Here's a challenge: Describe the 2001 Memphis Grizzlies squad in five words or less. Don't use swear words and try to be nice. Not so easy, is it? It's understandable given no one in this town (except the Grizzlies coaching staff) is likely to have seen many Grizzlies games. Even if a couple of their games appeared on network television, it still wouldn't matter since this team is practically brand-new anyway.
So just who are these guys? For a team that returns one starter in shooting guard Mike Dickerson (assuming Lorenzen Wright beats out returning center Bryant Reeves for starting center), the biggest question is the lack of identity.
Every team has one. Philadelphia's walking wounded are tough. New York's physical play is brutal. Los Angeles' winning ways are either lackluster or brilliant, depending on what part of the season you're talking about. Utah has John Stockton passing to Karl Malone. The Washington Wizards have newcomer Kwame Brown and what's his name, that guy from Chicago or someplace.
So what do the Memphis Grizzlies have? Who knows? The team hasn't played a game on Memphis soil and it's hard to draw a bead from closed-mouthed team personnel or from practices that are open only after the starting lineup has finished practicing together.
Here's what we do know: It's going to be an athletic team, with Stromile Swift, Will Solomon, Shane Battier, and Wright leading the pack. It's going to be a fast team, with more runners than the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. It's going to be a young team, with Jason Williams, Battier, Swift, and Wright as probable starters. Veterans will also contribute, with Ike Austin, Nick Anderson, Dickerson, and Reeves on hand. It's going to feature NBA wild child Williams passing to NBA rookie poster boy Battier. It's probably going to struggle on defense (except for Battier) and in rebounding. It's not going to have much size. Whether this combination of speed and inexperience can put points on the board is, at best, conjecture.
So much for five words or less. But that's okay, because head coach Sydney Lowe doesn't put much stock in that sort of thing anyway. "I don't know if it's critical for a team to develop [an identity]," he says. "It's hard to say. Some teams play good defense so they say that's their identity. Once you see the Lakers, what is their identity? Their identity is that they win ball games." Historically, if the Grizzlies have had an identity it would be this: losers. That might be a bit harsh, but until this version of the team proves otherwise, the label will stick.
Lowe says that he doesn't care much about that, but he does care that opponents know a couple other things about his team. "It's important that teams in the league know that we're going to come in and we're going to play hard," Lowe says. "That we're going to play tough defense and we're going to be physical and that they're going to have their work cut out for them."
Of course, given their lack of size, the Grizzlies understand that to earn that reputation they're going to have to play smart as well as hard. "We have to come out and defend; we have to come out and contest shots," Lowe says. "We're not a big, physical ball club so we can't rely on holding people off. We have to concentrate on boxing people out and going to the boards. We don't just pound it inside to a guy. We have to create, we have to make shots. There's so much we have to do."
Another problem with defining the Grizzlies is figuring who will play where. While the guard positions are solid (Williams and Dickerson will start, with Anderson, Solomon, and Brevin Knight backing them up), the forward and center spots are fluid, with multiple players able to fit in different spots. For example, Wright can play the power forward spot or the center position, while rookie Pau Gasol can swing his seven-foot frame from power forward to small forward.
Lowe says that such options weren't necessarily intentional, but they add new dimensions to his team. "I think it's something that just happened," he says. "Certainly we wanted to be more athletic than we were last year, but I don't know if it was something where we wanted to get this style of players so we could play this style of game. Now, we have to take advantage of the athletic ability of some of our guys and the fact that we can move pieces around and play multiple positions. I think in some games that's going to be good for us. Sometimes it's not. You have to know how to play that style."
What style this team will be able to play will become more apparent during preseason games. Expect multiple starting line-ups and lots of experimentation. The hope is to come up with a solid, core rotation and from there start building a bit of success.
That's really the operative word for this bunch. These players just want to come out and do what they can to put more wins on the board than people expect. "Right now our goal is to come out and compete," Lowe says. "To play hard and to play smart."
That's not such a bad goal. Winning would be a better goal, but that's implicit in everything that this squad does on and off the court. Another implicit goal is to endear themselves to Memphis.
How about these five words to describe the Grizzlies? Bad Team Wanting More Wins. Or maybe Homeless Squad Needs Southern Lovin'. Or how about Memphis' Own, Looking To Surprise?
Beginning November 1st at home against the Detroit Pistons, the search for a team identity begins, whether Lowe thinks it's important or not. Exactly what this team will be is anyone's guess. More than likely, five words won't be enough.