TrueHoop: Memphis Grizzlies

Grit and grind (your teeth)

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:39
AM ET
Stein By Marc Stein
ESPN.com
Archive
With the final few nervous days of the regular season looming, we take the pulse of Memphis star forward Zach Randolph.

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Pau Gasol's final scene in Lakerland?

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
1:39
AM ET
Adande By J.A. Adande
ESPN.com
Archive
LOS ANGELES -- Pau Gasol looked out onto the court, where the team from his past played the team of his present, then looked up to the scoreboard, where the clock ticked down toward the start of his future.

The Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol’s team from draft night in 2001 until the 2008 trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers, were finalizing the Lakers’ 55th loss of the season. Same old story for the Lakers: hang tight for a half, lose by double digits. And a frustratingly frequent tale for Gasol: sidelined by injury, missing his 20th game and counting, with a bout of vertigo guaranteed to keep him sidelined for the Lakers’ two remaining games on the road.

He’ll be a free agent this summer, which means this might have been his last home game at Staples Center. It certainly meant he felt the emotional impact. As the game drew to a close he reached toward the seat to his right and tapped teammate Jordan Farmar’s leg to signal that it was time for them to leave. Except Gasol wasn’t really ready to leave. He congratulated his brother, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, then playfully shoved Marc away so he wouldn’t sweat on Pau’s nice, movie-ticket-taker- burgundy red jacket. He moved on to other players and coaches, stopped to talk to a couple of fans, then chatted with courtside regulars Jimmy Goldstein and Dyan Cannon.
[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY SportsMarc and Pau Gasol, the brothers who were traded for each other in 2008, greet each other Sunday.

He stopped and signed autographs for fans on the other side of the courtside seats. He leaned in behind a woman who took a selfie with her phone. He entered the tunnel and accommodated more fans who reached through the rails to have him sign programs, hats, tickets and -- just when he was ready to cut things off -- a fan who dangled a No. 16 Gasol golden Lakers jersey.

Finally he said no mas.

“I gotta go in,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

He blew the fans a kiss with both hands, bowed and moved on to the Lakers' locker room.

“I always appreciate the fans,” Gasol said. “You never know. The last couple years when I walked out of this building it’s been emotional. This year it’s been a little bit different because we haven’t been successful as a team, we had a lot of injuries, I haven’t been able to finish the season playing. So I kind of had it more in my mind.

“The last couple of years I didn’t know if I was going to be back. This year with even more reason, because now I’m a free agent. It’s just a way of me appreciating everyone and our fans.”

The fans showed their appreciation, giving him a warm cheer when he was showed on the scoreboard video screen late in the game. Will the Lakers do anything similar -- something along the lines of the golden parachute they granted Kobe Bryant? The Kobe contract might actually preclude a Gasol gift by eating up too much salary cap room. Gasol can’t expect to match the $19 million he made this season; he might get about half of that, from what some general managers say. It's also possible that the Lakers could sign him to a short deal that would give them the possibility of using him as a trade asset next season.

But a multi-year contract would alter any Lakers plans to make a big splash in the 2015 free agent market -- or even to bring in the additional pieces the Lakers would need around Bryant and Gasol.

That’s why Sunday was the night for sentiment. Come July 1 it will be all business.

“You’ve got to put heart and emotions aside a little bit and think what’s going to be the best position for me to succeed, not just individually but collectively,” Gasol said. “And hopefully help put myself in a position where I can win a championship. That will be the goal. Where can I win and where can I be a key piece to help a team win, whether it’s here or another team? I don’t know exactly what’s going to be the structure or the roster [with the Lakers], so there’s going to be a lot of question marks here. But I’m open to listen. I’m a good listener. I will listen to what’s offered.”

Then there’s the possibility of playing with his brother in Memphis.

“It’s appealing,” Gasol said. “We have a lof of fun always in the summers [playing together with the Spanish national team]. But I don’t know if it’s going to be completely 100 percent up to me, because there’s going to be a lot of teams that are going to be probably limited or conditioned to a trade, and the Lakers will probably have some say in that. We’ll see. It’ll be an interesting process. I don’t know if the Grizzlies are one of the teams that are most interested.

