Regular Season Western Conference Rank: 8
This year is the year. After ages of disappointment because Pau Gasol could never deliver a Playoff series win, let alone a Playoff game victory, the team will have something positive to look to, even if crowds won’t be packing the arena to see it.
The story starts many years prior, but the real improvement began to surface a season ago. After acquiring Zach Randolph, a castaway from the Clippers who had worn out his welcome in LA, New York, and Portland, the team still looked to be in disarray. They had just introduced Randolph to a club that included OJ Mayo and Rudy Gay, both excellent players in their own right but who also required the ball to be in their hands – and they weren’t too keen on sharing.
The team took a weirder turn when they signed Allen Iverson, as an obvious ploy to sell more tickets as opposed to winning games. He joined the team as another ball dominating, me-first player without much desire to ride the pine for a team obviously expected to dwell near the bottom of the standings. But surprisingly enough, the Grizzlies played well throughout and especially at the beginning of the season, maintaining a .500 record, and the only thing that could have held back the team (given their ample talent), team chemistry, didn’t really rear its head enough to detract from the sure signs of progress.
Of course, the Grizzlies pretty much fell into the good situation they found themselves in a year ago, due to enough boneheaded moves to make Knicks fans feel bad. A few of which include: trading Pau Gasol too early and anxiously for a package centered around Javaris Crittenton, while they already had Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley on the roster, all three of which play the same relative position and were all drafted in the first round; signing Allen Iverson to a contract knowing he wouldn’t take to the bench quietly; drafting Hasheem Thabeet with the 2nd overall pick in the 2009 draft, one which included Tyreke Evans, Brandon Jennings, and Stephen Curry – Thabeet may be the most uncoordinated human being in the history of Western Civilization and is raw beyond repair. He might not be the worst player in the league because at least he’s got size, but he was definitely a reach at the 2nd pick; and trading away their only useful point guard Kyle Lowry to the smart Rockets. I’m sure I’m missing a few but you get the gist of it.
Luckily enough and with no credit given (or due) to the Grizzlies front office, the roster somehow worked itself out and developed into a surprise team a year ago. The throw in to the Gasol deal, which included brother Marc, turned into a great (accidental) move as he slimmed down in his second year and showed some much needed toughness, efficiency, and nifty moves around the rim. He was powerful, strong, rebounded well and defended admirably, along with the patented Gasol hook shots and no look passes. With his amazing improvement last year, he actually pushed Pau just in terms of pure usefulness. At the very least, it makes me think about which brother I would rather have on my team.
The situation with Iverson also worked itself out, because both sides were able to agree that they made a grave error in their partnership. Iverson didn’t take to the bench happily, as expected, but instead of lying on the bench for the whole season as a cancer, both sides struck a deal to release him from the contract, letting him become a free agent. With that, the Grizzlies declawed themselves from a ball hog with diminishing skills and an arrogant attitude.
Next, the Randolph move turned out to be brilliant, because he was no longer a nuisance to his team. On the contrary, he played well and was the unquestioned on-court leader for the club, scoring and rebounding excellently as he always had been able to do, except without the character issues that normally accompanied his presence. He was a beast on the low block, and with his lefty moves around the rim and great post play, clutchness, and finishing, he was a very worthy All Star. His numbers of 21 points and 11 rebounds were not matched in the NBA, and he also played in 81 games, showing commitment and motivation.
And although Gay and Mayo didn’t share the ball much initially, each gunning for their own stats because they seemingly resigned themselves to playing for a lottery team, they eventually bought more into the team dynamic and became better teammates. With Gay’s ability to finish and slash, shoot jumpers and jump out of the gym, he was a great 3 man capable of taking on the scoring load for stretches. Similarly, Mayo and his silky smooth jumpshooting eventually took a backseat to everything and he accepted his role as a 2nd or 3rd option, capitalizing on spot up opportunities and a few hard drives to the rim or run outs on the fast break. Eventually the troops fell into line and bought in once a shot at the Playoffs actually seemed within reach. The ball was enough to go around.
However, Gasol should really have been awarded more touches than he was given, because of his effectiveness in the low block and production in spite of meager opportunity. Nonetheless, he performed well, as the others did, and the Grizzlies came together, vying for a Playoff spot for much of the year but finishing out of the race at 10th place.
Because of the youth of the team (Gasol, Gay, and Mayo are all under 25, with Randolph at just 29) and room for improvement in play and in chemistry now that the Playoffs are a legitimate goal, I believe the Grizzlies will claim the final Playoff spot in the West, beating out Denver. They have a great collection of borderline stars, and if they can find a way to each be more complete and selfless, they have a bright season ahead of them.
I think they will win somewhere in the range of 48 games next year, and make a postseason appearance against the Los Angeles Lakers as an 8th seed, upsetting Denver fans. As long as the Grizzlies management doesn’t tamper with the good thing they have going down in Memphis, they will be golden. They’ve pretty much lucked into their current spot but if things just remain the same and players are given the room to grow, this team will be one of the great surprises of 2010. They might even win a game from the Lakers.