The Second Time Around 

Five reasons the Memphis Grizzlies will make the playoffs this year. Or not.

p>PHOTOS BY LARRY KUZNIEWSKI

Jason Williams takes Chicago Bulls rookies Jay Williams and Lonny Baxter to school during a brilliant preseason performance.
By all accounts, the biggest move of the off-season wasn't the Houston Rockets drafting Yao Ming, the Atlanta Hawks trading for all-star sharpshooter Glen Robinson, or even the Washington Wizards getting Michael Jordan to lace 'em up for another year. It was Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley convincing the legendary Jerry West --by acclamation, the greatest mind in the game -- to leave his retirement in sunny L.A. to take over the reins of the least successful franchise in the NBA.

West's rapturous local response makes the Calipari coronation of years past look tame, and the pressure's on. West won big in Lakerland, but he's really put his reputation on the line taking over a team that tied a franchise record with only 23 wins last season. West vowed to improve the talent level and turned over half the roster (for the second year in a row) in an attempt to do so. Will all the new faces make the Grizzlies better? Almost certainly. How much better? Read on.

Five Reasons the Grizzlies Can Make the Playoffs

1. Pau Gasol

In basketball, more than any other team sport, the best individual players win. This is why Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal have multiple championship rings and the closest thing to an active superstar left home watching last year's playoffs was Milwaukee guard Ray Allen. No team in the NBA can make the playoffs without a legitimate all-star-caliber player. Last year, the Memphis Grizzlies didn't have one. This year, they will.

No one knew what to expect from Pau Gasol last year. He was a rail-thin Euro with limited playing experience and a presumably steep learning curve. Maybe, we thought (hoped), he can work his way into the rotation as the season progresses. But Gasol served notice by game four, when, in a road loss to Phoenix, he scored 27 points in 40 minutes, seizing the starting power-forward slot from Stromile Swift and the go-to-guy role from no one in particular and riding the opportunity to the Rookie of the Year award.

Gasol led all rookies in points (17.6) and rebounds (8.9) per game, finishing top 10 in the league in field-goal percentage (.52) and blocks per game (2.1), but those numbers don't really do justice to Gasol's season-long improvement. Rather than hit the proverbial rookie wall, Gasol just got better. In his first 10 games, he averaged 14.8 points, 6.3 boards, and 1.9 assists. In his final 10 games, those numbers were up to 19.2, 9.3, and 4.5, respectively. That's almost a Kevin Garnett stat line, the elusive 20-10-5 that only a handful of players in NBA history have been able to achieve with any regularity.

Early on, Gasol suffered comparisons to other big Euro stars, most commonly Toni Kukoc and Dirk Nowitski. But Gasol isn't that type of player -- not a point-forward like Kukoc or a long-range marksman like Nowitski. His style is more in line with American big men (on the offensive end, anyway): With his inside/outside game and the sheer aggressiveness with which he goes to the rack (Gasol trailed only Shaquille O'Neal in dunks during his rookie campaign), Gasol indeed resembles Garnett. And his surprising penchant for mixing it up down low and his smooth assortment of post moves bring to mind the greatest post scorers of the last 20 years: Tim Duncan, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Kevin McHale. Gasol doesn't belong in that company quite yet, but his freakish length, soft touch, unexpected tenacity, and innate scoring knack indicate that he someday might.

But the thing that makes Gasol the complete package offensively is his passing ability. This was the element of Gasol's game that bloomed most impressively as last season wore on. In his first 20 games, Gasol registered more than three assists only once. In his last 20 games, he racked up more than three assists 12 times. It's this ability, in concert with his other post skills (the ability to command the double team and the skill to find the open man), which separates Gasol not only from the Grizzlies' other frontcourt players but also from the league's other top young big men. It's what has Gasol on the fast track to joining Duncan, Garnett, and Chris Webber on the first tier of NBA power forwards.

This season, Gasol returns as the Grizzlies' unquestioned first option, secure, along with Jason Williams, in his role as battles for playing time erupt around him. He's noticeably bulkier after an off-season of conditioning and is coming off a strong all-tournament-team showing at the World Championships. He sat out the first five preseason games as a precaution, nursing a sprained left wrist suffered at the Worlds, but it's probably no coincidence that the team's offensive execution improved dramatically with Gasol back in the lineup for back-to-back preseason games, both wins, against the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls.

The Jerry West regime has brought a dramatic infusion of new talent to the team but no one who is going to challenge Gasol as the team's top player. Next question: Can he play center?

