Monday, March 19, 2007

This Year's Team is Different

This year's team looks much different from last year's. Analysts predicted the Grizzlies would tank this year because of the loss of Battier and Gasol. I thought these predictions were ridiculous. The Grizzlies had promising young rookie Rudy Gay and a healthy Stoudemire. Lorenzen Wright's play had been bad. Surely, Swift could replace him. Bobby Jackson was frequently injured and didn't play much anyway.

I was wrong. Several changes transformed the Grizzlies from a first round loser to the worst team in the league.

1. The Grizzlies had no All Star. Although Gasol continued to produce All Star numbers, he missed 21 games this season. That absence was enough to prevent another All Star appearance, and establish a losing mentality.

2. The veterans didn't age well. Stoudemire has slowly but surely regained some form, but it took a month or two, and he's not as good as he was. Eddie Jones was injured, and looked like he didn't care. Stromile has been consistently inconsistent.

3. The young players weren't able to contribute immediately. Rudy Gay has been improving throughout the year, but my enthusiasm clouded my optimism. Gay wasn't destined to be an All Star his rookie year or even Rookie of the year. Kyle Lowry could have helped at point guard but was hampered by injury. Lawrence Roberts and Alexander Johnson have a lot of energy and can be solid role players, but they don't possess the experience or the talent to win ball games alone.

4. Mike Fratello lost the support of his players. Once the slide began, Fratello wasn't able to adapt his style to fit his players. He wouldn't accept the fact that the Grizzlies weren't a playoff team so he continued to coach them like they were. As I've written before, his style may have masked the fact that the Grizzlies weren't a playoff team to begin with. The reason they made the playoffs last year is Fratello slowed the tempo to the point that they had a chance to win games. (Don't mistake this for good defense.) Last year, they had just enough talent to win those games. This year, they're just short of that talent, and when the tempo speeds up, only the margin of victory increases.

5. This may be the most significant difference between last year's squad and this years: The ownership changed it's strategy. First, Michael Heisley decided that the Grizzlies couldn't be successful as a business by investing significant money in basketball costs. Second, he contributed to a public and poorly executed attempt at selling the team to Brian Davis and Dream Team Star Christian Laettner. This not only served as a distraction to fans, players, and other personnel, but also prevented Jerry West from taking risks that could have turned the team around. This strategy may help the Grizzlies in the long term, but it certainly hurt them this season.

6. Players have been asked to perform above their current abilities. Mike Miller, Chucky Atkins, and Hakim Warrick have all had career years. Resigning Atkins seemed like an afterthought last summer. I was skeptical of his ability to perform for more than 10-15 minutes per game. I was wrong. Atkins has proved me and probably others wrong. He's a solid contributor. However, he's still not a star point guard, and he's been asked to be that this season. In order for the Grizzlies to make up for the loss of Gasol they needed other players to step up and lead. Miller, though not the one-dimensional player he was earlier in the season, is not quite a star. Warrick has impressive offensive skills but gets beat up on defense. He shares Gasol's weaknesses: he's not a strong rebounder or help defender.

These characteristics that distinguish this year's team from last year's have resulted in strikingly different results. Instead of finishing with one of the best records in the league, the Grizzlies have the worst. Hopefully, this will allow the Grizzlies to make the necessary changes in the offseason that will make next year's team look strikingly different from this year's.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Last Year's Team Was Different

Just one year has resulted in significant changes in the performance of the Grizzlies. The record of this year's Grizzlies team is remarkably different from last year's team. With a high probability of a high draft pick in a deep draft, trade demands from the franchise player, a new coach, and possible changes in the front office, next year holds the potential for another big change.

In this article, the first of three, I'll remember last season, in hopes that it will shed some light on the huge difference in the results the Grizzlies have produced.

Here are some of the characteristics that distinguish last year's team from this year's. What's interesting is that they aren't dramatic.

1. Last year's team had three veterans that made significant contributions.

Shane Battier
Bobby Jackson
Lorenzen Wright

None of these veterans were flashy. Two of them were past their primes. None of them made statistical contributions that stand out among the 5th, 6th, or 7th men of the league. However, each of them provides intangibles that aren't quantifiable and contributed significantly, though not exclusively, to the difference between last year's playoff team and this year's league-worst squad.

2. Only one coach led the team. Mike Fratello conducted his first training camp. In the previous season he'd inherited a team from Hubie Brown. Last year's team benefited from consistency throughout the year from one coach.

3. The Grizzlies had their first All Star. Previously Shareef Abdur-Rahim put up All Star numbers. However, coaches and fans consider team performance when they select All Stars, and none of Abdur-Rahim's teams won more than 23 games. Pau Gasol was the best player on a Grizzlies team destined for its third straight appearance, and improved upon numbers that in the previous two seasons were borderline All Star numbers.

These characteristics don't seem like the missing pieces that would turn the worst team in the league into a playoff team, and they aren't the only variables that affected the Grizzlies' decline. However, they had a significant impact on the Grizzlies' appearance in the 2006 playoffs.