Thursday, April 26, 2007

Memphis and West: A Lesson in Failure

“Leaders establish the vision for the future and set the strategy for getting there; they cause change. They motivate and inspire others to go in the right direction and they, along with everyone else, sacrifice to get there.”
-John Kotter

Jerry West has tendered his resignation effective July 1st, 2007. After 6 years at the head of the franchise West has decided the team needs a new voice to lead the franchise going forward.

When West arrived in Memphis he stated his vision to make this a model franchise. While few people really knew what that meant he changed the way the franchise was viewed by the fans and the league with just his presence. He made his first major move when he fired Sydney Lowe only 8 games into the new season. Hubie Brown was hired. Brown brought discipline and a mentality that winning is a process not an end result. He coached the Grizzlies to a 28-46 record that year.

When Brown succeeded the crowds supported Brown not because anyone bought into Jerry West’s vision or even understood what his vision was. They bought into Brown’s vision because he communicated this every night in the press conferences. Jerry West was given credit for being behind everything if Brown was this successful as the coach. Who cares if no one knew what West was thinking in his box in the sky, the success on the court meant he had a plan and we should trust him.

‘Trust in Jerry’ became a popular phrase around Memphis.

The next season the Grizzlies caught fire and during a beautiful 50 win year the Grizzlies could do no wrong. West was a genius winning the league’s Executive of the Year. Hubie Brown won Coach of the Year. Things couldn’t have been better in Memphis. Who cares if no one knew what West’s vision was for the future, the Grizzlies were on the right path.

Then things started to go wrong. First, Brian Cardinal was signed to a free agent contract larger than James Posey’s, the previous year’s team MVP. West paid far over market value for Cardinal and it raised a lot of eyebrows. Players began to express unhappiness with the lack of playing time under Brown’s system that had 10 players basically playing for 24 minutes a game. It really got weird when Brown complained that West was spying on him with an equipment manager. Even though the team was moving into a new arena and coming off a 50 win season and the first playoff appearance in franchise history, it seemed no one was happy. No one was on the same page. There was no shared vision of the future that everyone was working toward.

Then suddenly Brown was gone.

Thanksgiving Day he told the team he was retiring effective immediately due to health problems. In 2 months the Grizzlies had gone from an up and coming NBA team ready to take their place in the upper echelon of the NBA to a team in disarray without leadership and without cohesion. Within 8 days West brought in another old school coach, Mike Fratello, to take over the team. The rumor was that West wanted a disciplinarian coaching the team to control the egos and to get the players to focus on team and not individuals. What was left unanswered was the question of how Fratello fit into Jerry’s vision. Granted Fratello had a reputation as a disciplinarian but how would his coaching philosophy mesh with the vision West had for the team?

Fratello won a lot of games with the Grizzlies but also upset players and fans. West sat alone in his suite watching intensely. Fratello seemed to be the anti-thesis of Brown. He was short and curt in press conferences compared to Brown’s rolling monologues on the game. While Brown seemed to enjoy educating the press about the game, Fratello seemed to be irritated. Gone was the personality on TV that had him called the “Czar of the Telestrator.”

Fratello totally changed the manner of play on the court as well. The Grizzlies went from an up-tempo team that attempted to wear down their opponents with pressure and the depth of their bench to the slowest team in the league that apparently wanted to lull their opponents to sleep. Still West was stoic. The strong man behind his Forum suite’s glass partition never came out and explained how this move was getting us closer to his vision of the ‘Model Franchise.’

The termination of Fratello and hiring of Barone brought along a pronouncement that the team would be changing again to a running up-tempo style and true to his word Barone did give the fans that. He played the youngsters and the team ran the ball. Barone joked with the media, with the refs and even his own players. West barely said a word about how this move fit into his vision of the future.

And no one knows yet what West saw as the future of the franchise.

West has always been quiet, reserved and shy. His press conferences rambled from point to point and he often left people with no idea what he really meant. He did not express his vision of the future of the franchise. No one knew his strategy to get the team there. He motivated people in the short run by reputation but by being too closed and guarded in his plans for the team he didn’t have anyone buy into his vision of the future. People didn’t work together because very few understood what direction they were going.

