How High Can They Fly? 

They're deep. They hustle. They're unselfish. They're unconventional.

It's been exactly 20 years since Hubie Brown last prowled the sidelines of an NBA playoff game. Back then it was as head coach of the New York Knicks, a place where fans were so jaded that, as Brown has joked, he didn't just have to win, he "had to cover." Now he's trying to get to the postseason again, but this time with a team that's never won anything and a fanbase that's never seen playoff basketball. With a troika of question-laden stars ("soft" Pau Gasol, "erratic" Jason Williams, and "hobbled" Mike Miller) leading the way and deploying a pet system no one believed in a year ago, Brown must ow guide his young team through a 30-game gauntlet on the road to hoops heaven.

Jason Williams

At 30-22 heading into last week's All Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies stood 14 games ahead of last season's pace and tied for sixth place in the Western Conference playoff race. Along the way, they've set a franchise record for wins in a season and notched the first winning month in franchise history with a 10-4 January. This success is a full year ahead of the schedule president of basketball operations Jerry West outlined last season, when he suggested playoff contention would be on the calendar during the team's first season in the FedExForum.

That the Grizzlies have achieved this unexpected success despite several individual players underachieving and with many key questions still unanswered is a tribute to Brown, whose controversial hiring is still arguably the finest move West has made. And fans should appreciate the one-of-a-kind Brown while his tenure lasts, since the septuagenarian coach has made no promise about coming back next season.

Brown deserves the bulk of the credit because this team's success is tied heavily to a system and style that many have questioned. With no established stars and one of the deepest benches in the league, Brown's 10-man rotation (which no other coach uses as rigidly) has shaped a team where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, with five players averaging double figures. And Brown's preferred style of play -- up-tempo offense and pressure defense -- suits not only the depth but the personnel, taking advantage of the open-court skills of core offensive players like point guard Jason Williams, who is perhaps second only to Jason Kidd in his ability to manage a fast-break, and front-court fixture Pau Gasol, whose fleet feet but thin frame make him a natural for the up-and-down game.

The style has also served to negate his team's personnel deficiencies, principally a lack of bulk that makes the Grizzlies one of the league's least effective rebounding teams. At the break, the Grizzlies ranked dead last in the league in allowing offensive rebounds, something that will come as no surprise to fans who have watched bulky opposing centers such as Utah's Greg Ostertag and Golden State's Erick Dampier dominate the glass against an overmatched Grizzlies front-line.

Pau Gasol

But what the Grizzlies give up on the offensive boards they get back with ball-hawking defense and an effective floor game, ranking third in the league in assists, third in turnovers forced, second in steals, and fifth in turnover differential. The result is that, even though the team is routinely pounded on the boards, the Grizzlies still average more field-goal attempts per game than their opponents.

And it's the defensive turnaround that has perhaps been the biggest key of all. Last season, Brown inherited a sieve-like defensive unit that was probably the league's worst. And though the team improved noticeably under Brown's tutelage, the Grizzlies still finished last season 27th in points allowed and 28th in opponent field-goal percentage. There are only 29 teams in the NBA.

This season, led by defensive-oriented new additions James Posey (who has been fabulous at both ends of the court) and Bo Outlaw (who is often a pronounced liability on offense), Brown has fashioned a respectable defensive team, up to 16th in points allowed and 13th in opponent field-goal percentage. And this improvement from awful to decent seems to be the tipping point for a team that has been solid offensively all along.

This season, the defense has been reliable enough that whenever the offense has clicked, the Grizzlies have won: 17-1 when scoring 100 points; 8-0 when shooting 50 percent; 10-0 at home when shooting at least 45 percent. This is especially good news for Grizzlies fans, because the team's offense has been improving all season. The team's field-goal percentage has improved every month, and the team's points per game has also been rising steadily, up to 99.2 so far in February, with a sizzling 20.6 of those coming on the break.

In a season preview a few months ago, I wondered whether the Grizzlies would be able to stop anyone. Though that question has been answered affirmatively, answers to the other key questions thrown out in that article -- What is Gasol's ceiling? What will the team get from Mike Miller? Who will man the middle? -- remain muddled.

In the preseason, there seemed to be two options at center: Stromile Swift and Jake Tsakalidis. So, of course, Brown has ended up where he left off last season: with Lorenzen Wright. The oft-maligned Swift has actually given the team solid production relative to his minutes, giving the team an athletic front-court reserve who is active around the basket and on the break and has developed an increasingly reliable mid-range jumper that still makes fans tense up when he decides to shoot it. But Swift -- at 6'9" and 225 pounds undersized for a Western Conference power forward, much less a center -- is simply too slight to play next to Gasol in the starting lineup and has even seen his minutes slip from the bench as Brown has used Outlaw more and more in the fourth quarter.

Preseason addition Tsakalidis, a 7'2", 290-pound behemoth, has presented the opposite problem. His bulk is what the team needs, but he isn't quite physical enough to offset the problem his lack of speed poses for the team's up-tempo style.

