By Chris Herrington
1. Frontcourt Defense: Still Horrible
Aside from immeasurables such as chemistry and effort, interior defense is the single biggest reason for the Memphis Grizzlies' awful start. Against the Chicago Bulls last weekend, the entire Grizzlies frontcourt rotation (Pau Gasol, Drew Gooden, Stromile Swift, Shane Battier, Lorenzen Wright, and Cezary Trybanski) combined for a mere 23 rebounds. Chicago journeyman forward Donyell Marshall pulled down 17 himself -- off the bench.
Through two games new coach Hubie Brown has returned to the Swift-Gasol-Gooden frontcourt that former coach Sidney Lowe tried for a few games before abandoning it. This lineup gets the team's most talented players on the floor but also gives the Grizzlies a frontline in which all three starters are mediocre (Swift) to bad (Gasol and Gooden) one-on-one defenders.
Playing Swift at center allows Gasol to slide to his natural position at power forward, but right now he's a bad defender wherever you put him. However, Gasol is (by far) the team's most talented player on the offensive end of the court, and it will be crucial to the team's success to maximize those skills while minimizing the damage at the defensive end. Part of this has to come from Gasol's own dedication and improvement as a straight-up defender, but part of it can also come from team defense -- quicker defensive rotations, matching Gasol against non-scorers when possible, and using more zone (which the Dallas Mavericks have done with great success to cover for offensive star/defensive liability Dirk Nowitski).
But the problem with those strategies is that it's hard to hide Gasol on the defensive end when rookie Gooden is playing beside him at the three. Gooden has shown no ability whatsoever to guard offensive-minded small forwards, and the team has been routinely torched by opposing threes with Gooden in the lineup, most recently in the loss to the Bulls when, down by only eight, Gooden returned to the game in the fourth quarter and Jalen Rose immediately put six points on him to put the game away.
2. J-Will: Buying In
Like pretty much everyone else on this young and underachieving team, point guard Jason Williams has plenty of problems with his game. But is anyone else on this team (or in the league?) more unfairly maligned? When Hubie Brown was hired, NBA writers around the country and more than a few onlookers locally were almost gleeful in their anticipation of the hard-nosed, old-school coach giving the punk a needed comeuppance.
Well, it's still early, but Williams seems to have adapted to Hubie Ball rather well. He's been surprisingly effective on the defensive end (his full-court ball pressure leading a more dedicated defensive attack) and more aggressive offensively, penetrating with more regularity than under Lowe. Williams' three-point shooting is still sketchy (2-11 in two games under Brown; look for this to be a big priority for new shooting coach Hal Wissel), but the renewed commitment to getting to the basket has helped Williams to 10 of 15 shooting inside the arc. Against the Timberwolves in Brown's debut, Williams was better than his box-score (though he did miss two shots late -- both good decisions -- that might have won the game). Against the Bulls the next night he was clearly the best Grizzly on the floor.
3. Battier: In Limbo
On opening night, coach Sidney Lowe had the gall to choose a starting lineup that didn't include Shane Battier. He caught hell for it, and Battier was back in the starting lineup for the rest of the team's Lowe-helmed games. Well, in two games under Brown, Battier has been back on the bench with nary a peep of protest. That's as much a testament to Brown's stature and backing from management as anything.
The team might actually be better with Battier as a starter: His ability to guard three positions (and guard them well) gives the lineup much-needed defensive flexibility, and moving Gooden to the bench would give the second team much-needed scoring punch. But, for most of this season, Battier has been an offensive liability -- a tentative, ineffective shooter and prime candidate to get his shot blocked. If he can't knock down the open jumper, it's difficult to see him regaining his starting spot.
Battier's minutes have quietly dwindled over the last few games to numbers more common for a seventh or eighth man -- 21 (Denver), 19 (Golden State), 16 (Minnesota), 25 (Chicago) -- and that could well be what he is becoming.