2. Perimeter Shooting

Pau Gasol drives to the hoop against the Bulls.
Perhaps no one aspect of the team required as much help -- or received it -- as perimeter shooting. Acquiring veteran sharpshooter Wesley Person from the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for deadweight Nick Anderson may have added to the team's salary cap for next season, but it also gives the Grizzlies a reliable bench scorer for the price of, almost literally, nothing.

One of the league's elite outside threats, Person is coming off his finest season, one in which he averaged 15 points per game while shooting 49 percent from the floor and a red-hot 44 percent from the three-point line, all career highs. It probably isn't realistic to expect a repeat of those numbers (just as Grizzlies fans shouldn't be too concerned about Person's preseason shooting slump), but the team should be content if Person -- who has never played a full season and not connected on at least 100 three-pointers -- hits his career averages of 46 percent from the floor and 42 percent from beyond the arc.

A less celebrated but perhaps shrewder move by the West regime was the trade of a future second-round pick for the rights to Croatian guard Gordon Giricek. The 6'6" Giricek has been the surprise of the preseason, averaging 15 points in 35 minutes a night through the first seven games. At 25 years old and with several years of overseas professional experience under his belt, Giricek is more seasoned than most rookies, something he's shown with his heady play thus far, despite still adjusting to NBA rules. Giricek brings with him a marksman's reputation and, though he's struggled slightly with the longer NBA three-point line (33 percent shooting through seven games), he's demonstrated a smooth stroke and the composure to take the big shot.

Another addition of sorts to the team's perimeter attack is Michael Dickerson, the Vancouver holdover who was expected to lead the team in scoring last season but instead went down with a season-ending injury after just four games. Dickerson averaged 16 points per game and over 40 percent shooting on three-pointers through his first three seasons. Still struggling to get back in game shape (and noticeably heavier), Dickerson has played only limited minutes this preseason, though he has shot the ball well from downtown. Coach Lowe says he expects Dickerson to be ready come opening night, but the presence of Person and Giricek lessens the pressure of coming back too soon.

But as much as this trio adds on their own terms, the effect their presence could have on the play of point guard Jason Williams may be just as important. Williams simply must shoot the ball better than he did last season, when he hit only 38 percent from the floor and a dismal 30 percent from beyond the arc. Williams, despite his low success rate, was among the league leaders in three-pointers taken, launching 6.6 long-range bombs per game, and many of those were ill-advised attempts early in the shot clock.

In Williams' defense, his seemingly poor shot selection last season can be partially attributed to a severe lack of alternatives on the perimeter, with rookie Shane Battier as the only other viable three-point threat on the floor most of the time. Williams' penchant for heaving up threes early and often last year may well have resulted from feeling like too much of the perimeter-scoring burden was on his shoulders. In other words, pretend you're J-Will: You're bringing the ball up court, trying to come back from a double-digit deficit. Grant Long is to your right. Rodney Buford to your left. Wouldn't you be tempted to jack one up?

This year, both Williams and Lowe say that the additions of Person, Giricek, and Dickerson will allow Williams to be more judicious about dialing his own number. The key for Williams is fewer but better shots. From his numbers, you'd think Williams just isn't a good shooter, but watching him play on a daily basis indicates otherwise. At times last season, Williams demonstrated that he can be a deadly mid-range shooter, a facet of his game that probably warrants further exploration.

Another player likely to benefit from the fewer-but-better shooting philosophy is Battier. Battier shot 43 percent from the floor last year and a respectable 37 percent from three-point range. And he had a lot working against him. Battier had to make a series of adjustments that presumably hindered his shooting: the length of the pro season, the increased distance of the NBA three-point line, the quality of competition. His shot was erratic last season -- better from downtown in the first half of the season than the second -- and his mid-range game was apparently priority number one this off-season. Battier has struggled with his shot in the preseason, hitting only 41 percent from the floor through seven games and an atrocious 20 percent from downtown. With the influx of talent on the wings, no one's minutes are likely to be as affected as Battier's and to a degree, that's desirable. (Battier averaged 39.7 minutes per game last year, an obscene number for a rookie not named Jordan or Duncan.) But Battier is still this team's finest defender. The Grizzlies need him on the floor, but he'll need to be able to sink open shots to warrant staying out there.

3. Depth

At this point, even Jerry West himself is probably a little tired of those "basketball savior" and "genius talent evaluator" stories, but he's off to an awfully good start. West said from day one that this team needed a significant talent upgrade, and it's gotten it. There are no transcendent new players like West's L.A. duo of Shaq and Kobe, but in one off-season, West's regime has transformed the Grizzlies bench from what was possibly the worst in the league last season into what should be one of the best. Every significant roster change of the off-season -- returning-to-health Dickerson for journeyman Rodney Buford, dynamic rookie Drew Gooden for perpetual role-player Grant Long, reliable Person for out-to-pasture Anderson, seasoned Euro Giricek for raw Euro Antonis Fotsis, and intense defender Earl Watson for shoot-first Will Solomon -- is a major upgrade.