“I’d love to play with Kobe more, because he’s a friend, he’s a winner and he’s a guy that I’ve been through a lot and won championships with. I would love to play with my brother, but you can’t have everything. Just try to think where is the best position for me to succeed collectively and individually.”

Time passes so quickly in the NBA, turning from ally to enemy. Gasol made the Lakers championships contenders when he arrived in February of 2008, and they were on their way to three consecutive NBA Finals. In April of 2014, the only player in uniform who was around for that heyday was Farmar. It’s no accident that he was sitting next to Gasol.

“[The bond is] even sweeter for us because we lost one [NBA Finals] first,” Farmar said. “ We got all the way there, we lost, and then we learned as a group and came back to win back-to-backs. So we’re a little closer. It’s a little more special. It’s experiences you can’t really teach. You just have to go through it and know what it takes. It’s hard to pass that knowledge on to young guys. There’s just no way they can understand the dynamics of a championship team unless you’re on that caliber of a team.”

You can see why playing for another team consisting primarily of those young players wouldn’t appeal to Gasol at age 33. You also can see how a 33-year-old who has missed 53 games over the past two seasons with injuries stretching literally from his feet (plantar fasciitis) to his head (vertigo) might not have GMs filling his voicemail inbox this summer. But he’s still an experienced big man who averaged 17.4 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

“In this league, no one person can do it by themselves,” Farmar said. “You need to put a team together of guys that understand the importance of winning,
that are committed to it and fit well together. I think that’s what it comes down to. The front office knows that. I think Pau, whether it’s here or someplace else, will be on a team like that.”

For the past three seasons we’ve wondered if the Lakers would send him someplace else before the trade deadline. Now it could be of his own volition. That’s why this wasn’t just another night in Staples Center, the building where the two most recent Lakers championship banners hang as a result of his handiwork.

That's Zach Randolph's music!

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
9:42
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Zach RandolphAP Photo/Chris CarlsonZ-Bo has re-energized NBA ball in Memphis, but the city's love for him stems from its wrasslin' roots.
Memphis has taken to calling itself Hoop City in reference to its affinity for basketball at the pro, college and high school levels. A more reasonable appellation might be the one longtime Grizzlies executive Chris Wallace bestowed on the city for the same reasons: The Basketball Capital of the South.

But in a football-crazed region, if any sport -- or "sport," if we must -- rivals basketball for the collective, historical heart of Memphis, it’s professional wrestling. In the days before the then-WWF monopolized the wrestling world, Memphis was one of the great hotbeds of the sport's territorial system. For 20 years, a local, live Saturday morning wrestling show that broadcast from a midtown Memphis television studio drew staggering ratings. The Mid-South Coliseum, which now sits empty in the center of the city, was home to Memphis State basketball games but is probably more associated with weekly Monday night wrestling events that drew rabid fans from around the area.

Zach Randolph’s cultural connection to Memphis has been well-chronicled, most convincingly by Randolph himself when he spoke to Doris Burke in a playoff postgame interview three years ago. Things never came easily to either him or his adopted city, Randolph said, words that might have been penned by “Soul Man” songwriter David Porter, himself a Grizzlies season-ticket holder.

[+] EnlargeJerry Lawler
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesJust some silly WWE color man? In Memphis Jerry Lawler is indeed king -- especially at Griz games.
But one secret to Randolph's Memphis appeal is that he’s a figure who evokes the city’s wrestling history more than its basketball history. With his big personality and combination of the physical and theatrical, Z-Bo's lineage descends more from local wrestling legends such as Sputnik Monroe, Jackie Fargo and Jerry Lawler than from local hoops legends such as Larry Finch and Penny Hardaway.

