Bad Bounces 

The Grizzlies' season has been a cycle of hope and disappointment. Just where is this team headed?

PHOTOS BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

For the 17,643 fans funneling out of The Pyramid last Friday night after the Memphis Grizzlies' 108-102 loss to the New York Knicks, close didn't seem to count anymore. They'd just witnessed their team give a performance distressingly similar to that from early in the season under since-ousted Coach Sidney Lowe. Porous defense and lackadaisical play had put the Grizzlies behind 17 points in the fourth quarter against a mediocre Knicks team. Then, over a five-minute stretch, the Grizzlies went on a 17-2 run to cut the deficit to two and give the assembled faithful what amounted to false hope. The Grizzlies wilted in the final minutes, the Knicks made big shots, the home team lost its fourth game in a row.

As the stands emptied, the music inexplicably playing over the public address system was the Foundations' 1969 confection "Build Me Up, Buttercup." "Why do you build me up, Buttercup baby, just to let me down?," the anonymous singer lamented. "Build me up, Buttercup. Don't break my heart," he pleaded. Was someone in a control room somewhere making an editorial comment on the game? Was it a fluke coincidence? Did the collective frustration of Grizzlies fans magically manifest itself in the form of this silly pop song, which gave voice to their desperation and longing as only silly pop songs can? Regardless, it was a moment that not only summed up the game itself but the entire Grizzlies season so far.

For Grizzlies fans, the 2002-2003 season has been a cycle of hope and disappointment. The hiring of living legend Jerry West over the off-season to run the team and subsequent roster overhaul that jettisoned a lot of expansion-team-quality deadwood (Nick Anderson, Grant Long, Rodney Buford, etc.) kindled minor playoff hopes and a sense of positive momentum for perhaps the first time in franchise history. Then the season started. With the team clearly not responding to its lame-duck coach, the Grizzlies opened 0-8 and Lowe and West arrived at what might diplomatically be called a mutual decision to end the relationship.

West's shocking hire of long-retired coach and iconic broadcaster Hubie Brown rekindled hope, with fans patiently allowing Brown a honeymoon in which he held his own preseason while the games counted, installing a new system and evaluating talent as the team went 2-10 over his first dozen games. Then things clicked: The insertion of veterans Wesley Person and Lorenzen Wright into the starting lineup coincided with a struggling Pau Gasol finally getting his footing in Brown's system, and the team went on a 9-4 run through December and into the new year.

Then, just as irrational exuberance was setting in and Hubie Brown "Coach of the Year" discussions were popping up, the team left for the West Coast on its longest road trip of the season and into a tailspin. The team has gone 2-12 since, with the only wins a victory at Golden State nearly choked away in the final minute and a hard-fought, improbable, entirely inspirational road win over the San Antonio Spurs. Now, coming off dispiriting road losses to a woeful Denver Nuggets team and beatable Golden State squad, the Grizzlies have matched last season's team at 13-34, and the old malaise has returned in full force.

Through the New York Knicks game, the Grizzlies stood 21st out of 29 teams in the league in average attendance (15,034 a night), the novelty of the franchise beginning to lose the battle against the team's on-court woes. Brown's professorial composure has at times given way to obvious frustration over his team's youth and lackluster talent base. "When we're healthy, with our 10 best players, how many times have we been favored?" Brown asked rhetorically after his team's 100-95 loss to the Houston Rockets last week. "Look who was out there [on the court]?" he asked after a recent loss to the Seattle Sonics. "Do you want to make a trade?"

Grizzlies Coach Hubie Brown: Is the honeymoon over?
Perhaps it's time to use the upcoming All-Star break (not to mention the upcoming February 20th trade deadline -- yeah, Hubie, let's make a deal) to refocus on the big picture. The most important question to ask about the Grizzlies isn't whether the team will win 23 or 27 or 31 games this season or even why the team has slumped badly heading into the break (look to a combination of injuries, fatigue, and coming back to earth, along with a worrisome drop in play from Jason Williams, for that). The real question is what needs to be done in order for the Grizzlies to win 45-50 games in the 2004-2005 season.

