A New Ballgame 

This season's Grizzlies are searching for an identity -- and a future.

Last season, everyone knew what Memphis Grizzlies basketball meant. It meant walking the ball up the court at the league's slowest pace, delivering it to first-time All-Star Pau Gasol, and spreading the floor with three-point shooters. The team used this style to fashion a respectable offense despite deplorable free-throw shooting (27th in the league) and a lack of dynamic athletes.

At the other end of the floor, with perhaps the league's finest tandem of wing defenders (Eddie Jones and Shane Battier) and a coach in Mike Fratello who always seems to maximize his resources, they were the league's second-best regular-season defense.

But as the team embarks on a new season, it's difficult to envision what Grizzlies basketball will look like this time around, especially since the team itself doesn't seem to know.

Last season's identity has been wiped away by a couple of key departures -- one planned, one unexpected. Team president of basketball operations Jerry West rolled the dice -- and risked alienating what's left of the team's loyal fan base -- by trading the beloved Battier to the Houston Rockets for the rights to promising rookie Rudy Gay (and the return of disgruntled ex-Griz Stromile Swift). West is betting that Gay's star potential eventually dwarves Battier's considerable on- and off-court contributions, but it's hard to imagine the Grizzlies defense being so solid this season without a player who is among the finest team defenders in the league.

Offensively, the Grizzlies won't be able to run their halfcourt offense through Gasol, at least initially, because the team's bearded star will be modeling plus-size suits at the end of the bench -- out until at least December and probably January with a broken foot suffered in the semifinals of the World Basketball Championships.

Throw in five new players on the team's 15-man roster and uncertainty was a given. Typically, training camp and preseason is the time to sort these things out, but the Grizzlies have been hounded by even more injuries, albeit minor ones, with almost every significant player missing time for one ailment or another.

As a result, the Grizzlies head into the first month of the season searching for a lineup and a rotation -- and an identity. But this uncertainty is fitting, as it extends from the court to ownership (where Brian Davis' group of prospective buyers could take over the team at mid-season) to the front office (West is in the last year of his contract) to the coaching staff (Fratello, ditto) to the stands (last season, the Grizzlies lost more than 1,000 off their attendance average from the season before).

This will all be sorted out in time, but on the court, who plays and how well are questions that will begin to be answered this week.

The questions begin at point guard, where veterans Damon Stoudamire and Chucky Atkins were good fits for last year's team. But, with Gasol out, this tandem's spot-up shooting abilities might become less valuable and their lack of dynamism with the ball more of a problem.

Coming off major knee surgery at age 33, Stoudamire's ability to hold up over an 82-game season (much less over the three seasons remaining on his contract) is a legitimate concern. He looked a step slow (at least) in the preseason, and his minutes will need to be watched, especially on the second night of back-to-back sets.

But even with physical limitations, Stoudamire will be able to help this team as long as he can stay on the court. When he went down last season, the Grizzlies missed him most in close games. According to 82Games.com, Stoudamire was amazing in "clutch" situations last season ("clutch" reasonably defined as in the last 5 minutes of regulation or overtime with the score within 5 points), shooting 63 percent and hitting a perfect 14-14 from the foul line. (By contrast, Atkins shot 38 percent and was 10-16 from the line in the same situations.) In games decided by 5 points or less last season, the Grizzlies were 5-3 with Stoudamire (one loss in double overtime against the then-dominant Detroit Pistons) and 4-9 without him. Stoudamire's ability to make shots in pressure situations is important but perhaps not as much as the security of putting the ball in the hands of a career 84 percent foul shooter late in a close game.

One sign of the unreliability of preseason numbers is that the Grizzlies' three-point field-goal attempts fell from 19.2 a game last season to 10.3. The team is likely to rely less on the three-pointer this season, but despite the loss of its second- and third-best three-point shooters from a year ago (Battier and Bobby Jackson, respectively), the Grizzlies still boast a deep reservoir of outside threats. Reigning Sixth Man award-winner Mike Miller is one of the league's best pure shooters, and Stoudamire, Atkins, and Eddie Jones all boast career percentages of better than 35 percent from downtown. That will give the Grizzlies at least four viable outside shooters in the rotation, and that number could swell to seven depending on the playing time and/or shooting accuracy of Gay, Brian Cardinal, and Dahntay Jones.

