Thursday, September 20, 2007

Position Battles - Interior Players

Sorry to take so long to get around to this article but frankly it is the most difficult and with the Chris Wallace meeting and the Joey Crawford story I was somewhat distracted.

Why some may ask are the interior players a more difficult section to write than the Point Guards or Wing Players? Surely this area is the most experienced a pre-determined of the lot.

Actually it isn't that simple. After Pau Gasol there is a lot of confusion on who will play and where. Darko Milicic was the big free agent signing of the summer and at 7 feet, 285 pounds the first legitimately sized big man the team has had to put next to Gasol. Hakim Warrick is more of a tweener forward than a true interior player, Stromile has never lived up to his potential, Brian Cardinal is a broken down shell of the player who was over-paid three years ago and who in heck is Andre Brown anyway?

Well there is a lot more confusion than people expect at first glance. Can Darko play an all-out up tempo game? Can Warrick control the ball well enough to to run the break? Has Stro matured? Has Cardinal's most recent knee surgery cured what ailed him for the last two seasons? Is Andre Brown a diamond in the rough or just a dirty rock?

So many questions and so few answers.

The Interior Players-

Pau Gasol:
The Bearded One had a strong summer performance in front of the home crowd until the FIBA Finals against Russia. A turnover, 4-9 FT shooting and a missed shot in the last 5 minutes killed Spain's chances for their first European Championship. Another meltdown in the final minutes of a big game for the Spaniard is tough to swallow. Real stars don't collapse in the pressure of the bright lights. How emotionally frustrated Pau will be this year should be interesting to watch. The good news for Pau is that, despite never having a true big man to relieve pressure under the basket, he has been remarkably consistent and now he is joined by his good friend Juan Carlos Navarro. With the combination of two new Europeans one -of whom is a legitimate big- should help this be Gasol's best season ever. Throw on top a return to the fast paced game he prefers with new coach Marc Iavaroni and a return to the all-star game may not be outside the realm of possibilities.

Darko Milicic: He has had a troublesome summer as I talked about previously. What I didn't talk about previously was his previous season and playoff performances. Darko was never able to wrest full time duty away from Tony Battie last year averaging only 23.9 mpg. He did use that time efficiently however scoring 8 ppg, grabbing 5.5 rpg and getting 1.8 bpg. In the playoffs those numbers changed to 28.8 mpg, 12.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg and 1.0 bpg. So he played more, scored more, rebounded less and blocked fewer shots. Now granted, he was playing the Pistons in the playoffs. Darko's best month of the year was in February when he averaged 30.3 mpg, 11.7 ppg, 6.9 rpg and 2.1 bpg. However, his minutes fell in March and April when Orlando made their push to the playoffs averaging fewer than 24 mpg over that time. Why? What is it about Darko, a former #2 pick in the draft, that he can show so much potential but fail to deliver on a consistent basis?

Stromile Swift: Speaking of a former second pick in the draft failing to deliver on a consistent basis, I present you Stromile Swift. Who has been a bigger disappointment in his career, Darko or Stro? Stromile is in an option year of his contract. He can opt out next summer and play the free agent game again. That alone should suggest a bigger year from him than last seasons dysfunctional 54 games. Stro somehow managed to average 7.8 ppg and grab 4.6 rpg last year while blocking 1.1 shots in only 19 mpg but the lack of production seemed far worse during the year. Stro is emotional and maybe the shock of playing for the Grizz again combined with Mike Fratello and his mother's stroke was too much to handle. None of that explains the falloff in February, March and April last season when he should have adjusted to being back, his mom was healthy and Fratello was gone. This could be near the end for Stro as he has a coach who should bring out all the positives of his game. Up-tempo should really benefit Stro, but the crowded rotation means inconsistency won't be tolerated any more.