Hubie Brown coached the team to run and use their athleticism to outscore the opponents. He didn’t run just to run. Everyone had a place on the court and Brown expected them to be in the right place at the right time but pressure and speed were valuable keys to the team’s success. Fratello wanted to control every aspect of the team. He preferred to slow the game down to make sure that he controlled what was happening. The Grizzlies went from one of the higher scoring teams in the league to one of the best defensive teams in two seasons. Under Barone the team became one of the highest scoring teams again in a matter of weeks. At no time were the fans involved or educated about the reason for these moves. What was the vision? West had 4 coaches in 5 seasons (Lowe, Brown, Fratello and Barone-and that isn’t including the 4 game stint of Lionel Hollins) and another one on the way this summer. Where is the plan? One minute the team is running the next they are taking the air out of the ball only to have it refilled with Helium. Is it any wonder the fans turned away?

If leadership is establishing a vision of the future and establishing a path to get you there then West failed to lead this team. A lot of things can be blamed on the owner but the failure to communicate a vision of the future lies at one man’s feet. He may have had that vision (and I suspect he did) but he failed to get the players to buy into it. He didn’t communicate this vision so the fans and the players had a hard time buying into it. Without that commitment and motivation the sacrifices weren’t made to help it succeed.

West is right about the team needing a new voice. Hopefully this time it will be one people can hear both on the team and in the community. To turn this franchise around it will need sacrifice on a lot of people’s parts. Things must change. The team has to create an identity that everyone can rally behind and all of this comes from the leader’s ability to communicate his goals and visions.

West didn’t fail in Memphis because he didn’t have a vision. He didn’t fail because he didn’t make sacrifices along the way to succeed. He didn’t fail because he didn’t cause change. He failed because he kept the vision to himself. Without the understood vision all the sacrifices and effort, all the attempts to motivate and inspire eventually fall on deaf ears. One man can’t do it alone.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Grizzlies Review: A Season in Hell

It is always painful to write an end of season re-cap of player’s performances since this means the season is actually over. This season is not as painful as some but still hurts just the same. The team failed to live up to the lowest expectations of the fans and yet still managed to play entertaining basketball. Unsuccessful but entertaining just the same.

Pau Gasol: Season- 20.8 ppg, 9.8 RPG, 3.4 apg, 0.5 spg and 2.1 bpg
Career- 18.8 ppg, 8.6 RPG, 3.1 apg, 0.5 spg, 1.8 bpg

Gasol set career highs in scoring, rebounding, FG%, and tied his career high in blocks. He also set a franchise high in times being booed at home. An interesting dichotomy brought about by someone leaking a private conversation between Heisley and Gasol to the media. While definitely not Gasol’s fault for the story being leaked he was definitely made the whipping boy by the local fans who were upset that he was injured while playing basketball for Spain and missing the fist 23 games of the season.

What people seem to forget is that Gasol put up these numbers despite playing his way into game condition. His performance in 2007 was nothing short of impressive despite boos raining down from the rafters every time he made a mistake. Gasol averaged 21.5 ppg, 10.9 RPG, 3.65 apg and 2.3 bpg in 2007 that type of performance is comparable to Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitski and Kevin Garnett. There will always be critics who refuse to give Gasol credit this season but the reality is that he took his game up to another level despite playing 3 fewer minutes a game than he did during his all-star season of 05-06. While Gasol will never be as good as Duncan defensively, he could improve perception of his defense if the Grizz had a Point Guard who could stop dribble penetration which frequently left Gasol in difficult defensive situations.

Mike Miller: Season- 18.5 ppg, 5.4 RPG, 4.3 apg, 40.6 3pt%, 0.8 spg
Career- 14.4 ppg, 4.5 RPG, 2.9 apg, 39.8 3pt%, 0.7 spg

Mike opened the season as the team’s de facto #1 scorer and didn’t look good in that role. With Mike Fratello’s slow ball still the rule of thumb and the opponent’s not having to double team Gasol due to his injury, Miller was forced to play a style that doesn’t emphasize his best traits. His 14.0 ppg average was his season low in November. From that point on a different Miller emerged. With the return of Gasol and the firing of Fratello, Miller exploded out to average 19.7 ppg the rest of the season before knee tendonitis sidelined him at the end of March.

Miller was a long range sharp-shooter as usual but he also drove the lane more effectively than ever before. His confidence blossomed and with Gasol the team had two players capable of scoring 20 points on any given night. Never known as a defensive stopper Miller struggled to defend opposing SGs and was relegated to the SF role where his rebounding skills offset his lack of lateral quickness. While Miller’s season was his best statistically as a pro it also exposed the weaknesses inherent in his game. Those weaknesses may best be covered coming off the bench in the future rather than starting, especially with the rookies looking promising at SF and SG and the team’s desire to improve the backcourt in the off-season. Miller may be needed to be used as bait to get a deal done.