Not-so-long-suffering Grizzlies fans who want to win now may not want to hear it, but West made clear the day Lowe was let go that the team was embarking on a long, difficult overhaul. Sitting before assembled local media while Brown was boarding a plane to Memphis, West outlined a three-year plan. This season is about teaching, evaluation, and improvement. Next season he's looking for "dramatic improvement," by which it's assumed he means making a push at .500 ball. And year three, when the team moves into FedExForum, West wants to be able to "play with anybody," which means playoffs. The next day, Brown delivered an address no less focused on the long term. He was here to teach, to install a proven offensive and defensive system, and to evaluate the roster.

So, with the trade deadline approaching and the second half of the season left to judge who should stay and who should go, the most important questions are these: What have we learned and what do we still need to figure out?

We know that Pau Gasol is a crucial building block and that Stromile Swift is not. We don't yet know whether any of the team's three most talented commodities after Gasol -- Jason Williams, Drew Gooden, and Michael Dickerson -- can emerge as complementary stars. We know that we have plenty of good role players and that Shane Battier, despite his draft status and celebrity, and Lorenzen Wright, despite his current role and shot attempts, are among them. We also know that veterans Wesley Person and Brevin Knight fit that description but are unlikely to be here three years from now. We know that young West acquisitions Earl Watson and Gordan Giricek are legitimate NBA players who can be a part of the long-term plan. We don't yet know if the same can be said for young West acquisitions Chris Owens, Robert Archibald, and Cezary Trybanski.

The one silver lining in the team's recent patch of poor play, and by far the most important development of the season, has been the emergence of Gasol to near-elite status. That the sublimely skilled seven-footer has made this leap in his sophomore season is no surprise, but it's been a rockier ride than anyone could have anticipated.

After a decent start, Gasol's game fell apart under Brown. His minutes and shots decreased dramatically, the latter only partly due to Brown's commitment to evaluating his roster. One reason for Gasol's lack of production early in the Brown regime was that the coach was installing a new system on the fly, and the implementation of plays designed to get Gasol and Gooden the ball in the post came late in the process. Another reason was that Brown's motion offense didn't always work as planned. Offensive sets that might get Gasol a shot two or three passes into the play rarely got that far because rookies Giricek and Gooden tended to break the continuity of plays in pursuit of their own shots.

Gasol didn't handle these growing pains very well, sulking, whining to officials, and otherwise showing his frustration as his numbers dropped to 11.5 ppg and 40 percent shooting over a 12-game stretch. But something clicked in a December 8th win over the Phoenix Suns. With more plays run in his direction and veteran Wright inserted next to him in the starting lineup, a move Brown said gave Gasol more space to operate, the second-year forward broke out of his slump. Gasol played well throughout the team's December salad days (19.1 ppg, .53 shooting, and 8.8 rebounds per game), but he really blossomed in January, around the time that an injury to Wesley Person and a Jason Williams shooting slump sent the team on its current downturn.

His wrist now healed, his status as go-to guy reestablished, and his game back in rhythm, Gasol has given the Grizzlies a vision of the future, showcasing a package of basketball skills and physical attributes that very few forwards in the NBA possess. With his freakish length, ability to shoot with either hand, and unteachable knack for finding the basket, Gasol is fast becoming one of the most effective post scorers in the game. But what might be most special about Gasol's game is his ability in the open court. One reason Gasol's shooting percentages are frequently so gaudy (and he's currently the only player in the NBA leading his team in scoring while shooting over 50 percent) is that he may get more "easy" baskets than any big man in the league. Gasol is deadly in transition because he runs the floor like a deer, is long enough to allow teammates to throw lobs over the defense, can catch the difficult pass, and is a strong finisher. He may also handle and pass the ball on the break better than any big man in the NBA right now.

