Whenever people have asked me about this year's Memphis Grizzlies, I've shared the same line: I'm not sure they'll be any better than last year's 22-60 squad, but they're already more interesting.
It's never fun seeing your team struggle, particularly over the course of a six-month, 82-game schedule, stuck in the crossfire of the NBA's Western Conference power elite. But there's nothing worse in sports than watching an aging team struggle, which is where the 2008-09 Grizzlies gain somewhat of a hall pass for the season ahead.
My colleague Chris Herrington did his usual bang-up job in forecasting what we might expect this winter from the NBA's third youngest team. (For one more dose of perspective, consider that the Grizzlies' entire starting lineup on opening night in Houston was younger than one Joey Dorsey, who sat on the Rockets' bench all 48 minutes last Wednesday.) With young athletes come expectations and, even better, hope. But not even the most optimistic of Griz fans could have expected double-doubles from both Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur in their professional debuts against one of the favorites to win this year's Western Conference title.
Then came Friday night at FedEx Forum. Thanks to some buzzer-beating trickery from Rudy Gay, Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley received the sweetest treat he's enjoyed in at least two years. Down 10 points in the fourth quarter against an Orlando team bound for the playoffs, the Grizzlies -- vintage 2006-08 -- would have been dead and buried. But not on Halloween night, 2008. At the very least, the 16,000 fans who bought tickets to meet the likes of O.J. Mayo and Arthur are more inclined to do so again. And as for the team, let it be engraved in bronze that Rudy Gay is officially The Big Bear in these parts. (When Gay had an off night Saturday in Chicago, another old friend - Bulls rookie Derrick Rose -- stole the spotlight and helped his team pull away in the final quarter.)
When the Grizzlies arrived in Memphis for the 2001-02 season, there was excitement out of sheer novelty. But what made the team interesting that year were a couple of kids -- Pau Gasol and Shane Battier -- who managed to push aging vets like Nick Anderson, Grant Long, and Isaac Austin further down the bench. Those two rookies would later play central roles for three playoff teams. Here seven years later, there's another rookie Gasol in the mix, not to mention a first-year player (Arthur) who may grow into the same defensive presence Battier was for five years. Add these fairly unknown variables -- bursting with potential, based on their first weekend as professionals -- to the team's core of Gay, Mayo, and Mike Conley and this Grizzly squad becomes that much more, well, interesting than the inaugural Memphis team.
Beyond the starting lineup, these Grizzlies have what's come to be called "energy players" coming off the bench. Third-year pro Kyle Lowry is a push-the-pace point guard who won't allow opposing second units to take a breather when Conley sits. And Hakim Warrick may be second only to Gay when it comes to pure athleticism at either end of the floor. It's a team that is sure to struggle for stretches of the season (the upcoming four-game trip out west may be one). But it's also a team that appears to be energized by an us-against-the-world cohesiveness. Nothing bland -- nothing familiar, really -- about the 2008-09 Grizzlies squad.
You just have to wonder if the expectations -- heightened after the sizzling win in the home opener -- come with patience. Will these Grizzlies -- including second-year coach Marc Iavaroni -- get three years of support as they aim for playoff contention? Patience and youth, we all know, make strange bedfellows.