The question for the Grizzlies is how to get the kind of quality looks the team's shooters got a year ago, because they sure won't be able to rely on a post player who can draw double-teams and find open teammates, at least until Gasol returns.

Until then, the Grizzlies only have two realistic options for consistent interior scoring -- returnee Swift and second-year man Hakim Warrick, neither of them likely to command double-teams or thrill with their passing exploits.

Swift's return has been a bit of déjà vu for Grizzlies fans as he's once again missed games with nagging injuries (knee soreness in this case). But as long as he's in uniform, Swift should command the most frontcourt minutes until Gasol's return, because he's the team's only available frontcourt player who can both protect the rim defensively and knock down mid-range jump shots in the halfcourt offense.

A reliable mid-range jumper would do wonders for Warrick's game. At 6'9" and 219 pounds, Warrick is about the same size as Gay, but where Gay has the athletic fluidity and shooting touch to play small forward, Warrick's limitations force him to play as an undersized power forward. Even stationed closer to the basket, Warrick's sketchy jump shot is a problem. During preseason, Warrick's been a much more confident and effective scorer on quick, slashing forays to the basket. Look for Warrick to get every chance at being a regular fixture this season.

With the Grizzlies' outside and inside options both full of questions, the scoring load early this season could instead fall to Miller and Gay, both versatile players capable of scoring from all over the court.

If anyone wanted to know what Gay is capable of, they only had to watch him in the second half of the preseason home game against Detroit, where he scored 19 points on 7 of 8 shooting and made plays in every way imaginable. Though he needs to work on his ball-handling, passing, and shot selection, Gay can pretty much do it all. He is easily the most talented player the Grizzlies have acquired since drafting Gasol.

click to enlarge Rookie Rudy Gay has big shoes to fill. - LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

But if you wanted to know how far Gay is from a finished product, you only had to watch the first half of the same game, where he looked lost, shooting 0 for 4 from the floor and getting called for consecutive illegal defense violations. This tale of two halves is likely to mirror an up-and-down rookie season for a kid who just turned 20 this summer.

And that's why the team's real go-to guy in November is likely to be Miller. With Eddie Jones the incumbent starter at scoring guard and Gay clearly the future at small forward, Miller could return to his super-sub role from a year ago. But can the team's best active player really come off the bench? Though he's continued to struggle in the postseason, Miller has been improving a little bit year by year and, at 26, still has room to keep getting better. He could be positioned for a breakout season.

With the Grizzlies likely to struggle in the halfcourt without Gasol, they'd be well-served to push the tempo more this season. Fastbreak basketball is an NBA trend fans are clamoring for, and the Grizzlies have paid lip service to hopping on the bandwagon. But fans expecting the Grizzlies to morph into the Phoenix Suns overnight will be disappointed.

A perpetually poor defensive-rebounding team, the Grizzlies could be truly terrible to start the season minus Gasol and the departed Lorenzen Wright and with incumbent starting center Jake Tsakalidis' dreadful preseason suggesting a possible reduction in court time. Aside from Swift, the other players likely to garner minutes in the frontcourt are all relatively undersized. Warrick is too slight to bang with the big bodies that typically play power forward in the NBA. The floor-bound Cardinal is a terrible rebounder for his position. And while youngsters Alexander Johnson and Lawrence Roberts bring needed strength and toughness, they may struggle to box out bigger bodies under the glass.

If the Grizzlies struggle on the defensive boards, they may have to rely on forcing turnovers to trigger their transition opportunities, a strategy that's been apparent in the preseason as the team has experimented with more aggressive defensive schemes. Among the veterans, Swift gives the team a shot-blocking presence in the paint, while Eddie Jones (11th in the league in steals per game last season) and Cardinal have always been good at stepping into passing lanes or poking balls away. And all of the team's young players would seem to thrive in a more aggressive defensive style.