He's not a finished product, of course, which only makes it scarier to contemplate just how good Gasol can be. In order to join Nowitzki, Duncan, and Garnett among the first tier of big forwards, Gasol has to get stronger (but without losing the quickness that makes him so unique) so he can establish better post position and deny that same position on the defensive end. He also has to give more consistent effort defensively and on the boards. Gasol will likely never be a defensive stopper but has shown that with his length he can impact a game by sealing the defensive boards and blocking or altering shots.

But if Gasol is set as a young star for the Grizzlies to build around, it is imperative for him to have a partner of similar stature. Figuring out where that player is coming from is the team's biggest challenge. The draft is not a likely scenario since the Grizzlies will owe the Detroit Pistons its first-round draft pick this summer to fulfill a previous trade. The Grizzlies will keep the pick only if it's number one overall, a statistical long shot. Free agency is a viable avenue to obtaining that second star, but the team likely won't be able to make a splash in the market until the off-season of 2004, when Bryant Reeves' bloated salary is guaranteed to come off the books and the contracts of Wesley Person, Brevin Knight, and Stromile Swift expire. The remaining options are trades and producing that player from within; that, more than wins and losses, will be the real story of the second half.

Could that second star already be on the roster? One thing that seems clear is that it's time to cross Stromile Swift's name off the list of possibilities. The third-year forward and one-time second overall draft pick has regressed badly this season. After averaging 10 points, seven rebounds, and 2.5 blocks in two early stints as starting center, Swift's minutes and production have declined steadily since Brown became the coach, his minutes falling from 24.8 per game in November to 19.1 in December to 13.7 in January. Along the way, Swift has missed myriad games with small injuries and illnesses and has shown little, if any, improvement in his court awareness or aggression. A subject of trade rumors since the day Jerry West arrived, Swift's plummeting value seems to be the only thing keeping him on the roster now.

Another, much more unlikely subject of trade-related conjecture has been rookie forward Gooden, Jerry West's first draft pick. Gooden's first half has been much like the team's: rocky, frustrating but not without promise. A college power-forward forced to make the transition to small-forward in part because of Gasol's presence and in part out of athletic necessity (Gooden's a bit undersized for the position by NBA standards), Gooden has struggled to adapt to the NBA game. West proclaimed Gooden rookie of the year before the season even started, and he responded by winning rookie of the month in November with averages of 15 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. But Gooden's numbers have fallen steadily each month as a host of other rookies taken later in the draft -- not just Amare Stoudemire but Nene Hilario, Caron Butler, and even Dajuan Wagner -- have played better. Passing on Stoudemire looks foolish in retrospect, and it's been reported that West is furious with the team's scouting department for not identifying the high-school man-child as a possible pick.

Though Gooden's overall numbers are decent for a rookie (12.6 ppg, second on the team, and six rebounds a game), his play has often been atrocious. He's been spastic and rushed on the court, with a tendency to break the offense and look for his shot whenever he touches the ball, taking far more shots relative to his minutes than anyone else on the team. On the other end, he's struggled with the nuances of team defense and has routinely been torched by opposing small forwards.

Even amid these struggles, one can glimpse what Gooden could be: He's a better perimeter shooter than expected. He can be an aggressive rebounder who gives great second effort on the boards. If he can make the transition to small forward, his rebounding and scoring around the basket can create mismatches. But Gooden has to be able to defend the position and play team basketball, and so far those things haven't happened. As it is, with Gasol entrenched at power-forward and sixth-man-in-waiting Shane Battier a perfectly acceptable starter at small-forward, Gooden might be the team's greatest combination of trade value and expendability. It would be surprising to see West move his first draft pick this soon, but if someone makes the right offer it could happen.

But the biggest storyline of the second half is Jason Williams. Currently sixth in the league in assists and second among starting point guards in assist/turnover ratio, Williams bought into Brown, picking up his defense and toning down his flashy game. Early on, Williams' new-found efficiency was mitigated by an out-of-character conservatism that did a disservice to his talents and the team's needs. With the coaching staff imploring him to push the tempo and penetrate more, Williams seemed to find the right balance between control and chaos in December and early January, when the team went on its winning streak. Williams may be faster with the ball than anyone in the league not named Iverson and may deliver the ball in transition with more skill than anyone not named Kidd, and he's put on some fabulous displays this season, but consistency has been a killer.