Mike Miller

And so Wright it is. The team leader and fan favorite doesn't have the physical skills to truly compete with the league's best centers, but he brings grit and effort every night, and the team has gone an impressive 23-12 with him in the starting lineup. But, with the team in desperate need of a more brutish player to pair with the finesse-oriented Gasol, one still suspects Wright is merely keeping this spot warm for a future addition, one that could conceivably come by the time this story is published.

The lack of a true physical presence at center has only exacerbated Gasol's growing pains at power forward, where 5- or 6-rebound games are becoming distressingly common. Despite the exploits of Posey, Gasol is the team's best and most important player, but his comfort level with the intensely physical post play in American basketball continues to be an issue. Pairing him with a true banger will help, but much of the improvement still has to come from Gasol himself. His newfound willingness to get in the face of opposing players (recently, Nene, Rasheed Wallace, and Desmond Mason) is a good sign.

That said, Gasol's relatively disappointing season hasn't been as stagnant as some fans might think. Though Gasol's numbers are virtually identical to last season's, he's doing it on four fewer minutes per game, so his production has actually increased slightly. And, after shooting under 50 percent for much of the season, Gasol has found his groove of late, shooting a Shaq-like 61 percent in February while averaging more than 20 points. With the team entering a playoff push and with Gasol eligible to negotiate a contract extension after the season, the next 30 games are crucial to both his future and that of the Grizzlies.

But if Gasol is the team's best player, shooting guard Mike Miller may well be the team's most important, and how he copes with his lingering back injury may be the ultimate determinant of whether The Pyramid ever hosts a playoff game. Miller has shot the ball seven points better from the floor (47 to 40) and nearly 20 points better from downtown (44-26) in the team's wins. And it's no coincidence that when he's played his best basketball, so have the Grizzlies.

When the team went 8-2 without Williams in late November/early December, a lot of the credit went to backup Earl Watson, but it was Miller who was the key, proving a revelation as a part-time point guard, averaging 7.3 assists during that stretch to go with 12.7 points and 40 percent shooting from downtown. Later, Miller sparked the team's eight-game winning streak in January, scoring 15 points a game and shooting 50 percent or better from the floor during the streak.

Miller is the team's best outside shooter. His ability to stretch the floor gives Gasol more room to operate, and his triple-threat offense takes pressure off of Williams. Miller is also a heady, aggressive player who feeds into and off of the high-octane attack that the team plays best.

For the season, Miller is shooting a career high from the floor and is right at his average from beyond the arc, numbers particularly impressive considering he started the season in a shooting slump that took a turn for the horrid in late December, when Miller was routinely passing up open looks. Miller has found his stroke over the past month. The catch, of course, is that this has coincided with the reaggravation of a back injury that seems to have lingered from last season. With Miller hobbled and playing erratic minutes, fans must be experiencing an uncomfortable bout of dÇjÖ vu. When he's right, Miller may be the team's second-best player (and a better stylistic fit with the first team than potential replacement Bonzi Wells) and the key to a playoff run. But fans have a reason to be worried.

Ultimately, with the solid defensive effort unlikely to fluctuate much and the team's rebounding troubles unlikely to go away, this Grizzlies team will probably go as far as its offensive big three take them. That would be Gasol, Miller, and point guard Williams, who is the subject of questions, as well. The old "better without him" argument got some minor reconsideration during Williams' injury, when the team went on a win streak with understudy Watson at the helm.

But even with those potential doubts in place, the electric Williams is still the player who makes this team go, his clutch outside shooting and brilliant open-court skills standing in stark contrast to Watson's struggles with both of these key facets of point-guard play.

When Miller, Gasol, and Williams are all on their game at the same time, the Grizzlies can field a deadly offensive unit. The starting five has upped its scoring each month, which means that the trio could well be peaking just in time for the playoff run.

What will the second half hold? There is a reason to be cautious. In addition to the questions already mentioned, this is still the third-youngest team in the league. And it's still a fragile, streaky team: The Grizzlies are one of only two teams (the Detroit Pistons are the other) to experience four winning streaks and four losing streaks of three or more games so far this season. The Western Conference playoff race is tight enough that a five-game losing streak could be enough to knock the Griz out of the race.

But there's reason to be optimistic, too. No one who knows anything about the NBA would compare the Grizzlies' roster to that of its playoff competitors -- Denver, Houston, Utah, Portland, and Seattle -- and find a reason this team can't make the playoffs. And there are impressive signs of maturity. Here are some numbers that speak well of this team's chances to respond to the pressure of the playoff race: The Grizzlies this season hold a 4-0 record in overtime contests and are an astounding 20-1 when leading after the third quarter.

Those numbers are likely a testament to Brown's unique system as well, which is designed to wear down opponents at the end of games. Few thought it would work when West coaxed Brown out of retirement last season. But come playoff time, Hubie Brown may well prove every doubter wrong.


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