Randolph’s Grizzlies changed the tenor of playoff basketball in Memphis in part by being competitive after a prior history of postseason sweeps. But these Grizzlies also put playoff basketball in a more familiar local context, the tough but flamboyant personality of the team feeding the fan base’s wrestling-bred conception of sport as working-man’s opera, yielding “We Don’t Bluff” theme songs and "Whoop That Clip" chants. The former was plucked from a Randolph postgame interview after an altercation with Kendrick Perkins, the latter charged up by a Randolph vs. Blake Griffin rivalry that frequently unravels into double fouls and floor burns.

Like an old-school wrestling card, there's a tinge of violence in the air, but it’s just for show. There is no intent to harm. This connection is made explicit each spring when Lawler appears during playoff games to hype up the crowd. Nationally, he’s mostly known as the cartoonish commentator for WWE broadcasts. But Lawler dominated the Memphis wrestling scene for decades as a charismatic good-ole-boy badass. Memphis wrestling, embodied by Lawler, fostered a culture where good guys aren't so clean-cut. They throw fire. They use chairs. They sometimes send Hollywood interlopers away on stretchers. And Lawler returns each spring to re-enact these rituals against jobbers wearing opposing teams' jerseys.

One of Lawler’s trademarks came when he'd suffered enough punishment and was ready to put down his opponent. Lawler would pull down his shoulder strap as a silent signal that a comeback was about to commence, sending the Coliseum crowd into an involuntary frenzy.

Randolph's ever-present headband is the foundation of a similar sartorial sacrament. When physical play from an opponent dislodges it, there’s a ripple of anticipation that runs through FedExForum -- a collective "oh no he didn't" -- as Randolph grimaces and growls and snorts.

Tony Allen, who leaps up to flex his muscles when Randolph makes a bully-ball bucket, is the hype-man manager in this basketball-as-wrestling blend. Marc Gasol is, of course, Randolph's tag-team partner. And opposing stars play their proper roles.

In the territorial heyday, Lawler was a Memphis constant, but bad guys -- monster "heels" of the week -- would come and go. Visitors such as Hulk Hogan or King Kong Bundy may have been bigger stars elsewhere, but when they came to Memphis they were just foils. And so it is with Griffin and Kevin Durant and Tony Parker.

In a season of injury-related upheaval and win-loss regression, Randolph has been reliable and resurgent. While fellow core components Gasol, Allen and Mike Conley have all missed significant stretches to injury, Randolph has been absent for only three games. While the Grizzlies are struggling to secure a playoff bid, this is the healthiest and most productive homestretch Randolph has had in three seasons.

Randolph was freshly returned from a major knee injury when the Grizzlies lost a first-round series to the Clippers two years ago. Last year, a March ankle injury had Randolph limping, literally and figuratively, into the spring. But right now, at age 32, Randolph’s jab-step jumper is as feathery, his first step as quick, and his post play as physical as it’s been since that New Year's Day knee injury in 2012. Randolph looks at older power forwards such as Dirk Nowitzki, Tim Duncan and David West -- all with games based more on toughness and skill than athleticism -- and believes he can maintain his current level of play for several more seasons.

Yet Randolph may be the one member of the team's core heading toward a summer of uncertainty. Randolph has a $16.5 million player option for next season, and while both he and team management have hinted at an interest in a multiyear deal at a smaller per-year figure, what each side deems reasonable may not necessarily mesh. Randolph’s heart may be in Memphis, but neither his agent nor the Grizzlies' front office is likely to be as swayed by sentiment. And Randolph’s defensive decline may weigh as heavily as his offensive resurgence as the Grizzlies plan for their future.

[+] EnlargeZach Randolph
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe love is mutual in Memphis. Beyond all the bully-ball, Zach Randolph has found a place to call home.
But whatever happens this summer, Randolph has made clear that he’s put down roots, buying an 11,000-square-foot home in East Memphis that he envisions as his forever house, declaring himself a Memphian, whatever his future status with the Grizzlies may be. And that’s a profession of commitment no other NBA import has ever made.

Randolph’s wish to retire in Beale Street Blue seems like an even bet at best, which means Randolph could be playing his final few home games at FedExForum. The city of Memphis could possibly lose Z-Bo, the basketball player, for a little while. But a city that loves Zach Randolph in a way that once seemed impossible can take solace in the faith that it will ultimately get him back.