Those same young players, almost to a man (Roberts the lone possible exception), are also better equipped to play the uptempo style West has demanded. But barriers to that style are still legion: Stoudamire and Atkins aren't ideal for leading a transition attack, while rookie Lowry isn't quite ready. The aforementioned defensive-rebounding deficiencies are a factor. And though people point to Fratello's Atlanta teams in the 1980s as evidence he's willing to play uptempo, those teams were only fast-paced by today's standards, not by the standards of their own time. Every team Fratello has coached has played slower than the league average, so a slow-down game is pretty clearly one of his coaching tendencies.

The Grizzlies aren't likely to be the slowest team in the league again this year. They'll speed up the game a little bit, but this season will be -- in more ways than one -- the first step in a longer process of transforming the Grizzlies.

For the Grizzlies, the coming season might be like a New Age instructional -- a journey of self-discovery. But the reality is that the journey's destination lies in the more distant future. Ultimately, this season will be about next season, and, in that regard, there's plenty of reason for optimism.

There are six first- and second-year players on the Grizzlies' 15-man roster, the most since 2002-2003 and the deepest and best group of young players the franchise has ever had. Where in past seasons the end of the bench has been populated by such NBA long shots as Cezary Trybanski, Chris Owens, and Will Solomon, this year every one of the young players has the look of a legitimate NBA player.

This group gives the Grizzlies hope, not only of changing their fan-alienating style of play but also of better managing their salary cap. Instead of building quality depth with too-well-compensated veterans, which was largely the story of the team's rise from the depths a few years ago, the Grizzlies are finally poised to fill their roster with players who can outperform their contracts, thus allowing the team to stay competitive without exceeding the league's onerous luxury-tax threshold and freeing up money for use in free agency.

This kind of long-range thinking -- the idea that this season will be better judged by Rudy Gay's development than by how many games the team wins -- could be challenging for local fans already skittish about the city's only major-league sports franchise. Long a college-sports town, Memphis fans have been trained to think one year at a time. Fans rightly think University of Memphis basketball should be good every year. It's about the program, a high-paid coach, and a fundamental set of permanent advantages the program holds over much of its competition.

But the NBA doesn't work that way. Team building is a more complicated process. When the Grizzlies traded Jason Williams and James Posey to the Miami Heat for Eddie Jones, it wasn't just about moving a malcontent for a solid citizen. It was about exchanging a three-year contract (Williams) for a two-year contract (Jones), thus setting up space under the league's salary cap for summer 2007. Similarly, trading 26-year-old Battier for then-19-year-old rookie Gay wasn't a deal made with the hope that Gay will be a superior player this season (though he may be) but with the confidence that Gay will be the better player in the future.

The tension between trying to win (okay, survive) now and lining up pieces for the future may come to define this season, but if fans are willing to accept the long-term thinking (and the organization is willing to stick to it), this could be a more interesting team to watch. And if things go well, the Grizzlies will head into next summer with an established star in Gasol, an emerging star in Gay, a deep cast of role players, significant cap room (with Eddie Jones, Atkins, Tsakalidis, and, potentially, Dahntay Jones all coming off the books), and, perhaps, a lottery pick in what is shaping up to be a good draft. In other words, the Grizzlies could come out of their worst season in years in their best shape ever.

Which doesn't mean this season will be as forlorn as many assume. It's impossible to find anyone who thinks the Grizzlies will make the playoffs this year, and many think they'll be among the league's worst teams. But this team has been left for dead before. In fact, the Grizzlies have outperformed preseason prognostications for three years in a row. With Gasol in street clothes for the first month or two and the rock-steady Battier wearing a Rockets uniform, the Grizzlies may not be able to buck expectations for a fourth time. But I suspect things won't be as bad as the worst predictions. November will be brutal -- the Grizzlies face their roughest stretch of games at the time they're least equipped for it. But by March and April, with Gasol back in the lineup and Gay acclimated to the NBA game, they could be better than last year's 49-win team, on the court if not in the standings -- and far more entertaining.

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