Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hardwood Paroxysm's 2008-2009 Season Previews: Memphis Grizzlies

Your opening preview is by Matt Moore. He does not apologize for the length of this preview.



This world operates within the context of a linear time scale. Nearly everything is linear. Particularly within the concept of 'value.'

"It gets better with age."

"Time heals all wounds."

"Experience is the key to unlock the door of potential."

"I wish that I knew what I know now, when I was younger."

There is a direct relationship with how we view something's worth in relationship to its age or term of existence. A brilliant show that is on a single season will not be as widely regarded as "Everybody Loves Raymond." The White Stripes put together five years of the musical equivalent of ballistic missilery but they'll be forgotten if the Raconteurs manage a longer, more stable term of existence. We have to view everything through the long term.

Additionally, we're a results-oriented society. The Wizards were better than the Hawks last year. Why? They won more games. Likewise the Rays are currently better than all but one team in baseball. These may be true, but think about the phrasing itself. Better. What makes the NBA unique, and I'm not breaking any ground here, is how much the true junkies are able to appreciate flawed, if not outright bad, basketball. You want proof of how far this paradigm has come? Wait about 21 days. (Review is forthcoming, here's a snippet: It's good.)

So what do we have when we accept these things? We note that for the most part, a young, inexperienced basketball team with a history of failure will be nothing more than an afterthought, a punchline, widely regarded as the worst team in the league, ridiculed, and overlooked. We also recognize that if you look deeper, it's possible to find such things within the context of the team that transcend wins and losses, and if your mind leaps to more realistic, pragmatic, and linear perceptions, you'll find things that speak to a certain element of potential, of possibility, and even may hold, for short bursts of time, the one word with which I keep coming back to when I think of the 2008-2009 Memphis Grizzlies.


There is a team borne not of passion and pride, but experimentation and wonderment. It was not crafted from established veterans who know the fundamentals and know how to play the game 'the right way.' It has not been tempered by experience nor refined by execution. It is raw, it is unheralded, it is oblique, and it is bizarre. This team is the creature that has been put into a new world, and does not understand anything around it. It cannot comprehend the things that seek to harm it nor the rudimentary survival tactics that would shield it from said harm. This team is a fang-toothed pterodactyl left upon the ground, it's mother slain by the great bluish purple and golden Allosaur that stalks away in search of its next meal. It knows not where or even how to fly, it only knows that it's cold, it's wet, and all these big things keep trying to kill it.

Yet, unlike it's slower, more under-evolved competitor, the Thunder, this animal has fangs. It has wings. It's claws are short but sharp, and somewhere, deep within its psyche is the complex system of self-defense, and even the capability to evolve into something wholly greater.

This thing can kill.

Why do I say this, when so many simply look at its age and scoff? Because I am an unabashed Grizzlies supporter? Well, yes. But also because I spend enough time obsessing over this roster to contemplate it's meaningfulness. The same meaningfulness I find lacking in the Oklahoma City Thunder.

It starts with Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies are blessed with a wunderkind who's actually shown he can actually put the work in, nearly garnering Most Improved Player honors last year. Gay's got the combination of skills you can build around, particularly with a team that can run like Iavaroni's can. Gay is disciplined, talented, and capable of shouldering the load. He's ready to be the franchise player. His ability to diversify his offense and maintain focus will be what will cause fluctuations. In order to win, this team needs Gay to be 100% for 40 minutes a night. That's just not going to happen with a young player (hardly any player). That's one of the reasons they'll lose. But there will also be times in close games when he'll create that look on his opponents' faces. The head-shake smirk that says "Damn. Kid can ball."

I'm a big believer that you can't win in this league unless you have either exceptional talent or exquisite depth in the backcourt. The Grizzlies have a little bit of both. Mike Conley showed up for camp with more muscle, a better shot, a sophomore's mindset, and a leadership chip to cash in. Conley seems to instinctively understand his role here. At Ohio State, he was Greg Oden's sidekick. Here, he's meant to be the floor general. The guy who puts his team in the position to win. Turnovers are always the death of young point guards. But Conley seems to grasp the key concepts better than others. He knows he doesn't have to be Chris Paul. He's just got to play well and execute at key moments. The Grizzlies intend to trap on the pick and roll. Conley is big, fast, and strong enough to make this effective if his help-man can do his part. Creating turnovers leads to fast breaks. Fast breaks leads to a Grizzlies advantage. For every off shooting night Conley will have, he's just as likely to have an overall night where he pours in more than the boxscore shows.