During his post-game press conference following the Grizzlies' 123-99 preseason shellacking of the Chicago Bulls, Lowe announced that he was planning to use a nine-man rotation for the regular season. Then, he stopped himself: "Well, sometimes 10. It's hard to play 10, but we've got 10 guys who can play." (Actually, Coach, you've got at least 11, and finding enough minutes to keep everyone happy won't be easy, but it's a good problem to have.)

This newfound depth will have a positive effect on the team in a number of ways. Most obvious is just the sheer increase in talent: No longer will the Grizzlies be one of those NBA teams (see the Denver Nuggets this season) that provokes fans to look up from their game programs and say something like "Wait a minute -- they're starting Rodney Buford?"

The depth will also help cushion the injuries that are unavoidable over the grind of an NBA regular season. The Grizzlies lost more man-games to injury last season than any team except the Atlanta Hawks, and the assumption that the team's luck can't possibly be that bad again is yet another reason for optimism. But injuries happen (Dickerson and center Lorenzen Wright, among others, have already missed time in the preseason due to health issues). The difference is that this year, the team won't be forced to throw not-ready-for-prime-time second-rounders into the fire or tap into the developmental league (anyone remember Isaac Fontaine?) to shore things up. Dickerson's slow coming back? Bump up minutes for Giricek and Person. Wright's out? Move Gasol to center and open up more time for Stromile Swift and Gooden. Backup point Brevin Knight hasn't played a full season since his rookie year, but now the team is prepared for those annual disabled-list stints with free agent Earl Watson on board.

The depth will also allow Lowe to deploy different lineups to alter the style of play or exploit matchups. Watson may see a lot of time on the pine, but he's the team's best on-ball defender and could be particularly valuable against quicker, scoring point guards such as Houston's Steve Francis or Phoenix's Stephon Marbury. All of the wing players give Lowe different looks: Person's the best shooter, Giricek the best playmaker, Battier the best defender, a healthy Dickerson likely the best slasher. The team can go "big" with Wright at center or go with a more athletic, offensive-oriented team with Gasol at center and either Swift or Gooden at the four. Lowe has been feeling out combinations during the preseason (a lineup of Williams-Giricek-Battier-Gooden-Gasol looked great offensively, especially moving the ball, against the Bulls), and the tinkering will likely continue.

4. The Overrated West

Of course, the Grizzlies don't play in a vacuum. The team's success this season is contingent upon the performance of the teams around it. One pipe dream circulating among Grizzlies fans is a potential move to the Eastern Conference (not likely after the league awards Charlotte an expansion franchise), where, presumably, the path to the playoffs would be much easier. But Griz fans shouldn't psych themselves out too much about competing in the rough Western Conference. Sure, the West's four best teams -- defending champion Lakers, nearly defending champion Sacramento Kings, the Tim Duncan-led San Antonio Spurs, and the fun-and-gun Dallas Mavericks -- are potentially the league's four best, but eight teams make the playoffs, and there are plenty of question marks after that fab four. The Portland Trailblazers have the depth of talent and playoff experience to be odds-on favorites for the fifth slot, though there are ever-present chemistry issues there. After that, it could be an intense battle for the final three spots.

With all their blossoming talent, the Los Angeles Clippers should be a playoff shoo-in, but they're young, and most of their best players are in the last year of their respective contracts, a situation that traditionally has a negative impact on team chemistry. Plus, right, they're the Clippers. The Seattle Sonics may be a safer bet, with loads of young talent who have already tasted the post-season and a superstar in Gary Payton to lead the way, but Payton is also in a contract year and has already been disruptive in training camp. The other Pacific Division contenders are the Phoenix Suns, who have done an admirable job of rebuilding without ever getting really bad, and the rudderless Golden State Warriors. The Suns should be decent, but it's hard to see a sixth-place team in the Pacific getting to the post-season, and the Warriors have no shot.

In the Midwest, San Antonio and Dallas will lead the way, with the awful Denver Nuggets a sure thing for the division cellar. What happens in the middle of the division will determine the Grizzlies' fate. Most prognostications have the Griz finishing sixth in the seven-team division, but the wheels appear ready to come off an aging Utah Jazz team, whose talent pool has gotten worse over the off-season. If the Grizzlies can sneak into the top four in the division, they should be in the playoff hunt. That'll mean passing either the Minnesota Timberwolves or Houston Rockets. Both teams have more established talent than the Griz -- the Wolves with superstar Kevin Garnett and the Rockets with dominant guard Steve Francis -- but also plenty of question marks: The Wolves have had a horrible off-season, and veteran point Terrell Brandon's career could be over. In Houston, will number-one pick Yao Ming be ready? And if so, will Francis and shot-happy backcourt mate Cuttino Mobley get him the ball?

