greg Buckner
Quinton Ross
Antoine Walker
Darko Milicic
Jarvaris Crittenton
Marko Jaric
Darrell Arthur
Hamed Haddadi

Pop Quiz. Who is the team in the NBA with a bench that has arguably the most wasted potential? Answer: The Memphis Grizzlies. One more question. Who has the name that belongs on a character from the Chapelle Show? Answer: Jarvaris Crittenton. If you were to let me play Grizzlies GM, I would honestly beg commissioner for a salary cap pardon based on good behavior for having to own a team in Memphis, and then dump half of these cats out my window like they were old Nelly CDs. Does anybody want to see Milicic and Jaric working the rock to Antoine “I’d play better if you equipped me with a” Walker? We did it! Not only did we get the “Diss Antoine Walker” hat trick but we also managed to get two new nicknames for him. Add that to the fact that Paul Pierce, the Batman to his Robin at Boston, got a ring and it has been a banner year for ‘Toine. And before you rush to his defense, be honest, this is the most press Walker has received in at least three years.

Having said all that, Kyle Lowry deserves a starting job somewhere, although he definitely needs to drop some more dimes if he wants to be a starting point guard. Quintin Ross and Greg Buckner, both intense defenders, aren’t going to fight anyone for the 6th Man Award but if you do combine their names they remind me of NBA color analyst Quinn Buckner. That has to count for something, right? In all seriousness, this is a bench that is short on scorers and long in the tooth. Their best option would be to trade Lowry and Walker to a team that needs a young point guard and is desperate to get a big contract off their books soon. They could definitely land a player that can bang down low. As much as playing “Wheel of Guards” is, it doesn’t help the Grizzlies or their fans. This is a bench that currently is unsure of their roles and uncapable of filling them once they figure it out.

Coaching/Intangibles:
The best thing the Grizzlies did in the off-season was to let coach Marc Iavaroni return for a second season. No matter how talented a squad is, they simply can’t succeed without a steady coaching foundation. Iavaroni is committed to getting the most out of his young players and his honest assessment of their effort could end up being just what a group of players who may have been coddled too much needs.

The key intangible for the Grizzlies is a non-existent one, that being cohesiveness and team chemistry. The remaining members of the 2005 Grizzlies playoff team are all gone so there is pretty much nobody to look to when times get tough, and will they ever. Until this team has a time to get to know each others’ tendencies they won’t possess the sort of sixth sense that exists with teams like the Spurs, Celtics, and other title contenders.

Prediction:

I’m no motivational speaker or coach but if I were, the first thing I’d do for the Memphis Grizzlies is bring in a rowing paddle. I would make each player sign it and then tell them, “This season is going to be a trip down the rapids. We will hit a few rocks and a few people in the boat will drown. But if you survive the trip I promise you that we are going to experience smoother times down the river.” Then I would walk out of the room and cry as I told myself, “This crap only works in ‘Hoosiers’ or for Pat Riley.’ That’s how bad it could get for the Griz this year.

Marc Iavaroni is going to be hard-pressed to get this team to stay within the structures of a good team. Any player, whether it be in organized or streetball, will tell you that the first thing a young and undisciplined team does when they’re struggling is to take the ball in their own hands, that and point the finger at each other. The Grizzlies could learn a lot from the Tampa Bay Rays right now, an organization that had their heads kicked in for a decade before the cream finally rose to the top. Unfortunately for Memphis, they are going to have to take some more bruises before any hoop dreams become a reality. Look for the Grizzlies to finish slightly better than last season with 28 wins. The true growth of this team, provided they’re not waterlogged, will be seen in 2009 and 2010.