At 27, one worries that Williams may never iron out the wrinkles in his game. Though his reputation is for erratic passing, his problem this season has been erratic shooting. At 39 percent from the floor and 31 percent from beyond the arc, Williams has shot slightly better than his career averages and has mercifully taken fewer threes than he did last season. You can live with those numbers if Williams is getting his teammates easy shots, has other outside shooters around him to take up the slack, and is showing good judgment on when to pull the trigger, but none of those things has been happening consistently of late, and Williams' numbers take a steep dive on the road.

Williams has to play well for this team to have a chance at winning. In wins this season, he's scored 17.4 ppg with 10.2 assists; in losses, the numbers have been 10 points and 6.5 assists. He signed a multiyear contract for roughly $7 million per year last off-season, which makes him difficult to trade. And, warts and all, Williams is better than his trade value. But he's regressed badly over this recent stretch and has sat at the end of four of the team's past 10 games. For West's three-year plan to succeed, it's imperative for Brown and Williams to make it work.

And finally, there's Dickerson, the Vancouver holdover who signed the same long-term contract as Williams before last off-season and then went down with a serious groin injury that has kept him on the shelf ever since. Dickerson has been practicing with the team and has been cleared to be activated after the All-Star break, though team officials caution that it will take him several games to find his rhythm. Even if it takes the entire second half, it's probably in the team's long-term interest to find minutes for Dickerson in order to find out what they can expect from him or to prove his health to increase his trade value.

Most Memphis fans have never seen Dickerson play. What to expect? Coming off scoring averages of 18.2 and 16.3 ppg in his second and third seasons prior to the injury, Dickerson was developing as a solid starter and complementary scorer more than as a star. A pre-injury Dickerson would likely be a more consistent contributor than Gooden or Williams this season, though his basketball skills and athletic talents aren't quite as compelling.

The truth is, Gooden, Williams, and Dickerson don't seem like particularly promising candidates to develop into the second star this team needs, though Gooden has the time and Williams certainly has the ability. Creating that second star out of these raw materials is an imposing challenge for Brown's coaching and teaching talents and West's justly praised front-office skills. Grizzlies fans can hope that one of the above trio turns the corner or that West can pull off an unlikely blockbuster deal. The sad, safe money is on fans waiting for the free-agent period two summers away for the team to add a second star.


First-Half Highlights

Best Win (Home): Washington Wizards (85-74), November 23rd. The Grizzlies get their first win of the season in game 14 in front of a sellout crowd of 19,351 in what is presumably Michael Jordan's final Memphis appearance. Free-agent signee Earl Watson has the best game of his young career (17 points and five assists, including a clutch three-pointer late in the game) and Pau Gasol breaks out of a horrid slump under new coach Hubie Brown, with unexpected fire on the defensive end and brilliant all-around play in the final three minutes to turn a tie game into an 11-point Grizzlies victory.

Best Win (Road): San Antonio Spurs (98-93), January 22nd. The Grizzlies snap a 21-game, six-year losing streak against division rival San Antonio in an oasis of gritty play in the middle of a 1-7 stretch. Gasol matches the stellar play of defending MVP Tim Duncan bucket-for-bucket and board-for-board en route to a 28-point, 17-rebound, three-block performance that stands as his finest game of the season.

Worst Loss (Home): Portland Trailblazers (87-99), January 20th. Far too many contenders here. There's the November 11th loss to the Golden State Warriors in front of a season-low crowd of 10,112, which got Coach Sidney Lowe fired (um sorry led to his resignation). There's the lackadaisical December 1st loss to the Toronto Raptors that ended the season's first stretch of solid play. There's the January 25th loss to the Seattle Sonics in which point-guard Jason Williams scored zero points in only 19 minutes. But worst of all was the Martin Luther King Jr. Day loss to the Blazers: a nationally televised game with league commissioner David Stern in attendance, a near-sellout crowd of over 19,000, a moving holiday ceremony at halftime, an 8-1 home record in the previous nine games, and an opponent playing without its best player. How did the team respond? By turning the ball over six times in the last eight minutes to throw the game away in front of a home crowd aching for a celebration.