To his credit, Battier seems willing to embrace whatever role is necessary in order to help this team win. But, if the tangible disconnect between Battier's on-court accomplishments and his off-court reputation (a product of draft status, his de facto role as community frontman, and his celebration by much of the local media) continues to widen, it could be a Grizzlies subplot to watch.
4. Scrub Scramble
Early on, Brown has adopted a few of the profusion of elements of Lowe's constant lineup experimentation -- Gooden at the three, Battier off the bench -- but where he's differed most dramatically is in his use of end-of-the-bench players. Two of Lowe's most curious obsessions -- Mike Batiste early and often and Earl Watson at two-guard -- seem to have (thankfully) been abandoned. But most intriguing is the sudden elevation of Polish center Cezary Trybanski from the injury list (where he was expected to spend a "red-shirt" rookie season) to the rotation.
In two games and 26 minutes, Trybanski has looked like Frankenstein's monster on the offensive end but has given the team a presence on the defensive end and on the boards: Trybanski actually led the team in rebounds per minute in both games. With frontcourt defense as the team's single biggest weakness and Trybanski as the only true center on the roster, tossing him into the fire early is a reasonable gamble.
By Ron Martin
Passion has returned to the University of Memphis and its name is Jeremy Hunt. Prior to his breakout game against Syracuse, Hunt said he would do things Tiger players weren't known for doing: play hard, dive on the floor, "whatever it takes," said Hunt, "to win games." Just moments after the Tigers won in New York, Hunt said, "I've always wanted to be a Tiger. I've never wanted anything else."
That's passion. You don't have to stretch your imagination very far to visualize Hunt before the game, standing in front of the mirror, gazing at "Memphis" emblazoned across his chest and smiling as though he hit the lottery. In his mind, at least, he had. Though John Calipari's staff recruited Hunt, in reality the youngster's birthright was the only recruiting tool they needed. His passion for the school is built on a lifelong love affair.
Passion -- or the lack thereof -- can be contagious. Hunt's love for his school puts his work ethic on automatic and a level above someone who's just showing up for practice. It's hard to watch a teammate beat his brains out in practice and games and not get caught up in his enthusiasm. A lack of passion can have the opposite effect. Where passion creates success, a lack of passion creates excuses.
Dane Bradshaw, currently playing for White Station High School, will experience his first collegiate game jitters next season. He will put on the orange and white of the University of Tennessee, and just like Hunt he will stand in front of a mirror before heading onto the hardwood. Someone may need to be standing close by with a bucket in case Bradshaw barfs. For some strange reason, Bradshaw has signed to play for a school he apparently doesn't have a passion for. According to a story in The Commercial Appeal, Bradshaw and his high school coach, Terry Tippet, visited UT for a football game and each claimed to have become ill at the sight of everyone wearing orange. Bradshaw is quoted as saying, "I'm not going to be a guy wearing all that orange." If a player hasn't the passion for the colors he will wear, can he have a passion for the school and its tradition?
Bradshaw may click as a Volunteer and Tennessee may be a better team because of his talents, which, according to recruiting experts, are top-notch. Call me old-fashioned, but I will take a less talented player who has passion for the colors on his back over someone who is wearing the colors of a team because of the recruiter who sold him on the school. Passion creates championships.
Flyers It seems Jeremy Hunt's passion is being tested early. He will probably miss Friday's game with Austin Peay due to a foot injury which appears to be a stress fracture. The number of games he'll miss has not been determined.
The University of Memphis has yet to decide where it will play basketball in the future -- in the new arena or in The Pyramid. Am I the only person who wonders how much influence some of the athletic department's biggest donors, such as FedEx, will have on that decision? And am I the only one who wonders about a possible conflict of interest because some of those donors have a financial investment in the team and the FedExForum? The question of doing what is best for the university is more convoluted than some may think.
Ramblings What does the University of Alabama's 6-1 conference record -- best in the SEC East and tied for best in the conference -- while on probation say about the SEC? ... And yes, I could see a difference in the Grizzlies after the first two games of the Hubie era ... Congrats to Joye-Lee McNelis. The Lady Tigers signed a "stud-ette" when they inked Ashley Shields of Melrose.