Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Grizzly Pandiculation, Week 1: Birth of the Wendigo

When I decided to formally make the Grizz my pet team for the season, I resolved to watch two games a week and report weekly on what I've seen from the team. I figure it'll be a nice way to watch how the team develops for good or bad. This is the first of those entries.

There are good things you can suck at and bad things you can suck at, and in the first week of the 2008-2009 season, the Grizzlies are sucking at good things. Let me explain.

The concern for this team in a lot of people's minds was that they suck. That they just weren't any good. Those people were wrong. This team is stacked with talent. And as I wrote in my magnum opus preview, the problem is that in order to win, they need a high number of talent pieces to play well simultaneously. Amazingly, twice in their first four games, the Grizzlies have had that happen.

The biggest problem the Grizzlies have at this point is that they have no one to provide direction. Mike Conley is developing, and is actually right where he needs to be (this 4th quarter silliness is part of his learning curve). But he's not to a point where he can provide the team direction on his own. On the break, the Grizzlies often operate with no clear sense of how the play needs to finish. They know they need to run and pass and work together, but they don't seem entirely cognizant that the end result is putting the ball in the basket. Conley's shooting is also off, but that's more a product of how hard he's trying to run the offense and create for his teammates.

Iavaroni has this team running. They know to push, and they're doing well at transitioning from securing the rebound to getting it to the wings. They struggle with when to finish and when to look for the extra man. Again there's a hesitation in figuring the direction of the team often times. Darko is slowly being banished. More and more they're looking for Arthur to be the man. The problem is that just when you think you've buried Darko, he pops up with a good game. The Darko-Gasol pairing is just about dead. Gasol's too active, Darko too unsure, and they just get in each other's way.

Kyle Lowry is a problem for this team. Not because he plays well. The opposite. If Lowry knows what to do in certain situations when you need it, and Conley doesn't, how do you not play Lowry? But if you don't put Conley in that situation, how does he learn? It's a rare problem to have a competent backup guard. But the good news is that Conley is getting there. There are a lot of times when he crates the right opportunity, only to not know what to do with it. It's a matter of learning, not talent. That's a prevalent theme for the Grizz. There are times with bad teams when you realized that even if they had a plan, they couldn't execute. The Grizzlies have a plan, and can definitely execute; they're just learning to put it together.

OJ Mayo is going to be an All-Star. And not one of those quiet All-Stars either. He needs to learn when to move directly to finish, and refine his handle. His mid-air and jump step abilities are terrifying. He's able to create enough space and time mid-air to do anything. Dish to the slashing weak side. Drop a floater. Dunk. His aggression will come with confidence. It simmers at the edges. And when you see it, you can just envision him in two years, splitting defenders and instead of losing the handle, exploding for the dunk. His vision has been really impressive. Even when he misses, you can tell he knows where the play is going to be. That's something, again, that you can coach.

Hakim Warrick looks out of place. It's a shame because his game has actually improved. But he just doesn't have the same flow with his teammates as the others do. No one really gets him, nor does he have a good dynamic with anyone. He looks explosive then rattled, emphatic then hesitant. It's maddening.

On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Marc Gasol. Or, as I like to call him, the Wendigo.

You know, the Wendigo. Feasting upon his opponent and becoming half-man, half-beast. Gasol represents the next great hope. There are so many different things you see in him, it's stunning. He's got Scola's ridiculous hustle and constant effort, but better range and offensive refinement. He's got his brother's post moves and savvy, but a raw aggression and assertiveness that Pau simply does not have. He's willing to go down and get his hands dirty, and will rip a rebound from an opponent. He suffers with rotations, but that's usually because he's the only legit big on the floor a lot of the time. He needs to work on his passing, especially out of the post, but that's something that comes with time. His 27 point, 16 rebound, 1 steal, 3 block performance against the Warriors cemented his identity. This kid is a central part of the team's future. In that game, on top of the hustle, rebounding, defense, intensity, savvy, and footwork, he showed offensive versatility with among current NBA bigmen is sorely lacking. He nailed drop hooks, turn arounds, spot-ups and constantly amazed with how savvy he was with the ball on the inbound.

Rudy Gay is getting more and more comfortable in his own skin and has times when he's simply unstoppable. He starts to look like he doubts himself about 2o minutes in, but he will still have long stretches of brilliance.

I can't tell you how much better this team has been coached through four games than it was last year. Iavaroni's getting through to them. They're out in transition, abusing lanes to create confusion, and playing consistent defense. Even if they whif on a steal attempt, they're planning for it.

This team is growing, and it's got pieces to compete. Good start for the year.

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