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Old 08-15-05, 12:07 PM
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Has West lost his touch? (article)

With age comes wisdom
West's moves baffling to some, perfect for Grizzlies
Posted: Monday August 15, 2005 10:33AM; Updated: Monday August 15, 2005 10:33AM

Eddie Jones may not fill the basket as much as in his youth, but he will be willing to do some of the dirty work for Memphis this fall.
Bob Rosato/SI

No writer, not even the most irreverent of sports scribes, is willing to say it, but it may be time to consider the implications regarding the possible professional demise of hoops sage Jerry West. It's been another head-scratching summer for the Grizzlies president, the fourth in a row since he's moved to Memphis.

Though West has led Memphis to back-to-back playoff appearances, a welcome run of springtime hoops after seven seasons of being left in the cold, his Grizzlies have seemingly taken a step back this summer. West let highly-regarded talent Stromile Swift get away without compensation after three years of inconsistent play; he's failed to find a suitor for big man Lorenzen Wright after a very public trade demand and in his most embarrassing gaffe, confused Syracuse product and Grizzlies draftee Hakim Warrick with Providence's Ryan Gomes on national TV.

On paper, the Grizz have gotten worse (and older in acquiring established veterans with established medical issues), with little room to breathe at the bottom of the Western Conference's playoff bracket. After all, they only managed to reach the postseason last spring by a game over a Timberwolves team that was out of rhythm all season.

I'm not buying it. Basketball in Memphis won't be pretty this fall, but the results should be more than satisfactory. No one is expecting new addition Eddie Jones to start scoring 20 a game again, nor is the Grizzles brain trust counting on Pau Gasol to start jump-hooking his way to 30 points a game while dominating the paint. But what the new mix of players in Memphis doesn't have in sizzle, it has in ease of use with coach Mike Fratello's system. They'll show up every night, they'll win ugly and muck their way to another 45 wins.

Which is just fine for Memphis'isians (Memphseans? Memphsens? Memphons? Oh, forget it.). The Grizzlies strolled into town back in 2001, well aware of their shortcomings, but intent on creating a buzz. In trading for Gasol, the Spanish wunderkind and eventual Rookie of the Year, flighty point man Jason Williams and local hero Lorenzen Wright, the Grizz brass put entertainment and profit at a premium. This was the hoops equivalent of Elvis in a Nudie suit, full of river-bred energy and pomade to spare. And while that '01-02 squad was as captivating as 23-win teams get, clown time was over once West strolled into town in April '02.

The former Laker legend's first move was the curious drafting of Drew Gooden, a big, scoring forward who looked to be (at best) a poor-man's version of Gasol. Unlike his current counterpart in Toronto (Rob Babcock, currently under fire for drafting a series of bigs even with Chris Bosh already on board), though, West's reputation was golden enough keep the doubters at bay. He held on to Williams, a fellow West Virginian that West had tried to trade for both before and after the '98 draft, and set to building the deepest team in the league. James Posey and Brian Cardinal were acquired as free agents in '03 and '04, respectively, even though Shane Battier was ensconced at small forward. Gooden was swapped after his first season for off guard Mike Miller, and fellow wingman Bonzi Wells set foot on Tennessee soil some ten months later.

Two-deep at every position and fully functional, the Grizzlies (and West) shocked the NBA in December of '02 by reaching out to coaching sage Hubie Brown, who hadn't stalked a sideline in 16 years, to right West's Ark. Brown's raspy and exacting courtside squawk recalled Link Wray's guitar intro to "Rumble" -- wavering, yet direct, sparing no feelings, straight up the kilt and to the point. It was a brilliant hire, and in his first full season with the Grizz, Hubie won the Coach of the Year award as Memphis enjoyed a 50-win season and its first playoff appearance.

But the good times didn't last. By the beginning of last season, Williams, Wells and Posey had tired of the whole "professional" thing, and started to carp openly about playing time (even after wins) and shot allocation. According to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Brown even asked West to trade the trio, or, failing that, put the whole lot on the injured list. Hubie didn't make it past Thanksgiving, leaving the mess to Fratello, who somehow managed to guide the increasingly dysfunctional group to a 45- 37 record.

It was a phenomenal accomplishment. Gasol missed two months of the stretch drive with a bum foot, Williams was anything but focused, Wells was his usual petulant self and Posey remained playing like half the player he was a year before. By the time the Grizzlies were swept out of the playoffs by the Suns, Williams was accosting columnists in public, and Fratello needed security guards to keep a suspended Wells away from the FedEx Forum. Nasty stuff.

West quickly went to work after the season, acting as the lynchpin for the largest trade in NBA history. The five-team, 13-player deal essentially sent Wells to the Sacramento Kings, Williams and Posey to the Miami Heat and brought Bobby Jackson and former West draft pick Eddie Jones back to the Grizzlies. Raul Lopez, a star-crossed point guard whose two seasons with the Utah Jazz were undercut by injury, was also traded to the Grizz, but he's probably played his last NBA game. Memphis saved a little under $10 million in the deal, which probably won't help out on the glass (the Grizz were the third-worst team in terms of rebounding differential last year), but it hardly hurts the team's financial flexibility.

With all of the moves, West has created a squad tailor-made for Fratello's talents. While Brown's trapping press and short attention-span substitution patterns required a deep bench, Fratello needs heady players who milk the clock and play big minutes. Though Mike likes to insist otherwise (pointing out that two of his Atlanta Hawks teams averaged more than 110 points per game in the late '80s), few coaches in NBA history have slowed things down as effectively as the onetime Czar of the Telestrator.

Based on possessions per 48 minutes, Fratello's teams in Atlanta and Cleveland were regularly among the bottom five in the league. His Grizzlies team last season was the 25th-slowest out of 30 teams (down sharply from a '04 squad that was the tenth-fastest) and no doubt aided a bit by the 16 games coached by Brown and interim coach Lionel Hollins.

The flash and fun of the Brown era will seem like decades ago as Jones and free-agent signee Damon Stoudamire chuck off-balance 3s while the shot-clock expires, but Fratello knows how to make it work. There's nothing cool about Battier, Jones, Stoudamire et al -- but this doesn't preclude them from being an effective team -- and staving off last year's lottery participants.

But this team is hardly built for the long haul. No matter: there's nothing that suggests West isn't capable of completely changing the face of the franchise again next summer.
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