5. Intangibles

The Memphis Grizzlies tied a franchise record last year with a putrid record of 23-59 -- as Williams said on media day, "Nothing to brag about." The addition of the Logo and confident rookies Gooden and Giricek seems to have altered the attitude. For the first time in franchise history, this is a team that feels headed in the right direction. Injury problems have been relatively minimal and controversies -- will Stro' be traded? will J-Will "mature?" -- have been minor and predictable. Meanwhile, most other teams on the Western Conference playoff bubble seem less certain of their direction. They may not have much experience in the matter, but one can't escape the feeling that this may be a team that's ready to start winning.

Why It Won't Happen This Year

Okay, time for a reality check. The Grizzlies aren't actually going to make the playoffs this year: For every proposition above, there's an equally compelling inverse.

Gasol may be ready to be an all-star, a necessary ingredient to compete for a playoff spot, but history has shown that for a team to really make noise in the post-season, it must be led by a transcendent star who controls the ball (see Jason Kidd's New Jersey Nets or Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers the last two post-seasons) or by multiple all-stars (see the Boston Celtics last year, with Paul Pierce and Antoine Walker).

It remains to be seen if that second all-star is on this roster, though there are three possibilities. The least likely of these is Stromile Swift, a former number-two overall pick (though in one of the weakest drafts in league history) and an electric athlete even by the exalted standards of the NBA. Swift is still young and, by all accounts, has had a promising preseason, but his all-star potential is pretty clearly just a tease at this point. Up next is rookie-of-the-year contender Drew Gooden, who has had a monster preseason, averaging 19 points and a gaudy 12.7 rebounds a game in 38 minutes while shooting an impressive 48 percent from the floor. There are still lots of little things for Gooden to work on, but his scoring and rebounding acumen is more advanced than anticipated, and he may yet live up to the James Worthy comparison floating around during the summer leagues. Finally, there's Jason Williams, a major talent viewed as no less a disappointment than Swift in some circles, though he had a better season last year than a lot of the national media will allow. Williams averaged 18 points and 10 assists last year in Grizzlies wins. No one else was as clear a barometer of team success. This year, Williams will turn 27, a five-year vet with decent talent around him. It's a make-or-break year. Williams gave fans a taste of his "A" game with 24 minutes of brilliant basketball last weekend in the blowout of the Bulls. There's no reason he can't be as good a player as Mavericks all-star point guard Steve Nash.

While West may have dramatically improved the team's backcourt offense this off-season, a much-needed upgrade in frontcourt defense went unfulfilled. This is a small team. Probable starting center Lorenzen Wright is a top rebounder and a willing banger but is undersized for the position and not much of a shot-blocker. Behind him, the cupboard is pretty bare: Journeyman Tony Massenburg is a bruiser but only saw game time in one of the first seven preseason games and is likely to only see spot minutes this year. Promising rookie Cezary Trybanski is an intriguing prospect and further along on the defensive end than on offense (where he's made Dikembe Mutombo look fluid) but is raw as sushi. Second-rounder Robert Archibald has yet to see game time in the preseason and could be an injured-list regular throughout the season. This means lots of small lineups, with Gasol or Swift in the middle, which makes the team more potent offensively but may give up even more on the defensive end. This problem has been evident in the preseason. Chicago's mammoth center Eddy Curry had his way with Gasol in the paint, hitting 11 of 15 shots, virtually all dunks and lay-ups. Playing Gasol in the middle against the league's wide-bodies may be a problem. And Gooden and Swift exhibited numerous defensive deficiencies in the preseason, not the least of which was a reluctance to defend out on the perimeter, letting a cast of no-name opposing forwards (Terrance Morris, Malik Allen, Pat Burke) go on scoring spurts. What happens when sweet-shooting Dallas forwards Dirk Nowitski and Raef LaFrentz take The Pyramid floor opening night?

For all the depth this team has, it's still prohibitively young to be making playoff plans. Williams, Person, Wright, and a still-banged-up Dickerson are veterans in their prime, but all but Williams are role players. The rest of the team's core -- Gasol, Gooden, Battier, possibly Swift and Giricek -- is still at least a year away from making a run at the post-season.