Chucky Atkins: Season- 13.2 ppg, 4.6 apg, 0.7 spg, 37.9 3pt%, 1.69 topg
Career- 10.8 ppg, 3.7 apg, 0.7 spg, 37.0 3pt%, 1.59 topg

Chucky was probably the most unpopular free agent signing this summer. Fans blamed Chucky for Jason Terry’s playoff explosion in the playoff sweep the previous season and didn’t want him back. A year later the attitude has changed dramatically. Now Memphis fans hope Chucky is back but he has more options available now and it is highly doubtful that he will return.

What Chucky did while in Memphis won’t be forgotten quickly however. His arrival in January, 2006 was a life raft to a season that looked to have been sunk when Damon Stoudamire went down with a patella tendon rupture. This season his impact was just as important. His excellent sense of humor and veteran presence insured the team remained upbeat even at the lowest points. His clutch 4th quarter shooting helped win games and his acceptance of his changing role with the team did much to enhance his stature in Memphis. His role was least appreciated at the start of the season but by the end he just may have been the team MVP.

Hakim Warrick: Season- 12.7 ppg, 5.1 RPG, 0.9 apg, 0.52 spg, 0.37 bpg
Career- 8.8 ppg, 3.8 RPG, 0.7 apg, 0.4 spg, 0.3 bpg

Hakim finally got to step on the court as a starter in the NBA when Gasol’s foot broke and he made a noticeable impact right away. He averaged 15.7 ppg in November as well as 6.1 RPG. Then Pau returned and Hakim’s minutes started dropping but his attitude stayed strong. He bided his time and when given a 2nd opportunity in the starting lineup he made sure he stayed there. His rebounding improved and his shooting punished teams intent on doubling Gasol. He became the #3 scoring threat on the team and seemed to grow more and more confident with each game. What Warrick didn’t seem to handle well was man on man defense. His inability to stop his man was one of the main reasons the Grizzlies went to the 2-3 zone that Warrick was familiar with at Syracuse.

With Warrick’s leaping ability there is no reason he should average less than half a block a game either. While his focus on rebounding improved during the season the defense he plays is not up to NBA expectations. He will need to improve his ball handling, his passing and his defense to be anything more than a spot starter in his career.

Rudy Gay: Season- 10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.0 bpg, 36.4 3pt%, 42.2 FG%
Career- 10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.3 apg, 0.9 spg, 1.0 bpg, 36.4 3pt%, 42.2 FG%

Rudy Gay entered the Grizzlies camp with the most fanfare of any rookie since Drew Gooden. He ended the season with as much fanfare as any Grizzlies rookie since Pau Gasol. Not a bad development from the 20 yr old. He opened the month of November with the ROM award for the Western Conference after averaging a paltry 8.7 ppg and shooting a terrible 35.9 FG% and 31.8 3pt%. Surprisingly he improved those numbers almost every month of the season but never won the award again. His best month was February when he averaged 15.0 ppg, 5.1 rpg, shot 47.3% from the field and 47.5% from the arc.

The future is very bright for young Rudy who has admitted the strain of being a rookie in the NBA and having the onus to live up to Jerry West’s pre-season comments made it difficult to relax at first on the court. Rudy Gay struggled all season with playing multiple positions on the court and seems most suited for the SF position where his athleticism often will overwhelm other SFs in the league. His ball handling is a tad week to play the SG and that led many teams to start pressing the Grizzlies when he was playing in the backcourt. The effectiveness of those presses shows how much work needs to be done in this area. Defensively Rudy didn’t struggle nearly as much as would be expected from a rookie which should encourage the fans for next season.

Stromile Swift: Season- 7.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.15 bpg, 46.5 FG%
Career- 8.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 47.1 FG%

The Stro Show limped into town in shock from the draft day trade that brought him back to the Bluff City with Rudy Gay for Shane Battier. He didn’t seem to come out of the funk except for two periods all season. The first occurred after he returned from being with his mother who had suffered a stroke. He play had been sporadic since the beginning of the season as he complained of knee pain. Apparently his knee recovered nicely during the break with his mother. This time also corresponded with Mike Fratello being released and Barone hired and suddenly Stro was on fire. From Dec. 30 to Jan 9th Stro scored in double figures four times including a season high 26 pts against Golden St and was close to double figures in the other two games. Then another injury sat Stro for 11 more games in a row and when he returned he was not in the rotation (or out of doghouse). The last 4 games Stro scored in double figures in every game.

