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Know thy enemy: Memphis Grizzlies

October 10, 2009 |  5:49 pm

2008-2009 record: 24-58
(.293, 5th Southwest division, 12th in the Western Conference)

Key Additions:
Signed Allen Iverson.  Traded for Zach Randolph (seriously) and Jerry Stackhouse (for about an hour).  Drafted Hasheem Dan_and_bear_i6ih Thabeet, Sam Young, DeMarre Carroll. 
Key subtractions: Hakim WarrickDarko Milicic (which led to a week of Quentin Richardson).  Quinton Ross.  Greg Buckner.
Soon to be subtractions:
Marko Jaric, given permission to skip camp and seek a trade.  And eventually seek a buyout, when Team Jaric discovers 2 yrs/almost 15 mil is rather pricey for an 11th man, even if the price tag includes the occasional chance to ogle Adriana Lima.

No franchise enjoys permanent "salad days."  Sub-par seasons are part of the business of sports.  Some "dark days" are more pitch black than others- for all the talk about the Kwame-Smush-Cook "agony," compared to most rebuilding eras, it was pretty quick and painless- but as Led Zeppelin said, "upon us all, a little rain must fall."  The key is how a franchise handles stormy weather.  Some teams (OKC, Minny) may scuffle throughout 2009-2010, but you can picture seeds being planted for a fruitful harvest.  There are teams like the Knicks, whose "2010 or bust" plan strikes me as a disappointment in the making, but at least it's a plan, for better or for worse.  Better than being bad and rudderless. 

Which brings us to the Grizzlies.  They're definitely bad, and for the life of me, I can't figure out what they're doing. 

As our ESPN buddy John Hollinger noted, many consider the Griz nothing more than "the cheap bastards who gave away Pau Gasol."  Save those rooting Lakers, everybody bashed them over the 2008 deal swapping Pau Gasol for Kwame Brown, Javaris Crittenton and- in an ironic twist- Pau's hermano Marc. Talent-wise, it's ridiculously one-sided.  But you also have to evaluate a move based on objective, and along those lines, there was a legit method to the madness.  Memphis wanted to move an unhappy star's long and lucrative deal with no real financial commitment in return.  Thus, you inherit a center unable to catch anything but his hefty- and soon to expire- paycheck and hope The Critter and Marc emerge keepers (1 out of 2 ain't bad).  From a pure "bottom line" mindset, what Memphis made sense.  Hell, given some recent trades (Shaq to Cleveland for a Big Ben/"The other Sasha" buy out, Jefferson to San Antonio for three expiring role players, Camby to the Clips for movie tickets), Michael Heisley and Chris Wallace were trend setters.

From there, however, they got all goofy.

Displeased with their crack at turning Darko Milicic into a stud, the Griz send him to the Knicks for Quentin Zach Randolph press conferenceRichardson.   Fine.  Expiring deal for expiring deal, a commodity Memphis clearly covets.   At least, I thought they coveted that commodity before Q transformed into Zach Randolph and 33 mil owed over two seasons.

What the ^$%#? 

You won't use that cap space for a run at bigs like David Lee, Charlie Villanueva or Paul Millsap (a longer commitment required, but waaaaay more positives in a big man), but you'll give Z-Bo 16.5 mil to be a offensive black hole and a guy whose D makes Slava Medvedenko chuckle?  There may not be an emptier 20/10 in league history than Randolph's.  If stats were food, his provide the nutritional value of Pixie Stix.  In the meantime, Zebo' off-the-court behavior leaves a little to be desired.  This is the guy Heisley deems worthy of busting out a wallet? 

(And speaking of Darko, I understand why relocation was deemed necessary.  I've long been fascinated by Milicic- more as a concept than a player- but he's forged a consistent "difficult to coach, difficult-er to motivate" rep.  However, I can't be the only person who recognizes the irony in trading a defensively promising/offensively challenged center on the the same day you draft Hasheem Thabeet, who makes Darko appear on pace to lap Kareem as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.  Even worse, the shot blocking specialist's SPL appearances were so wretched that he's already getting mocked hard by the NBA 2K10 egg heads.  After recent flame outs with Darko and Stromile Swift, any #2 overall big man must give the Griz tummy butterflies.)

Thankfully, when it comes to making officials nervous about a bad locker room influence, Z-Bo won't carry that burden alone.  Fresh off a disastrous season in Detroit where playing off the bench left a still-bitter taste in his mouth, Allen Iverson's now a Graceland resident... being asked to play off the bench.  AI claims the problem wasn't necessarily the sixth man role, but the role emerging through false pretense.  Do I believe him?  Not really- his case presented in a recent interview with ESPN's Scoop Jackson is hella scattershot- but here's the thing.  There's a bigger issue at play than whether or not AI is truly cool with being BBQ Country's Manu Ginobli.  Either way, he'll get starter's PT, and every minute he spends on the floor is a minute Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo aren't developing.  He'll also be taking starter's shots, inevitably taking scoring opportunities from Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay.  Assuming Randolph or any of his new teammates don't hoard the ball first.  The Griz's percentage of assisted field goals (.497) represents the league's basement.  Don't look now, but "star" player Hamed Haddadi wants to shine, too.  Me pictures a lot o' rock hogginess on the horizon.  (And in theory, some serious partying.  Z-Bo and AI's night owl adventures have been well documented.  Their ability to join forces could make "The Hangover" feel like small potatoes.)

Even more troubling is the catch-22 created by AI and Randolph's presence.  Unless both Bearded lady are truly dead set on being prototype team guys, "success" will be measured by numbers and will come at the youngster's expense.  If success doesn't come, both are guaranteed to be moody campers.  I'm actually betting AI's unhappy regardless of how many points he scores, because this team will lose a lot and unlike Z-Bo, I really do think Iverson cares about winning. 

I imagine he'll say and do the right things (at least for a while), but ultimately, he's got as little business on a rebuilding project as the Griz had recruiting him.  The Griz are actively stunting their growth in the hopes of selling a few tickets off AI's name and (as a second priority) grabbing a few extra, ultimately meaningless wins.  As a longtime Iverson fan, it's depressing to see him reduced to a carnival attraction.  He's the equivalent of a once-famous bearded lady slumming at a local Six Flags in the hopes that a gangbusters showing will earn her a three-year contract with Ringling Brothers.  Say what you want about AI being a high maintenance gunner, but he's also among the greats of his generation.  The whole situation feels undignified. 

Obviously, there's some talent (if zero depth, especially after letting Hakim Warrick go) on hand.  Mayo finished second to Derrick Rose for Rookie of the Year honors last season and, as last season's MEM-LAL demonstrated, isn't intimidated at the notion of a mano y' mano with Kobe Bryant.  Gasol's a banger, but with a little more offensive flash than I expected.  Daryl Arthur's first season had its moments.  Conley hasn't yet proved worthy of a #4 overall pick, but he's improving.  Gay channels his inner "Corey Maggette" too much for my taste (all one-on-one scoring, very little else), but he's still a tough cover.   And despite my reservations, AI and Randolph undeniably add more firepower.  Probably a few more wins, too.  But neither adds squat in the way of direction, and if I'm a Grizzlie fan- thank God I'm not- that concerns me considerably more than the W-L column.  Come this time next season, our "KTE" coverage for Memphis may read eerily similar.

Final Prediction: 31-51.  5th in the Southwest.  14th in the Western Conference.


Photo: Zach Randolph press conference.  Credit: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images