In Praise of Posey 

The overlooked forward makes his case for the Grizzlies' MVP.

After the invigorating, come-from-behind win Sunday over the division rival Denver Nuggets, the Memphis Grizzlies have now won eight games in a row and are 10-1 in January, guaranteeing the first winning month in team history. At 25-18, they currently sit at seventh in the Western Conference playoff race and have a very real chance to set the franchise record for victories in a season before the All-Star break.

There are plenty of hosannas to go around for this good fortune. Mike Miller has broken out of his shooting slump. And the recent stretch of play marks perhaps the first time all season that Miller, Pau Gasol, and Jason Williams have all played well at the same time. But the quiet hero, indeed, the team MVP so far, is James Posey, whose numbers in every single category have been rising all season.

Posey's role was in the spotlight over the weekend as he matched up with the two highest-profile small forwards in the Western Conference -- Sacramento's Peja Stojakovic and Denver's Carmelo Anthony.

Posey was brought in with the reputation of being a defensive stopper, and you could see why last weekend. After being torched by Stojakovic in the teams' previous game, Posey's physical ball-denial defense -- along with a loud, feisty Memphis crowd -- forced Stojakovic into one of his worst games of the season. And against Denver, Posey showed the versatility to guard three positions, matching up, at one time or another, with Anthony, perimeter-shooting two-guard Voshen Lenard, and slashing point guard Andre Miller.

But as good as he is on the defensive end, Posey has been better than advertised on offense, improving dramatically on his career shooting numbers this season. In fact, heading into Sunday's game with the Nuggets, Posey was the only Grizzlies player among the league's top 40 shooters from the floor, from behind the three-point arc, and from the foul line.

Posey has been an 80 percent foul shooter for his entire career, and shooting coach Hal Wissel suggested during the preseason that his ability should be able to translate to success from behind the arc. That this has finally happened in Memphis shouldn't come as a total surprise. The Grizzlies are Posey's third team in two seasons, and his role and production at each stop make his recent fine play seem more predictable.

Posey started last season in Denver as a primary scorer on what was, without exaggeration, one of the worst offensive teams in NBA history. Forced to take more shots than his offensive skills dictated, Posey got his points but shot horrible percentages. After a midseason trade to the Houston Rockets, he had the opposite problem, becoming an afterthought in a disorganized system. With guards Steve Francis and Cuttino Mobley hogging the ball in Houston, Posey confessed earlier this season that he was never sure where his shots were coming from.

But if Denver demanded too much of Posey and Houston afforded too little opportunity, the fit in Memphis has been just right. In Hubie Brown's structured offense, Posey has become the consistent complementary player that his skills indicate he should be, his ever-improving spot-up shooting and toughness around the basket meshing well with the team's more dynamic offensive players. (For example, he's developed nice chemistry with Gasol on a nifty little give-and-go play that's become a staple of the team's halfcourt sets.) And Posey's defensive tenacity has afforded the team a sorely needed impact player on the other end of the floor.

And that tenacity is key. The once-soft Grizzlies are pushovers no more, and Posey deserves as much credit for this transformation as anyone: His takedown of a showboating Stojakovic in Sacramento and his ripping a loose ball from a scrum of Rockets late during the nationally televised Martin Luther King Day game may be the definitive images of this increasingly magical Grizzlies season.

When Posey was signed over the offseason to a four-year contract for the full mid-level exception, it seemed reasonable to doubt the move. Jerry West seemed to have overpaid for something he already had in Shane Battier. Posey was one of the most unheralded mid-level free-agent signings of the season, but outside of the Lakers convincing future Hall of Famers Gary Payton and Karl Malone to take huge pay cuts for a shot at a ring, he has been the best. The Posey signing has paid off -- and it might keep paying off all the way to the postseason.

E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

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