Worst Loss (Road): Denver Nuggets (73-84), November 9th. The Grizzlies brought an 0-6 record into the Pepsi Center with a chance to get healthy against the least-talented team in the NBA. Instead, they shoot a season-low 33 percent in a double-digit loss, setting up the "Lowe Must Go" mood for the next home game against Golden State.

Best Game: Houston Rockets (114-109), December 13th. The first of what could be years of "Yao vs. Pau" matchups was an overtime thriller with both young stars putting up big numbers. Rockets guard Steve Francis hits a prayer of a three-pointer with two seconds left in regulation to force overtime. He's topped by Wesley Person, who hits the Grizzlies shot of the year with a HIGH-arcing, paint-peeling, raindrop three-pointer with 35 seconds left in overtime to seal the game. Consulting my game notebook a month and a half later, I noticed this small scribble at the bottom of my notes: "This game kicked ass." Yes it did.

Best Play: Pau Gasol's coast-to-coast game-clincher in the first win of the season over the Wizards. Nursing a three-point lead with 90 seconds left, Gasol blocks a shot, grabs a defensive rebound, and leads a 2-on-1 break with a no-look pass to Wesley Person to wrap up the win.

Five Memorable First-Half Moments:

1. With 44 seconds left in the December 20th win over Milwaukee, Jason Williams sets up the offense from the top of the key, lets the shot clock run down, then penetrates into the lane, drawing Lorenzen Wright's defender and calmly dropping the ball to Wright for a dunk for the final basket of the game. As Williams pedals back down court, Hubie Brown takes a step forward, points at Williams, and gives him an affectionate nod in what may be the body-language equivalent of "You da man now, dog."

2. In the October 19th preseason home game against the Chicago Bulls, 25-year-old rookie Gordan Giricek, who'd spent one year in the Russian League and five years in the Croatian League, stands on the sidelines waiting for the referee to give him the ball. Two fans sitting courtside get Giricek's attention and point out that he's being shown on the Jumbotron. Giricek looks up at the giant screen, smiles, and starts waving his arms. Asked about it after the game, Giricek seems to have no idea what the word "Jumbotron" means.

3. An exultant Stromile Swift leaps onto Gasol's back and brings him to the floor after the overtime win against Houston.

4. At the end of an otherwise disappointing loss against Houston on January 27th, the new-and-improved, under-control Jason Williams gives a glimpse of the old flair. Set to throw an in-bounds pass, Williams sees his defender, Steve Francis, turn his back. Williams bounces a pass off of Francis' behind, leaps in-bounds to catch it, and sinks a three-pointer. Sadly, neither Williams nor Francis are credited with an assist on the play.

5. At the end of a grand halftime ceremony during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day game against Portland, in which pairs of African-American NBA pioneers and civil rights movement figures are introduced by guest emcee Danny Glover, the crowd erupts before Glover has a chance to open his mouth: Iconic hoops great Bill Russell pushes wheelchair-bound local legend Larry Finch to center court and the applause rises in waves, culminating in an ovation after Finch's name is announced, perhaps louder and certainly more emotional than anything the lame-duck Pyramid has ever heard.

Five Most Distressingly Common Grizzlies Images:

1. Pau Gasol whining to a referee about a no-call while his man gets a transition bucket.

2. Lorenzen Wright booting a perfectly catchable pass in transition or under pressure.

3. Drew Gooden spastically forcing a shot against double or triple teams while his teammates watch in frustration.

4. Jason Williams jacking a pull-up three-point shot after either having just been scored on or having made a three-pointer on the previous possession.

5. Mike Batiste. Airball. -- CH

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