With the Grizzlies staggering toward the season’s finish line and a once presumed certain playoff spot very much in doubt, the curtain is threatening to close on what’s been one helluva show. But if the Grizzlies are fortunate enough to enter the postseason this spring and Lawler makes his annual appearance, my mind will flash to the future, a decade or more from now. The Grizzlies will be in the playoffs again, and during a third-quarter timeout it's not Lawler making an entrance but Randolph.

Maybe he'll perform the Blake Griffin choke-slam of 2013 with a plant in a Clippers jersey or have a stare-down with a Kendrick Perkins look-alike. Maybe, poetically, it will be a co-conspirator in a Blazers jersey who knocks off Randolph's headband and cowers in the presence of his mean-mugging, provoking a mass “Z-Bo” chant for old-time's sake and again turning FedExForum into a Monday night card at the Coliseum, Southern Heavyweight Title on the line and the hometown hero about to rally.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

Grinding it out

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
10:00
AM ET
By Chris Herrington
Special to ESPN.com
Archive
Zach RandolphAP Photo/Greg Wahl-StephensMemphis may have assembled the best roster in team history, but it may not make the playoff cut.
A season that began in the afterglow of a first-ever conference finals appearance and the perhaps even headier September designation from ESPN The Magazine as -- wait, what? -- “the best franchise in sports” is in danger of ending with a return to the draft lottery.

You might think that would reflect poorly on an ownership and front office in its first full season on the job in Memphis (and among those still stinging from the messing-with-success decision to part ways with Lionel Hollins, it probably does). But there’s more to this story.

When controlling owner Robert Pera and CEO Jason Levien took charge of the Grizzlies at the beginning of the 2012-13 season, they were fortunate enough to inherit Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley and Tony Allen -- the best Memphis quartet since Booker T. & the MG’s. But they were also passed some oddly persistent problems with the rest of the roster, a bunch of small deficiencies that added up to a big multiseason drag on the team’s contending core.

A revolving door at backup point guard spun so fast between not-ready rookies and often past-expiration journeymen that it had become a running joke locally. Behind Gasol, at center, the options were to go small or force-feed minutes to should-be third-stringers. The lack of 3-point shooting was borderline anachronistic and, especially after Rudy Gay was traded, the dearth of above-the-rim athleticism was glaring.

Once the team anted up for Allen in free agency, attending to these myriad small wounds became the focus. But the first aid kit was pretty bare. Trading Gay clarified the team’s pecking order, but it didn’t create much in the way of flexibility. It merely bent the team’s salary trajectory to ride just under the tax line rather than soaring over it. There was no first-round pick in the 2013 draft (a delayed payment to the Rockets for taking on busted-out No. 2 pick Hasheem Thabeet), and using the full mid-level exception would have put the small-market team into the luxury tax. There were a lot of holes to plug and not much in the way of resources to plug them.

Yet at the cost of only a rapidly diminishing Darrell Arthur, an underperforming and positionally miscast Jerryd Bayless, a soon-to-expire trade exception from the Gay deal and a few slivers of cap space, the Grizzlies addressed every one of these nagging issues in significant if not uniformly satisfactory ways: corralling Kosta Koufos, Nick Calathes, Mike Miller, a re-signed Jon Leuer and James Johnson -- a center, a point guard, two shooters and a sometimes game-changing athlete -- for slightly more than the cost of a mid-level exception.

Courtney Lee displaced Allen in the starting lineup, giving the team a badly needed starting wing who could provide above-average defense with above-average shooting. Miller rivals Shane Battier as the most locally popular Grizzlies player during the Hubie Brown/Mike Fratello years, and the 34-year-old has not only brought nostalgic good vibes in his second tour in Memphis but also some desperately needed spacing (55 percent from 3 since the All-Star break). Johnson, an athletic X factor plucked from the D League, is just the kind of Z-Bo-like redemption story Griz fans groove on. The kickboxing journeyman is a classic Grizzlyan defender who has tattooed his name in team lore with one play against the Clippers and spurred a local cottage industry in nickname creation (people’s choice: “Bloodsport”; runners-up: “Kid Dynomite” and “Dr. JJ”).