And though there's more room for upward mobility in the Western Conference than conventional wisdom suggests, the schedule-makers did the Grizzlies no favors. The team's first seven games are rough: There are home games against three of the West's big four (Dallas, Sacramento, and San Antonio), a road game against defending Central Division champs Detroit, and a three-game West Coast trip starting with perennial playoff team Portland and finishing with back-to-backs against Sacramento (again) and Denver. Denver is woeful, but the last game of a road trip and second night of back-to-backs is not when this team wants the most winnable games to be (it just makes a rare probable win that much more difficult to come by). If the Grizzlies start out 0-7 or even 1-6 (which is a real possibility), what will the reaction be? In the clubhouse? In the front office? Among the fan base? A tough start could do real damage to the team's psyche. How Lowe and his players cope with that potential adversity will be pivotal.

Finally, though the team intangibles may be pointed in the right direction, these are still the Grizzlies. West's magic wand won't immediately eliminate a culture of losing. Jason Williams and Wesley Person are the only players on the roster with significant playoff experience, and most of the team's young players have never sniffed a winning season, despite the college pedigrees of Battier and Gooden. Sidney Lowe, saddled with a slow-developing expansion team in Minnesota and again with the Grizzlies, has never won a lick as a coach. Lowe is in the final year of his contract, and his future will be a question mark that hangs over the team all season.

In the end, this team is too young, too inexperienced, and has too many new faces to expect a post-season birth this year. But they're vastly improved. If they can get past that rough early schedule without too much damage to their confidence, look for this team to surprise the national press (most of whom are predicting another of those "20-something"-win seasons West says he won't tolerate) by hanging around a while.

Prediction: 36-46, fifth place in the Midwest Division.


Five questions with Sidney Lowe

Sidney Lowe
Flyer: 1) What have you been most pleased by in the preseason, and what has been most troubling?

Lowe: I've been pleased with our effort, for the most part. I think we've played hard. I've been pleased with the progress of some of our young players, just knowing that I can feel comfortable putting them in the ball game. I haven't been happy with our execution offensively, but that may be a result of spending so much time working on defense. But, obviously, our offensive play has not been what we want it to be or what it's going to be.

Has the execution problem been a result of so many new players?

Yeah, new in terms of being together. It's a matter of understanding and reading situations. When you're playing a team that's switching [on defense], you have to be able to read your second and third options, because a lot of times, that first option isn't there. But we've been working on some things the last couple of days, and it's getting better.

2) Given what seems to be a lack of quality depth at center, is it inevitable that we'll be seeing a lot of smaller lineups with Pau Gasol or Stromile Swift in the middle?

That's a possibility. Yeah, that's a possibility. Pau is obviously one of our top players, and he can give us so much [in the middle] with his scoring and passing and his understanding of the game. And Stro' has really been playing well lately, so certainly [playing those two at center] is something that you could see.

3) A writer I spoke with from the Twin Cities, who covered you as a player and a coach, says that Jason Williams is 180 degrees from what you were as a player. Do you think that's accurate?

[Laughs] Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Then, as a former point guard, how does that affect the coach/player relationship?

Well, I think it depends on a mutual respect that has to be there. As a coach, I try to use the way I played the game to help Jason execute better. That's what I did. I executed. I didn't have the abilities he's got. He can break you down, go by you, all those things. I could handle the ball, but that wasn't my game. We're trying to get him to combine what he can do with the ball with the way I played the game in terms of running the show and being the leader out there: knowing who to go to, picking guys up, always staying positive, those kinds of things. He's played a certain way his entire ... his life. And he's been successful at it because he's here in the NBA, but when you're in that position, with the ball in your hands all the time, you have to be able to control the tempo of the game -- when you want to run, when you don't want to run. You have to be an extension of the coach out on the floor.

Do you think that having so many more perimeter shooters on the team -- with Dickerson back, Person, Giricek -- will impact Williams' decision-making in terms of his own shot selection?

I think it should. And not just because of those guys. No matter who you have on the floor, you still have to take good shots. But I think by having those guys on the floor, he may not feel as much pressure to score the ball himself and to get it done so fast.

4) Top to bottom, is this the most talented team you've ever coached?

Um ... Top to bottom? Yes, it is.

5) There has been a lot of speculation, including in a recent ESPN magazine story, that with West coming in, it's only a matter of time until he'll want to bring in his own guy. How does that possibility affect the way you're approaching the season?

It doesn't affect me at all. That's part of the business. If that were to happen, it wouldn't be the first time that's happened to a coach. I can't be concerned about that. If we go out and play hard and do what we're supposed to do and win ball games, then I'll let the chips fall where they may. I've talked to Jerry, and he's told me what he expects, and I'll have to live with that.

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