Then there's Mayo. Oh, Mayo. I hated this kid coming into college. Brash. Arrogant. Self-entitled. Dismissive. Too much flash with not enough focus. When the Grizzlies traded Kevin Love for him, I immediately thought "DISASTER!" Then I reconsidered. At first it was just a "Well, this made sense from a dollars and cents perspective." Then it was "They really needed a player like this, regardless of how I felt about him." Then it was "This actually provides them with another piece for the blueprint for the future, much better than Love would have. This is the suture, not the band-aid." Then, somehow, someway, OJ Mayo showed up for camp and decided that he'd dicked around enough as a youth. He came to camp focused, ready to lead, defend, do what the coaches need and play with abandon. Mayo's going to struggle this year, make no mistake. Playing a primary scorer two-guard position is not exactly the breeze job of the NBA, even if you're not a rookie. He's going to have nights when his turnover numbers are greater than five. Teams will wince at his lack of fundamentals. And he'll have nights when those numbers are compounded by shooting percentages of sub-38%. He'll have a lot of those nights. But just like with Conley, he'll have nights where the shot is on. His swagger will infect the building. Mayo more than any other Grizzly has the ability to strike fear in the hearts of men when he's in the zone. Gay is going to systematically take you apart. Mayo is going to blast holes right through you. He's got a natural scoring instinct, tremendous athletic ability, and a severe case of "Let me show you what you missed out on." I can easily see him being a problem case in two years over money and attention. But for this year, it's going to be a fun one to watch.

The backups? Kyle Lowry, against all odds, has cemented himself as the backup. You need guys who can rise above competition from both older guys and more athletic guys and simply say "I'll get the job done." That's what Lowry brings. Lowry has the ability to be a premier point in this league. This could end up as a headache for Iavaroni, trying to figure out when to put what guard in.

Marko Jaric is a shooter, he's there to shoot. He knows what he's doing, he's been around, and he's a professional. Marko won't complain, nor will he particularly standout. He's the plate for the sandwich. You don't notice it, but without it, who knows what ends up on your sandwich.

Javaris Crittenton boggles my mind. I'm not kidding. Tremendous talent. Coachable. Comes over from LA, makes an immediate impact. Goes to Mark Price over the summer to improve his perimeter shooting. Comes into camp. Left out. Just boggles my mind. Some guys just don't click with coaches. Maybe he's not as coachable as he seems. But the kid has fallen off the earth in Memphis. He probably hasn't even unpacked. We'll come back to him in a bit.

Quinton Ross .... ? Who knows ... ?

Hakim Warrick is another guy who teeters on the edge of relevance. Ask most people about him and the first things you here are that he's just not big enough. He just can't play the power forward spot and he can't pass effectively to play the 3. But I still look at 26 years old, 6-9, great breakaway speed, and wonder why he can't be more effective in a fast break offense. He worked really hard over the summer to cement a leadership role. He wasn't out partying (at least not getting busted for anything), he wasn't just hanging out. He was at the gym. He was doing community events. And he was telling anyone that would listen that he wanted to step up in camp and be a leader. I'm not sure he was expecting all the rest of the young guys to have the same goal. Warrick is another one I can see being dangled as trade bait unless he comes out absolutely killing it at things he's never killed at. Why, do you ask?

In my mind there's a deathmatch going on between Hakim Warrick and the more traditional Grizzlies offense and Darko Milicic and some sort of hybrid mutant demon Mark Iavaroni is contemplating at the four spot. Both ideas have their merit.

Pro-Warrick: Fast as all get out for a guy his size. Knows how to score. The only veteran starter on the team. Good touch. Hard worker. Liked by the locker room and the community. Not a psychopath. You can see the possibility of him playing great, he just never does it

Pro-Darko: Big. Really big. Able to make up for whatever physicality Gasol lacks. Can be a terrific rebounder if paired with someone to take away the attention down low. Fierce competitor. You can see the possibility of him playing great, he just never does it.

Anti-Warrick: A stiff breeze and that's all she wrote. Not a good enough passer to play at the elbow which is what they need.

Anti-Darko: Um. His career. Kind of a psycho. Prone to completely disappearing for long stretches of time.

The ideal scenario would be for Warrick to somehow develop better passing abilities, making him an extremely poor man's Marion and be able to either work as a bench replacement for Gay giving the offense a spark when it needs it or as a two-wing tandem of slashers for the Grizzlies to just throw at defenses like they're tie fighters. Then at the same time Darko learns to flourish in the Oberto to Gasol's Duncan role (woah, that's a weird series of comparisons) as the guy who just cleans up on the other side with sheer effort and size. You have just maximized the two biggest question marks in your starting rotation. Congratulations, Iav, have yourself a coke.

This will not happen.

