There are a few lessons the Memphis Grizzlies can learn from this year's NBA Finals combatants. As the Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat continue their fight for the Larry O'Brien Trophy, here are a few factors Jerry West, Mike Fratello, and friends might consider over the off-season.
Get younger . . . or don't. What do you make of the considerable contrast in age between the Miami roster and the Mavericks'? The Heat's eight-man rotation averages a long-in-the-tooth 30.5 years (with three players over the age of 33). Dallas' top eight players average only 27.4 years (with three players under 26 and none older than 31). For the 2005-06 season, Memphis sent out a lineup (when you count Damon Stoudamire, injured in December) that averaged 29.1 years. And the Grizzlies featured only one player -- All-Star Pau Gasol -- under the age of 26.
The fact is, Miami is an old team, with a transcendent 24-year-old star in Dwyane Wade. In a fashion reminiscent of Michael Jordan's prime, Wade has completely dominated this year's Finals, infusing energy to a rotation that would otherwise be run off the court by the quicker Mavericks. And that might be the "age lesson" for the Grizzlies. A team can win with 30-somethings, but it had better be centered around a star who can win games on his own. Paying attention, Pau?
Speed at the point. No way does Dallas reach the Finals without the contribution of second-year point guard Devin Harris. On offense, he matched the standard of San Antonio's Tony Parker in the second round. On defense, Harris kept MVP Steve Nash within reasonable containment in the conference finals (one of a crew of foils Dallas threw at the Suns' point guard). And it's entirely Harris' quickness -- with and without the ball -- that will make him a star in the near future. Chucky Atkins is no slowpoke, and picked up the point pieces nicely after Stoudamire's season-ending injury. But neither he nor Stoudamire is in the Parker/Harris/Nash category of ball-handling dynamos.
For the Grizzlies to advance deep into the playoffs, they have to find a point guard who can put defenders on their heels. One with a better jump shot than Antonio Burks.
Style adaptation. Wow, that sounds like a lesson for sportswriters, no? Dallas had to pull a 180 between their series with the conventionally great Spurs offense and the run-and-gun Phoenix attack. Harris was inserted into the starting lineup to out-quick San Antonio, while center Erick Dampier hardly played as the Mavs tried to keep up with the Suns. Likewise, Miami adjusted from a man-to-man attack Detroit threw their way in the Eastern Conference finals to the double-teaming of Shaquille O'Neal that predicated the Mavericks' strategy in the Finals.
This is an area that doesn't appear to be the specialty of Grizzly coach Mike Fratello. Going back to his success in Cleveland, Fratello's teams have been about minimizing possessions, defensive clamps, and scoring through the post. Old-school professional basketball, the kind Wes Unseld would love. Some flexibility in style, though, is necessary in the modern NBA.
The evolution of Pau. Until the Shaq clones mature, NBA teams must be creative in developing their superstars. So keep your eyes on the Grizzlies' best player, because he may not be finished developing. Gasol's German counterpart with Dallas, Dirk Nowitzki, was once a freakish, 7-foot jump-shooter, who scored his points, but wasn't seen as a difference-maker. In these playoffs, he converted a 3-point-play at the end of Game 7 in San Antonio that saved the Mavs' season, then simply took over play in Game 5 against Phoenix, scoring a cool 50 to all but punch his team's card to the Finals.
Gasol is two years younger than Nowitzki, and continues to show improvement as a defender and rebounder. He may still be THE guy Memphis basketball fans crave.
Keep the faith. Thirteen years ago, the Dallas Mavericks went 13-69. The year before they won all of 11 games. They were the worst franchise in American pro sports in the Nineties. As for Miami, they won exactly four playoff series in 16 years before the man-monster that is Shaq was brought to town. This year's championship series has been a breakthrough for the NBA, and by several measures. "Nontraditional" teams can, in fact, win an NBA title. The 12-game playoff losing streak in Memphis will end, and soon. Beyond that? Hope springs eternal.