First of all, the important stuff. Take your vote seriously Tuesday. Rarely in our country's history has so much been at stake in one election. So consider the candidates . . . and vote smart.

Considering the Memphis Grizzlies will open the 2004-05 NBA season Wednesday night with the same 10-man rotation that won 50 games last season -- plus Brian Cardinal -- it would be easy to forecast a season of "same old" for the Griz. But it would be unwise. While the characters may be more and more familiar -- albeit draped in new duds and playing under a shiny new roof -- Year Four of the Memphis Grizzlies will see plenty of change . . . and the ripple effect could be long-term.

A new neighborhood. In the NBA's new six-division structure, it would be hard to argue that any division measures up to the Grizzlies' Southwest. Made up of the infamous "Texas Triangle" (San Antonio, Houston, Dallas) and a pair of music-loving river cities (Memphis and New Orleans), the Southwest Division will offer each of its members 16 games of trench warfare. The division includes four certifiable superstars in the Spurs' Tim Duncan, Houston's Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady, and the Mavs' Dirk Nowitzki. The Hornets have been weakened considerably by the surgery that ended Jamal Mashburn's season but still boast point guard Baron Davis (22.9 ppg last season). In 2003-04, Memphis was part of the first division in 21 years -- the Midwest -- to finish a season with every team over .500. Look for a repeat in this year's Southwest free-for-all.

Less in the West means more for the Griz. Do you have a sense there's more elbow room in the Western Conference with Shaquille O'Neal jumping center for the Miami Heat? O'Neal's divorce from Kobe Bryant and the Lakers means the Spurs, Timberwolves, and Kings have seized the inside tracks toward the NBA Finals. And it also means the likes of Houston, Dallas, and yes, Memphis are that much closer to being merely a playoff upset away from the grand stage. Injuries play such a huge role in the fate of NBA teams (just ask Chris Webber and his Kings). A turned ankle by Duncan or a twisted knee by Kevin Garnett could make the value of the Grizzlies' depth that much more profound.

Hubie's sunset? The reigning NBA Coach of the Year is 71 years old, and hats off to Hubie Brown for out-coaching men three decades his junior last season. Thanks largely to Brown and president Jerry West (a spry 66), what had been seen as a longterm rebuilding project has turned into the kind of operation where success will be defined by advancing in the playoffs . . . not merely reaching them. With that the case, pressure will intensify as January turns to February, March to April. And you can't help but wonder where Brown will see himself after another 82-game regular-season grind. Considering how vital Brown's leadership has been to keeping 10 egos happy in a rotation that might lead a team with less backbone to mutiny, the tiny chapters that make up the larger book for the season ahead will help determine who is calling the shots a year from now. Let it be known that of all the Grizzlies' players and personnel, no one wants to win NOW more than the head coach.

A new carrot for Pau. The Grizzlies answered any questions about who exactly their franchise player is by signing Pau Gasol to a lucrative and long-term contract extension. One of the joys in watching Gasol over his first three seasons has been seeing the competitive fire he shows when up against more renowned -- and until this year, more wealthy -- competition. It will be interesting to see if this fire intensifies (or flutters) with the big contract. Gasol said a lot about "respect" upon signing his new deal. Respect, he should know well, is a two-way street. So the burden, more than ever, is on Gasol to lead his Grizzlies to uncharted territory: playoff success.



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