The Grizzlies remain a very low-volume 3-point shooting team, but now have the ability to field lineups with multiple 3-point threats. With this supporting cast, the Grizzlies would likely have put up more of a fight against the Spurs in last season’s West finals, and they likely wouldn't have lost a home Game 7 against the Clippers two springs back, in which Hollins reached down to his bench in the fourth quarter for Gilbert Arenas and Hamed Haddadi. By contrast, new coach Dave Joerger struggles to even find minutes for better options Beno Udrih and Ed Davis.

Yet the Grizzlies are still in danger of missing the playoffs entirely after three straight years in the West’s top eight. The front office has done a great job of building out a full roster, but it’s still the heavy hitters who will decide the team’s fate, and injuries have plagued this team’s core all season.

Gasol and Conley combined to miss a mere 11 games in the previous three seasons. This season, with Gasol going down to a November knee injury and Conley sidelined by a January ankle sprain, they’ve missed a combined 32 games. Last season, the full four-man core took the court in 69 of 82 games. Even with full health the rest of the way, that group will only hit 36 games this season.

[+] EnlargeMarc Gasol
AP Photo/Matt SlocumEarly injuries to major contributors like Marc Gasol could leave the Grizzlies in the dark this postseason.
Since Gasol’s return, the Grizzlies have shown glimpses of what they can be at their best: Conley controlling the game and knocking down open shots; Gasol picking apart opposing defenses with his high-post passing and shooting and anchoring the Grizzlies’ defense at the other end; Randolph scoring and rebounding on the low block; and a deep, diverse cast of role players pitching in – Miller and Lee hitting 3s; Allen hounding ball handlers; Prince defending long wings and blending in; Koufos providing a paint presence on both ends; Calathes keeping Conley fresh; and the trio of Davis, Johnson and Leuer providing athletic and/or floor-stretching options.

The Grizzlies are 30-15 this season when Conley and Gasol both play, a .667 winning percentage not far behind last season’s franchise-best mark and one that would place them fourth in the West. Even with Gasol still wearing a heavy knee brace and Conley, by his own admission, playing at about 75 percent, the Grizzlies have the league’s sixth-best record since the All-Star break. But heading into Friday’s game against Denver, Memphis is 44-31, and in eighth place in the West thanks to a tiebreaker over the Phoenix Suns.

The Grizzlies struggled early with a full roster and have shown some strain in the past week despite being at full strength again. Going 1-3 in four road games against teams ranked among the league’s 10 fastest-paced highlights concerns about how well Joerger, in his first season as an NBA head coach, has deployed the team’s improved depth and athleticism. Joerger has acquitted himself well in his debut season by any reasonable standard, but he won’t get a pass from most Memphis fans if the Grizzlies fall short of the playoffs, especially given Hollins’ recent success in that regard. Even if the championship-caliber core has been hurt, it’s a championship-caliber core nonetheless.

Near the season’s lowest point, in mid-December, Grizzlies player personnel director Stu Lash was asked by a season ticket-holder at a pregame “chalk talk” about an ESPN.com article that cited the Grizzlies’ “Playoff Odds” -- a system designed by the team’s own VP, John Hollinger -- at under 2 percent. Tanking, the article said, may be the Grizzlies’ best option.

“We’ve got a veteran team that knows how to win in the playoffs,” Lash responded. “Our focus now is simply on getting there.”

That sounds like a good spin, but it was also what the front office believed. With what they inherited and what they added, the Grizzlies have assembled a team that should be capable of competing with anyone in the postseason. If they can get there.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.

The odd lottery

January, 24, 2014
Jan 24
9:06
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The idea is that the NBA draft will help the weaker Eastern conference catch up to the West. And it might. But ... some good West teams will be rewarded with much better picks than they'd get in the East. Here I reiterate a point I first learned about from Curtis Harris.

