Saturday, April 14, 2007

When Should the Logo Leave?

West said he had extended his deal and would be staying at least through July 1. He will work the draft and -- as he put it -- "put together a wish list of the players we would like to add." West didn't say if he'd have an active hand in recruiting those players, but it's hard to believe he'd cut all ties with the team now that he's finally put it in position to make some dramatic moves.
-Geoff Calkins, Commercial Appeal Editorial, 2/16/2007


This commentary from Geoff Caulkins has eaten at me for months now. Calkins wrote it in response to a question from a reader asking if Jerry would be continuing in his present role until July 1st or just with the organization. July 1st is the starting date to recruit free agents and with the Grizz having $6 to $10 million available under the cap (depending on things like re-signing their own free agents, the cap number and their draft location) this would appear to be the absolute worst time for a new GM to take over the reins. Ideally current ‘interim’ coach Tony Barone, Sr. would have returned to his role as Director of Player Personnel, a new coach would have been hired and the lottery selection all would have been done before the free agency period began. Right in the middle of this great upheaval of change the VP of Operations retires? That is not the most ideal timing.

Jerry West came to Memphis in April of 2002 with the goal of making the franchise one of the premier teams in the league. Lofty goals for a franchise that had never won more than 23 games in a season and had been called by one sports publication as the worst franchise in professional sports. Prior to this season he had come close to accomplishing that goal, being one of only 9 teams to reach the playoffs the last 3 years and finishing the 2005-06 season with the 4th best record in the Western Conference. Jerry accomplished this while battling constant obstacles. He had to change coaches in the middle of the season twice. At the end of the 3rd playoff season West had only one full time starter (Pau Gasol) remaining from the original squad that won 50 games and reached the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. With the core of Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Gasol, Memphis appeared to have reached the pinnacle of success the group could attain. Instead of allowing his last season as VP of Basketball Operations to slide quietly into history West orchestrated a draft day deal that sent local fan favorite Shane Battier to Houston in exchange for former Grizzlies player Stromile Swift and the eighth draft pick, Rudy Gay. Later the same night he traded a future second round pick for Alexander Johnson. Combined, those two moves and the drafting of Kyle Lowry, piqued people’s interest in what West was doing in Memphis. The expectations were that this was the first step in a more complete retooling of the roster.

The next major move never happened. The biggest move was re-signing Chucky Atkins to a one year deal. Rumors began to circulate that Michael Heisley had found a buyer for the team and all roster moves had been put on hold. If that actually happened the timing was rotten. The retooling was frozen mid-change. Pau Gasol then broke his foot playing for Spain and the season was basically over before it began. Throw in questionable injuries to Eddie Jones and Stromile Swift with the break in Kyle Lowry’s wrist plus the deterioration of Brian Cardinal’s knee and what was supposed to be a ‘step back to move ahead’ became a free fall.

It is understandable that West would want to atone for this season. However, using the top four lottery pick, picking the new coach and then turning over the keys is not the most beneficial series of events for a team. West would force the new GM to deal with West’s selection of a new coach and draft pick while putting the onus of finding the other missing pieces on the new GM. West must realize that selling a professional basketball player on a small market like Memphis is no easy task. The new GM must hit the ground running around the country talking to players. That means he won’t be in his office getting adjusted and building good will with the city and its fans.That isn’t leaving the team in a position to succeed. That is setting up his successor to fail. Memphis deserves better. West didn’t ask to have his contract extended and it would be difficult to turn his back on this salary once offered. However, West needs to make a decision. Either sign up for four more years and see these decisions through or, if West doesn’t plan on staying at the helm during the rebuilding, step aside after the last game and let a new GM make the big decisions. If West in fact chooses not to remain at the helm for the next few years then he should step aside prior to the draft lottery. If things don’t turn out well for the franchise it won’t look like West stepped down because of the outcome. Also, West doesn’t have to leave the franchise altogether. His contract allows West to stay on as paid consultant to help smooth the transition. West’s role would be to assist the new GM to continue to make this franchise one of the premier franchises in the NBA. West’s time in Memphis helped turn an embarrassment into a success. This last season won’t change that.

