FROM MY SEAT: The Tipping Point 

With their All-Star forward on the sidelines for the season’s first several weeks, playoff prospects for the 2006-07 Memphis Grizzlies don’t look all that promising. Nonetheless, the upcoming NBA campaign -- the Griz open their season at home Wednesday night against New York -- should be among the most compelling since the franchise’s arrival in 2001. And here’s why: the team’s management and players are working at cross-purposes.

Simply put, the personalities that shape this year’s Grizzlies squad make for an odd mix. The head coach (Mike Fratello) is in the last year of his contract. The team’s Hall of Fame president (Jerry West) has already announced he’ll retire at season’s end. For these two key principals, winning now -- this season -- is central to their decision-making. While each would claim a vision beyond the next 82 games, their reputations -- particularly Fratello’s -- will be measured by wins and losses between now and next April.

Then you look at the roster. Pau Gasol -- the bearded face of the franchise, now and for the near future -- will sit until his broken foot heals. Don’t look for the big Spaniard to make his usual impact until the new year. End result? There’s a considerable amount of scoring and rebounding left in the hands of a supporting cast divided between veterans on the down side of their career curves (Damon Stoudamire, Eddie Jones, Chucky Atkins) and young guns packed with potential but with limited minutes on their pro resumes (Dahntay Jones, Hakim Warrick, Rudy Gay). You’re coach Fratello for a night: who gets to play?

Complicating the mix further is the once-and-future enigma that is Stromile Swift, back after a year in Houston where he averaged 8.9 points and 4.4 rebounds for the Rockets. (You can likely put these figures on Swift’s career tombstone, whenever the former SEC Player of the Year at LSU hangs ‘em up.) As much as I’ve tried, I can’t figure out why Swift would be sought by the Grizzlies’ brass in the deal that sent Shane Battier to Houston. The electrifying collegiate talents of Gay were clearly the prize in West’s decision to ship the beloved community centerpiece Battier had become. But Swift? A player who, for five years (all the way back to the team’s days in Vancouver), had fallen short of each and every expectation? If he had value to the team, why let him go -- merely a year ago -- in the first place? It’s like the chemical an abuser simply can’t put down.

If I’m in Fratello’s shoes these first couple of months, I treat the Pau-less games as an extended preseason, one in which the kids are going to get every chance -- and a little more Ð to earn minutes in my rotation. Reaching the playoffs in the Western Conference next spring would be challenge enough with Gasol on board all season. Without him, the priority should be developing the likes of Gay and Warrick to be Gasol’s wingmen when the 2007-08 season opens.

But there’s the catch. Chances are, Fratello won’t be here a year from now. On a Tuesday night in Denver, his team down five entering the fourth quarter with a chance for a rare road victory, will Fratello trust Gay as a scoring option? Will he let Warrick defend Carmelo Anthony? More than likely, the ball will go to Mike Miller on the offensive end, and Jones will be given the deadly defensive assignment. The lessons learned for Gay and Warrick will come on a chalkboard.

Memphis hasn’t experienced a transition year with its still-young NBA franchise. There were two dreadful seasons before Hubie Brown worked his magic in 2003-04. Two playoff appearances have followed under the fancy new roof at FedExForum. But you can mark down the upcoming season as a turning point in Memphis Grizzlies history. The drama over the months ahead will be in determining exactly which direction the team turns.

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