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Courtney Lee and the Code of Hammurabi

January, 23, 2014
Jan 23
10:43
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Memphis Grizzlies guard Courtney Lee chats about his new team, how he got traded and the Code of Hammurabi.

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Renting a starting spot

January, 7, 2014
Jan 7
12:53
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Around the league players like Darren Collison, Kosta Koufos and Kendall Marshall are filling in for injured stars. David Thorpe on the art of being a fill-in.

 

TrueHoop TV: The state of the Griz

December, 5, 2013
12/05/13
4:13
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

Thorpe grades coaches

November, 15, 2013
11/15/13
5:12
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe hands out early-season grades for Jason Kidd, Jeff Hornacek, Brett Brown, Dave Joerger and Doc Rivers.

TrueHoop TV: Tony Allen

October, 31, 2013
10/31/13
4:47
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

TrueHoop TV: The NBA offseason in a few minutes

October, 29, 2013
10/29/13
6:21
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The NBA is back. In case your attention was elsewhere this offseason, the ESPN.com NBA crew has an update on what you missed.

TrueHoop TV: Jerryd Bayless on the new Grizzlies

October, 18, 2013
10/18/13
1:54
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
The guard says the team is playing a new style, that he has no beef with ex-coach Lionel Hollins, and that he might be the best pingpong player in the NBA.
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Moving beyond the grind in Memphis

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
10:30
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Mike Conley and Marc Gasol
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
The Grizzlies' defense is all-world, but can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol add some flow to the grit?

In a league where most teams are smaller and stretchier than they were 10 years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies remain delightfully Jurassic: a point guard, two prototypical wings, a power forward who lives on the low right block and a center who protects the rim and can work in the pivot. On the whole, they’re solid man-to-man defenders who can run a quality scheme that makes life difficult for the other guys.

These characteristics have been branded as "Grit 'n' Grind" basketball, produced by the Memphis Grizzlies. But Grit 'n' Grind is more a battle cry than a series of principles. As a team persona, it’s a gem, for both the guys inside the locker room and the fan base. Mood and spirit are important factors for a basketball team, and the Grizzlies rate well in those categories. Still, there’s a sense inside the team that even more can be sculpted from what’s a solid foundation.

The coaching staff and management group are populated by maniacal perfectionists. They understand that the roster composition is far from perfect, and that advancing to the conference finals, where the Griz bowed out in May, will be a tough bar to clear. But they also believe the offense still hasn’t cracked the code. Even if 2013-14 turns out to be a consolidation season in which the team jells around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the front office continues to fine-tune the spreadsheet, a bit less grind and a little more flow is necessary.

And around the NBA, there’s a sense that the Grizzlies aren’t a pleasant team to face, but still caught a break last spring when they drew the Oklahoma City Thunder sans Russell Westbrook in the conference semis and won the series handily. Nobody begrudges the achievement -- the Grizzlies are generally well-liked and respected around the league (except possibly by the Clippers) -- but they don’t exactly honor it, either. The Grizzlies will have to prove themselves in the long haul before they’re known as more than the mystery guest in the Western Conference.

The Grizzlies are confident they can develop this larger belief system that can elevate their offense from a series of ad hoc sets to one that’s guided by a system. We saw glimpses of it on crucial possessions during the postseason -- pick-and-post exhibitions by Gasol and Conley, Zach Randolph moving in the half court to create passing lanes for Conley and Gasol to find him, crisp reversals out of the post that ultimately find Quincy Pondexter in the corner. For a few glorious weeks last spring, the Grizzlies sensed they’d grown from offensively proficient to almost fluent.

Whether they can establish this kind of flow during an eight-month period likely will determine whether they’re playing for a trip to the NBA Finals again next spring. Gleaning meaningful information from preseason basketball is the equivalent of gauging the potential for a lifelong commitment from a 30-minute coffee date. But so far, the Grizzlies have pursued a few new objectives.