Now is the time for West to make the tough decision. Either stay on board past the July 1st date or let a new person take over while the exciting parts of the job are still to be determined. The next GM should be in his position for at least the next 5 years and hopefully longer. It will be far more interesting to a prospective GM that he be allowed to pick his own coach, his own draft pick and determine his own FA signing. That excitement and responsibility is what drives successful minded people to the job. Wait until after that time and the interest will drop dramatically. Currently, Heisley doesn’t care about anything but how much money he can get from the sale of the team. West needs to force Heisley’s hand and retire as soon as the last shot is taken in Minneapolis. Force Heisley to make a move to reinvigorate the team or sell the franchise for less money to the local owners. Don’t let Heisley continue this charade of concern any longer.

Anything less would hurt West’s legacy. He needs to be bigger than Heisley and do what is right for the franchise and the city.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Delving into the Draft

I detailed the players that I believe the Grizzlies should target if they wind up with a pick outside the Top 2 on the message board (quick recap -- Hibbert, Brewer, Horford, Conley). But now I want to take a more detailed look at who is out there in the draft, since many people have claimed that this is the deepest draft since 2003, 1999 or 1998, depending on perspective. These same people have also been clamoring for the Grizzlies to find a way to acquire a few more picks in the draft, often through whatever means necessary, no matter how short-sighted they might be. So let's find out who could be the next difference maker or role player. These are not in the order I see them being drafted necessarily either and I'm only going to discuss players I have seen in game action, so no Yi Jianlian, Nicolas Batum or Marco Belinelli here. Go check out one of the dozens of reputable draft sites for info on them.

Greg Oden (Ohio State) -- If you read my earlier post, then you already know what I think about him. The "next Bill Russell" is already a great shot-blocker and a solid rebounder who has shown that he can score in a variety of ways as well. He's #1 on the board with a bullet. The one thing he will definitely have to work on is his conditioning, which was absolutely abysmal during the NCAA tournament. Some time in the weight room, a personal trainer, a nutritionist and a personal chef wouldn't hurt either. You can afford those things in the NBA though.

Kevin Durant (Texas) -- While everyone wants to compare him to Kevin Garnett (something I don't understand now), in reality he is a more athletic version of Dirk Nowitzki.....with better range. Capable of leading his team in scoring, rebounding and dropped jaws, he will need to hit the weight room in order to survive in the NBA. His defense also needs a lot of honing, both one-on-one and help defensive tactics. There is some concern about how much he will need the ball to be effective, as well.

Corey Brewer (Florida) -- The prototype for an all-around swingman. He can shoot from anywhere on the floor, find open teammates and play suffocating defense. Perhaps the most NBA ready player in the draft, he is receiving favorable comparisons from nearly all the experts, with my favorite being referred to as a "young Eddie Jones". He's a good rebounder who is reputed to have an outstanding work ethic, which should make him very attractive for a lot of teams. His ballhandling is somewhat suspect (reminiscent of Rudy Gay in this respect) and he will need to learn how to create his own shot more effectively.

Brandan Wright (North Carolina) -- The first word from everyone's lips when discussing him is "potential". He could be the next Chris Bosh, LaMarcus Aldridge or Channing Frye. Or he could be a guy who never quite lives up to that "potential". That's why the draft is an inexact science. With his great athleticism, massive wingspan, ever-growing offensive arsenal and seemingly natural ability to do anything on the court, he is a tantalizing prospect who will almost certainly go in the Top 5 of the draft. Like many of the prospects, he is going to have to spend a lot of time in the weight room so that he doesn't get broken in half by midseason.

Julian Wright (Kansas) -- Surprised many by declaring for the draft, but I don't think another year in college (particularly under Bill Self) would help him develop into a better NBA player, so what does he have to lose? Another great athlete, Wright is an adept ballhandler, which has been somewhat detrimental to the development of his jumpshot, which is merely adequate at this point. He's a very unselfish player (perhaps to a fault) who rarely forces things. He has developed a nice post game, which will help him as he continues to increase his range on his jumper.