What will happen is that Warrick will continue to drift and slam, almost there but never quite, and Darko will continue to make Grizzlies and non-Grizzlies fans alike tear their hair out. They will be areas where you can look and go "If only..." but they didn't. It's also very likely that at some point, one will play worse than the other and will get packaged with Crittenton and the expiring contracts they have (Antoine Walker and Greg Buckner) for an upgrade or more space. The sooner this happens the better, simply because it takes away the tension of the team trying to figure out the answer to two very complicated equations.

What will happen is that Marc Gasol will surprise. Think of Gasol as the looking glass version of Pau. Not nearly the soft-touch and footwork that make people go "Ooh" and "Ahhh." Not nearly the swagger and loveliness that his brother has.

But, what's that? A Gasol that's actually (gasp) not afraid to get his hands dirty? That's a true "grizzlie" in the paint, complete with hair and aggression? A larger Luis Scola with more of a traditional European offensive complement? Effort, hustle, and less regard for himself? Just what the doctor ordered. Every single player has had the same answer for who's been the best in camp. Marc Gasol. He came in looking to kick ass. Now, this doesn't mean he's going to step in and dominate. There are too many quality big men. But he at least gives them some toughness and a fighting chance. And that's huge.

Antoine Walker will shoot a lot. He will not hit a lot. He is mostly there to be used as cap space next year or trade bait this year. That said, Walker can still hit from time to time and at least can show the guys how to conduct themselves in a professional, if not nutritious, manner.

So what do we have here? Inconsistency. Question marks. Turnovers. Lack of discipline. The tenants of a young team. But mark my words, there will be moments, games, even, where the number of things that don't happen very often will happen. Gay will swoop in and out. Mayo's jumper will be on. Conley will focus and distribute. Darko will get some tip backs. Warrick will run and score and use his length. Gasol will battle. And there will be some wins, and some losses that are closer than you'll think. They're not better than advertised.

But they are very dangerous.

And they're getting better.





Productive Bigs without Question Marks. Yep, the Grizz are full of them. Too much potential, too much upside, too little productivity. If the Grizz are going to be competitive this year (and, sorry 3 Shades, they ain't) the Grizz need to find someone, anyone out there who can help these big guys play NBA ball. Though there is some light in the furthest, furthest end of the tunnel, the Grizz really need some to see some results, not just speculate. I mean, let's be honest, these guys are a lot closer to Lehman Brothers than Bank of America.

Marc Gasol, who's brother left him a list of all the good barbecue spots in Memphis as he hightailed it out of there a few months back, actually looked pretty good in international play. But this is America, you Spanish paella, so get in shape and get ready to get beat up constantly by the likes of the Harbinger, Booz and the Yeti. But if Pau couldn't turn these guys into contenders, don't put all your Euros in Marc's basket. Darko... Ok, let's move on. Darrell Arthur (my favorite player on draft night and the bane of Matt's existence) was the biggest loser on draft night. Not only did he fall all the way to 28, he could have ended up in Houston, but instead found his way to the end of the Grizz bench. Why would someone with such a precocious offensive game and relentless motor (for weed) not get his due in this Anthony Randolph-thin frontcourt? Because he has little work ethic and too many vices. Sure, he could be the only player in the Grizz frontcourt (I count Rudy on the wing, not in deep) to put up 20 on a given night, but I doubt he can get his head out of the Doritos bag long enough to learn Iavaroni's defense. Then, there is the curious case of Hamed Hamidi. Who is this guy? How good can he be? Is he ready now? Did the Grizz just get him for insurance? Does he brush his teeth? Does he drink blood? These are very poignant questions that will have to be addressed by the Grizz brass as the season goes along. And, by "brass" I mean Chris Wallace, the man who could screw up a BLT.

So, if you hate the Grizz, you are in luck. The season is almost here. Plus, once O.J. Mayo get Dreamworks to start filming his rookie year biopic and the production crew has to live at the FedEx forum, expect a typical first week blowup from the Grizz. But hey, at least they aren't the Thunder.



An Evening With My Magic Eight Ball Regarding the Grizzlies:

"Will the Grizzlies be fun to watch?"

"As I see it, yes."

"Will the Grizzlies win some games?"

"Without a doubt."

"Will the Grizzlies make the playoffs?!"

"Very doubtful."

"Oh, well, will they win more than 35 games?"

"Outlook not so good."

"Huh. Okay. Will OJ Mayo win Rookie of the Year?"

"Reply hazy, try again."

"Will Mike Conley have better than a 2-1 AST:TO ratio?"

"Cannot predict now."

"You don't have any answers. What good are you?"

"Try asking about other than the Grizzlies, jackass."

"That's weird, didn't know that was an answer... um... is Memphis Barbecue tasty?"

"As I see it, yes."

"Oh, you do work. Okay, will Memphis have more games within 5 points than any other sub-.500 team in the league?"

"You may rely on it."

"Awesome, so will I still have my job?"

"Sorry, Coach. That's up to you."


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