First, they are determined to get into their stuff more quickly this season, something the coaching staff is drilling into the team. Virtually the entire league pays lip service to this idea, but the Grizzlies need to execute this strategy as a means to improve. They still lack for outside shooting, which means they don’t force many defensive rotations, and finding opportunities in the half court is often a slog. The Grizzlies will never be a high-octane, top-10 pace squad, but they have enough skills guys -- particularly in Gasol -- to Spur-ify their offensive game plan even if they remain oriented toward the inside.

Get going. This means Conley shouldn’t be walking up while the rest of the unit stands stationary in a Horns formation, bigs at the elbows, wings in the corner while he pounds away. It means immediately getting the ball into Gasol at the elbow, where he can precipitate the action and force the defense to think. And executing handoffs to a teammate on the move or making quick passes to a cutter.

The patented Tony Allen baseline dive should be part of a much bigger collection of sets designed around cuts, with plays designed to create space for that motion. Meanwhile, Gasol is the best playmaking big man in the game (arguments for Joakim Noah are accepted); he can find a passing lane in the dark. Entry passes from the wing to the post need to happen sooner. Every possession should manufacture at least one look before the shot clock hits :12.

The Grizzlies might not have the shooters to fan out to the corners for quick-hitters, but Memphis does have big men who know how to capitalize on early touches down low. Post defenses are at their weakest in transition, and on the secondary break and with more teams looking to the arc on the break, the post is often open early. Gasol can zip up the floor and act decisively to maintain the quick tempo. Randolph isn’t good for more than a couple of rim runs a night, but he can work as an effective trailing big who rumbles his way down to the block in the open court -- not an easy thing for a defender to slow while pedaling back.

Shooters are the easiest way to create room in the half court, but playmakers can achieve the same ends if they’re working with capable finishers and a smart blueprint. Gasol’s skill set has been sufficiently documented, and Conley’s instincts have sharpened. The Grizzlies’ best raw playmaker could be rookie Nick Calathes, who has excelled in Greece and Russia the past four seasons. The big point guard has opened eyes with his court vision and passing skills at Grizzlies training camp. Back in 2009, Calathes clocked in at No. 6 overall in John Hollinger’s Draft Rater, whose predictive powers have been solid. Calathes is only 24, and he might be the guy to solve the Grizzlies’ longtime backup point guard issue.

The Grizzlies will double-down on Gasol and Conley this season, both as playmakers and scorers. The ball will reside in their hands, and the days of the pair combining for a usage rate of 40 percent (which would be league average for two players) are over. Gasol and Conley will have to manage their share of problem-solving tasks, but they’ll have a lot of help on the bench and, more important, have grown to trust each other like a true big-small tandem. The quiet acquisition of Kosta Koufos gives the Grizzlies the deepest frontcourt in the league, with a nice combination of high and low, experience and youth, traditional post grinders and face-up threats.

In a glitzier market, the swirling storylines and high expectations in Memphis would generate huge Internet traffic, but the Grizzlies barely nibble around the edges of our attention. In the past year, Memphis has seen a turnover in ownership and top management. The team’s highest-paid player was shipped out, and a coach who won 56 games was replaced. All of the upheaval has been in pursuit of a fresh approach to govern decision-making. Memphis may never attract LeBron James and big-name CAA clients in free agency, but for many players, factors such as market size and nightlife are less important than they used to be, measured against general quality of life (which in many cases includes average temperature) and workplace compatibility.

Like Oklahoma City, Memphis could become a place where an appealing team prospers under the guidance of new ideas -- and ultimately becomes a place where guys want to play.

The direction of the Grizzlies

September, 19, 2013
9/19/13
6:11
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
CEO Jason Levien (who was on TrueHoop TV the other day enjoying his franchise's place atop ESPN the Magazine's Ultimate Standings list) talks about tweaks to the Grizzlies' roster, the team's style of play this season, coaching, finances and prospects.

Also ... some pointers on pickup ball with Grizzlies staffers.

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TrueHoop TV: Grizzlies top Ultimate Rankings

September, 18, 2013
9/18/13
8:52
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Memphis Grizzlies CEO Jason Levien is delighted the Memphis Grizzlies topped ESPN the Magazine's Ultimate Standings list. And a tiny bit surprised.

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