Al Horford (Florida) -- I've seen the comparison to Carlos Boozer repeated often and I think it fits with one caveat.....Boozer doesn't have the nasty streak that Horford does. His attitude reminds me of Charles Oakley or Anthony Mason -- a true regulator of the paint. An impressive rebounder with good athleticism and one of the few prospects who won't need as much time in the weight room to adjust, Horford is also an above-average defender and shot blocker. He needs to work on his mid-range game and improve his free-throw shooting, but will definitely be a solid PF for whatever team drafts him.

Roy Hibbert (Georgetown) -- A solid scorer and decent rebounder, Hibbert isn't much of an athlete. He reminds me a lot of Eddy Curry, but with a better work ethic (or maybe just Curry if he'd gone to college?). He has the one thing that you cannot teach or develop in the NBA: SIZE. At 7'2", 280 lbs., he is a beast to deal with for anyone in the league. He has great touch around the basket and is a very good free throw shooter, so any team looking for a center would be wise to give him a second (or third....or tenth) look. His conditioning will have to improve for him to excel at the next level.

Mike Conley, Jr. (Ohio State) -- He displayed his amazing level of skill and talent throughout the season and the tournament, impressing nearly all of the experts along the way. He has great athletic ability, as well as the poise that you demand from your point guard during crunch time situations. With a variety of ways to score, Conley is the threat that opposing coaches fear, since he isn't guaranteed to pass first, second and always with the game on the line. He will need to increase the range on his perimeter shooting to become an even more dangerous player.

Joakim Noah (Florida) -- The very definition of a high motor, hustle player, I think of Noah as a 7-foot version of Brian Cardinal. Ok, ok, Shane Battier. Needless to say, I'm not a huge fan of what he brings to the table in terms of all-around basketball ability. I mean, let's face it, would you spend a high lottery pick on a guy who looks like this:

I didn't think so. I appreciate the fact that he has great leadership skills and a high basketball IQ, as well as a good understanding of defensive principles. But he can't shoot and has a very limited post game, which presents problems for him in the NBA. Much like the case was with Mark Madsen (very good college player, very average NBA player), I see him as a valuable role player, a "glue guy" moreso than a guy you can run plays for with any consistency.

Jeff Green (Georgetown) -- Went from "Who???" to "that guy who just takes over games" to "The Magician (aka "The Disappearing Act") over the course of the season and tournaments. Green is a guy who isn't particularly great at any one thing, but is above average at practically everything. The consumate jack-of-all-trades, master of none, if you will. He does possess remarkable vision for a SF. The biggest areas he'll need to work on in the NBA are his perimeter shooting and his defense, which is only passable at this point due to poor fundamentals.

Derrick Byars (Vanderbilt) -- I'll admit that I only saw him play a handful of games this year (Vandy not being high on my basketball radar, after all), but what I saw from him did convince me that he'll be a solid pro. He's a good defender with no glaring weaknesses in his skillset. He has the versatility to play either wing position, plus he even ran the point some this season, which is always helpful. He's not active enough without the ball in his hands, but that is something that he can learn at the next level.

Thaddeus Young (Georgia Tech) -- Phenomenal athlete with unreal potential. He does have a few gaping holes in his game, though. His perimeter shooting needs a lot of work, as he only seems confident when he has his feet set under him. He's not that comfortable coming off screens or pulling up off the dribble. His ballhandling is very suspect as well, which is a problem if he intends to stay at SF at the next level. I see the same problems with Young that I witnessed with Shawne WIlliams at Memphis last season -- he does 2 or 3 things really well, but seems intent on proving that he can do 7 or 8 things really well. He doesn't go to his strengths nearly often enough, which has exposed his glaring weaknesses in his first collegiate season. He would be better served returning for another season at Tech, in my estimation.

Al Thornton (Florida State) -- To me, perhaps the biggest question mark in the draft. He's older than most (he'll be 24 in December), but is also far more athletic than most, too. He's been tagged with the dreaded "tweener" label, but I think his great mid-range game and unreal physical ability will be enough to allow him to squeeze into the top part of the draft. He needs to expand the range on his jumper and hone his ballhandling skills, as well as spend some time getting acquainted with the concept of "passing" -- one of the few weaknesses he has, but is it ever an obvious one. I see him becoming a poor man's Shawn Marion, who is also the best tweener forward in the NBA, so that's not a comparison to take lightly.

