DIVISION OF LABOR The 1982-83 Washington Bullets had what might best be described as a schizophrenic season. Led by “Bruise Brothers” Jeff Ruland, Greg Ballard, and Rick Mahorn, the Bullets survived a grueling Eastern Conference schedule to finish 42-40. A winning record is normally the first ingredient in the concoction of NBA success. Alas, 42 wins left Washington in the Atlantic Division cellar, the last NBA team to finish in a division’s basement with a winning record. Fast-forward to the present-day Midwest Division, where as of Monday, the surprising Utah Jazz (minus Stockton-and-Malone) had managed a record of 24-23 . . . and found themselves in last place. For some interdivisional perspective, Utah would be merely two games out of first place in the Atlantic. Depending on your point of view, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies’ blessing or curse to be locked in the toughest, most competitive division in the NBA, a seven-team free-for-all that may go down in history as one of the finest divisional alignments of all time. If Utah (or any of its Midwest brethren) winds up in last place despite a .500 record, it will be only the sixth time such an aberration has occurred, and the first time in a division with more than five teams. Considering the Grizzlies have already managed a six-game winning streak and a franchise-record eight-game tear, the view here is that Hubie Brown’s young squad is being sculpted into the kind of battle-tested playoff contender they might never become were they members of the Pacific Division or (egad!) either of the Eastern Conference divisions. When you have 24 of your 82 games against, count ‘em, Minnesota, San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Denver, and Utah, you learn very quickly to never -- ever -- take the night off. Here we are in February, and Memphis has but three more losses than the world champion San Antonio Spurs. They essentially have a playoff spot to lose, and it doesn’t appear a major fade is imminent. When a club can trot out a 10-man rotation, and find as many as seven players in double figures after 48 minutes, local NBA fans find themselves mouthing a word not often spoken since this franchise was born nine years ago: stability. My favorite Grizzly stat this season? There are nine players averaging 20 minutes per game (and a tenth -- Bo Outlaw -- who averages 18). The fact is, it’s well nigh impossible for 10 players to slump together. If Steve Francis isn’t making his shots for Houston, the Rockets crash. When Tim Duncan has an off night in San Antonio, the Spurs become decidedly dull. But with these Grizzlies, Hubie Brown keeps one offensive option after another rotating onto the floor. It’s a formula that is all but immune to the kind of 10-game droughts this franchise suffered over its first two years in Memphis. The Grizzlies may lack the requisite superstar to lead them into June basketball, but they have the kind of depth that makes the 82-game regular season not quite the grind it is for many NBA outfits. And the kind of depth that will lead to fresh legs come playoff time. As for the division alignment, life for the Griz may get even more rigorous -- if such is possible -- in 2004-05. Memphis will be part of the NBA’s new Southwest Divison, a five-team battle royale in which the Grizzlies will give up Denver, Utah, and Minnesota in exchange for the New Orleans Hornets (one of the few talented teams currently in the Eastern Conference). This new division will retain the infamous Texas Triangle, and adopt the new, shall we say, River Rivalry. Should mean a fearsome struggle for divisional supremacy . . . and very likely a winning record for the cellar-dweller. Mr. Ruland, raise a toast.


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