Thursday, September 13, 2007

Expectations of Improvement

During the 2002-03 season the Memphis Grizzlies improved from 28 wins the previous season to 50 wins. That altered the perception of the Grizzlies from one of the worst franchises in professional sports to one with a bright future. With Jerry West heading the front office, Hubie Brown teaching the team concept and a cadre of young talented players the future looked promising.

That 22 game improvement was the best in the league that season and one of the top 15 team improvements since the 1973 season. It has been argued many times that the 2002-03 season did more to hurt the franchise the benefit it. Fans expectations were raised, player egos were inflated and pressure from the front office increased. These are not good combinations but that s a discussion for another day.

What I want to look into is how often a team improved more than 20 games twice since 1973.

The greatest single season improvement was San Antonio's 1997-98 season. The Spurs improved 36 games that year. The previous year David Robinson was injured and played fewer than 10 games that season. Also injured for significant periods of time were Chuck Person, Charles Smith and Sean Elliot. The perennial playoff team fell to 20 wins after making the playoffs every year since 1988. The Spurs won the lottery that summer and drafted Tim Duncan. The 1989-1990 season turned around with the arrival of David Robinson. Drafted two years earlier as the #1 pick in the draft Robinson joined a rebuilding Spurs franchise ready to make a big step forward. The 35 games improvement was the best in league history until the 1997-98 Spurs season.

Phoenix made the top 10 list twice as well. In 2004-05 they rebuilt the team with the Steve Nash signing, Quentin Richardson signing and Amare Stoudamire draft pick. The previous year Stephon Marbury, Penny Hardaway and others were sent packing in a house cleaning in around the all-star break and those moves helped the Suns improve from 29 wins to 62 wins. That was the 3rd best improvement over that time frame. Phoenix also made the list in 1988-89 improving 27 games. The major difference was the arrival of new coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. He arrived after three years of missing the playoffs and turned the team around immediately improving from 28 wins to 55 wins that year. The previous season was known in Phoenix as the year of the trades. Over 24 hours in mid-February the Suns traded away Ed Pinckney, William Bedford, Larry Nance and Mike Sanders for Eddie Johnson, Armon Gilliam, Kevin Johnson, Mark West, Tyrone Corbin and Cleveland's 1st round pick in the upcoming draft. Throw on top the signing of Tom Chambers as a free agent and the team was totally remade. The draft brought in Tim Perry, Dan Majerle, Steve Kerr and Andrew Lang.

The Chicago Bulls also made the list twice. The team improved 25 games during the 1995-96 season when Michael Jordan returned from a two year hiatus to play baseball. The 25 game improvement took an already playoff bound team (47 wins) to the pinnacle of basketball excellence when the Bulls won 72 games in a season. The other great turnaround was the 2004-05 Bulls team that improved 24 games with the maturation of the Baby Bulls. New coach Scott Skiles turned the inexperienced team into one of the more dangerous squads in the NBA heading into the playoffs that year. That draft had brought in Ben Gordan, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon to join Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler and Kirk Hinrich to form a talented young squad of players. The Bulls were 4-14 in mid-December when things started to click (starting in Memphis against the Grizzlies). The Bulls were at .500 by the all-star break and finished with 47 wins that year.

Now the Grizzlies face a similar challenge. Can the team that played so pathetically last season in winning only 22 games make another 20 win turnaround this year? What did these previous teams have in common with the current Grizzlies?

Injuries played an important role in both of the Spurs turnarounds and injuries had a major factor in the Grizzlies demise last year. New coaches were a part of the San Antonio, Phoenix and one of the Chicago turnarounds as well. Marc Iavaroni is the new head coach in Memphis. Quality drafts played major roles in all three teams improvements and Memphis' drafting of Mike Conley Jr plus the signing of Juan Carlos Navarro (a previously unsigned draft pick of Washington) could have major impact going forward. Finally, free agent acquisitions had a big impact on many of the teams turn arounds and Darko Milicic's signing not only meant the Grizzlies acquired a talented young player but filled a need as well.

Many similarities from previous teams making big turnarounds are in place in Memphis right now. A new Coach, players returning from injuries, promising draft picks and free agent moves have all been major parts of the significant turnarounds in the past. That doesn't mean the Grizzlies will definitely improve 20+ games this season but there is plenty of reason for optimism this year.

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