Acie Law IV (Texas A&M) -- A PG with good size (6'3") and a reputation for being clutch, Law has developed light years from what he was in his freshman season with the Aggies. He has the ability to play at any tempo and remains in control throughout the game. A solid playmaker, Law has also shown that he can be creative in shaking himself free for a shot, too. His defense will need a lot of work at the next level, but his mastery of the offensive side of the ball more than compensates for that. The Sam Cassell comparisons are very accurate, IMO.

Spencer Hawes (Washington) -- He has a great array of post moves in his arsenal and the ability to finish with either hand, which has left more than one defender with a sheepish look on his face. Hawes is also a skilled passer, drawing comparisons to Brad Miller and Vlade Divac. He can also step out and hit mid-range jumpers, even with defensive pressure. Something that has concerned many scouts is his low rebounding numbers, but according to a person who watches a lot of Pac-10 games, this is mostly due to the fact that one of Hawes' teammates is a rebounding machine. Judging by the numbers on their team page, I can only assume that player is sophmore Jon Brockman. Hawes is not a great athlete and is somewhat thin for a 7 footer (although not Shawn Bradley "stick man" thin), but he has managed to hold his own against several heralded big men so far. In any other year, he'd probably be the #1 center prospect in the draft.

Hasheem Thabeet (Conneticut) -- We go from "polished product" in Spencer Hawes to "raw block of wood" in Thabeet. If anyone wastes a first round pick on him, then they deserve what they get. I understand that he's doing it for financial reasons more than anything (his family is still overseas in Tanzania), but that should affect any GM's evaluation of him. He's a great shotblocker......and that's it. He can't score and doesn't rebound well. Much like other "projects" before him (Mutombo and Okafor come to mind), he needs 4 years of school to develop into an actual basketball player. Even one more season in college would help him tremendously.

Aaron Gray (Pittsburgh) -- BUST! Next! Ok, ok, I'll talk about him, even though he doesn't deserve the time or effort. Gray has a variety of post moves at his disposal, but shies away from physicality so much that he neglects to take advantage of them. He has also displayed a level of inconsistency that isn't going to be viewed favorably by many scouts. His games against players that he'd face in the NBA typically produced very poor results for him. He was completely shut down in matchups against Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes this year. I honestly believe that he lacks the heart and the toughness to last in the NBA.

Arron Affalo (UCLA) -- A very good all-around shooter, Affalo has also shown the ability to finish in traffic due to his body control and strength. He's also an underrated rebounder at 6'5" and a decent defender. His lack of great athleticism prevents him from being a great player at the next level, but he should be a solid player in the NBA for the next 10 years based on his solid fundamentals and understanding of the game.

Josh McRoberts (Duke) -- A poor man's Christian Laettner. Any questions?

Morris Almond (Rice) -- His picture should be next to the definition of "scorer" in the collegiate edition of the dictionary. He'll probably make his living in the NBA as a dynamite 6th man/occasional starter, as he is a bigger version of what Ben Gordon was coming out of UConn a few years ago. A lightning quick release from anywhere on the floor and the ability to create his own shot despite average athletic ability has given NBA scouts reason to pause and take notice. He should spend some time on his defensive fundamentals, which to this point have only received token interest, as well as his overall ballhandling skills. Teams in need of instant offense should definitely consider him.

Nick Young (USC) -- Only saw him three times outside of the tournament (twice against Arizona, once against Washington), but he reminded me a lot of both Antawn Jamison and Josh Howard in the way that he scored from unconventional angles and approaches. He is sneaky athletic, almost lulling defenders to sleep with his consistency from mid-range before surprising them with a quick move to the basket for an uncontested layup or dunk. I've seen him play great defense....and I've seen him play below-average defense, so he needs to work on consistency in that area. Another guy who should be a solid pro for the next decade.

I'll be working on a list of Sleepers next, so look for it sometime next week.