Hakim Warrick: He is facing the all important 3rd year of his NBA career. If a major step forward is going to be taken this is statistically the year he should show it. And it isn't like Hakim didn't start making those steps last season. His scoring improved from 4.1 ppg to 12.7. His rebounding improved from 2.1 to 5.1 per game. His minutes improved from 10.6 to 26.2 mpg. So basically his scoring tripled, his rebounding doubled and his minutes improved by 2.5. What does this tell us? If you play more you will get more stats but it doesn't mean you really improved your play. Hakim needs to really improve his play this season and that means improved defense, better understanding and functioning in the offense and a more physical play. Most important is defense. Much of the criticism of Gasol's defense last year was when Warrick lost his man and Gasol came over to help, only to have his man left wide open. That cannot continue. Warrick also was the final option offensively too often. Not because he was the last option but when he got his hands on the ball he never let go. Warrick has to prove he can play the 4 similar to Boris Diaw who included everyone in the offense while playing good defense.

Brian Cardinal: Did you hear that TV is bringing back the Bionic Woman...and Memphis is bringing back their $6 million Dollar Man. Unfortunately our man is not any better than the show. Many people forget that Brian Cardinal had another knee surgery last spring. Will this surgery finally cure what has ailed him since his first year in Memphis or is the damage too severe? At this point no one knows for sure. One thing for sure, Cardinal may be able to be rebuilt, but he won't be faster, jump higher or shoot more accurately than before. At best Brian will be the 5th interior player on the team or the 3rd small forward. He definitely is smart enough to play the game, but physically I don't believe they can give him the ability to stay up with the speed and height of the game today.

Andre Brown: If Cardinal is the $6 million dollar man, then Andre Brown is The Shadow. Everyone has heard of him but no one knows what he looks like, has seen him play or know anything about his past other than wild rumors of his dominating lesser talent in South America (actually the NBADL but what's is the difference). At 6-9 Brown should push Swift as the backup big man and could actually pass an uninspired Swift. Brown was described by Chris Wallace as being a hard worker who is content with his role on the team. In other words he won't complain if he sits on the bench in street clothes but has to workout with the team every morning. Apparently that role didn't sit well with Alexander Johnson. If Brown outplays Stro then we could have a physical player to band underneath with a bargain basement price. If he doesn't then we have a hard worker who appreciates the opportunity.

So what is going to happen? Gasol and Darko will become the Ivory Towers on opening night. Warrick could be in the running for sixth man of the year if he improves his defense and his passing. Swift is a big question mark while Cardinal and Brown should rarely appear in anything beside street clothes and warmup suits. I would go so far as to say that if anyone sees what number is on Andre Brown's jersey this season then something has gone terribly wrong.

The big picture depends on Darko. Can he finally break out of his underperformance and become a valuable contributor on a team. The Grizzlies paid him to be there big man. Gasol will do about 20 and 10 like he always does and Warrick should excel in the running offense so whether or not the team can win will depend on Darko being the big man that the city has longed for since 2001. If Darko averages 10+ ppg and grabs 7+ rpg to go along with his shot blocking then Memphis will be tough to stop inside and probably much tougher to score on as well. That frees up the perimeter players to press more on the perimeter which means more opportunities to run. If Darko isn't able to provide that type of production then it will be more difficult to play the pressing defense Iavaroni has said he wants to play and everything else slows down.

Slowing down is not something that most Grizzlies fans want to hear about this team.


Knots said...

this is dead on. The fear I have as a Griz fan is that the whole season may hinge on Darko...I can't believe I just typed that. If the Dark-one can show that he was a serious mean streak and come down with some boards and the occasional 10-10 game, we've got a decent chance at a good season (not a great one). But if he under performs, it's a repeat of last year.

Ryan Schwan said...

I have a feeling the Grizz will be surprising this season. Navarro will be solid, Darko is an upgrade(awful to mediocre is an upgrade) at center, and Gay and Conley are bound to contribute something finally. But hey, even if your season ends, you'll still have the best damn almost completely bald NBA player around. Go Cardinal!

Norman Stafford said...

I am so anxious for the season to start, and your insights, Chip, just make me more enthusiastic. I haven't commented on this site before, but I have read it since it started and really enjoy it.

ChipC3 said...

Thanks guys. Traditionally I leave the commentary for others on the message board and I do my 'deep thoughts' here on the blog.

If anyone wants to post this or the other position breakdowns on the Grizz board it is fine with me. A writer never wants his efforts to go unread after all!