This is not what Jerry West envisioned when he reacquired Stro on draft day. Stro never looked comfortable this season either from injury or general dissatisfaction. His best friend on the team (Gasol) demanded a trade with management. For Stro that wasn’t necessary since the team was trying to trade him as hard as they could. No one seems interested in a MLE player who misses games with ‘phantom’ injuries and is moody. Not surprising really.

Tarence Kinsey: Season- 7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 45.7 FG%
Career- 7.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, 1.1 spg, 45.7 FG%

In a season filled with bad news and unhappy scenes, TK was a breath of fresh air to end the season. The 2nd rookie for the Grizzlies this season to win the Rookie of the Month award for the Western Conference, TK came out of nowhere to shock the league with his deadly accurate mid-range shooting and his on court intensity. Rookies aren’t supposed to play good defense. Undrafted rookies aren’t supposed to even play! TK took advantage of every opportunity he was given the year to suddenly be a serious contender for the starting SG role next season. Not bad for a player who had to fight thru a broken orbital socket suffered in training camp to even make the team.

Kinsey isn’t without his faults of course and the most glaring is his lack of a consistent outside shot. His mid-range game is excellent but when he gets to the arc his percentages drop like a rock averaging 18.8% from behind the arc in April alone. Very similar in appearance to a young Richard Hamilton without the pressure of being Michael Jordan’s first draft pick, TK really brought it the last month of the season averaging 18.8 ppg despite his long range woes. His play after Miller went down leads one to ask ‘just how invaluable is Mike Miller?’

Dahntay Jones: Season- 7.5 ppg, 2.0 rpg, 0.9 apg, 0.5 spg, 41.7 3pt%
Career- 5.1 ppg, 1.6 rpg, 0.6 apg, 0.4 spg, 33.0 3pt%

Dahntay Jones looked to have a real chance of showing the Grizzlies what he was capable of this season. Eddie Jones was injured to start the season and no one else seemed ready to fill the role of defensive SG on the roster and if he could improve his shooting the future starting role seemed to be his. 78 games later, with improvement in nearly every statistical category, there is a question whether the Grizzlies will even offer him his qualifying offer. After all, Tony Barone said Dahntay was the player most likely to give him an ulcer. Dahntay had his opportunity in December when he started 15 of 16 games, played 30 minutes a night and was given the tough assignments while covering for Miller defensively.

Unfortunately, while playing well it wasn’t enough to keep Rudy Gay on the bench when Barone took over. Dahntay’s minutes dropped from 30 to 20 immediately after Barone took over and eventually bottomed at 12 mpg in March before rising back to 29 mpg in April. With the de-emphasis on defense and the need for more scoring in the up-tempo offense Dahntay was cast aside and may not return despite the excellent play down the stretch.

Damon Stoudamire: Season- 7.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, 2.2 rpg, 0.8 spg, 39.1 FG%, 33.7 3pt%
Career- 14.0 ppg, 6.4 apg, 3.6 rpg, 1.1 spg, 40.8 FG%, 35.8 3pt%

Damon’s play after recovering from patella tendon surgery is nothing short of remarkable. Too bad that alone isn’t what people are judged for in the NBA. While he made significant progress toward regaining the use of his knee he regressed as a ball player and at 34 yrs old at the beginning of the season it may be a situation of too little too late. He simply may not be able to regain the strength robbed by the surgery in time to prevent the loss from age. From the beginning it was known that this would be a 2 yr recovery process but Damon also knew it was a race against time. At the end of the season it looked like time won.

Damon was unable to average 10 ppg in any single month this season. His shooting percentages are some of the worst of his career His assists only approached his career average in February. The up-tempo style only exposed the weakness in Damon’s leg. Without a shot, without an ability to break down defenders and without the height to stop people on the defensive end, Damon was merely a 5’10” aging PG with a bad wheel. Chucky and even Junior Harrington outplayed him down the stretch and we may have seen the end of Damon in Memphis, and possibly the end of Damon in the NBA. If the Grizz bring in a veteran PG via free agency then he is gone. If not then he has a chance for one more year.

Kyle Lowry: Season- 5.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 36.8 FG%, 37.5 3pt%, 1.4 spg
Career- 5.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.2 apg, 36.8 FG%, 37.5 3pt%, 1.4 spg

Quick, which rookie for the Grizzlies this season didn’t start a single game and was the most popular rookie for the year? If you remembered to say Kyle Lowry you would be correct. Rudy Gay started 43 games, Alexander Johnson started 19 games, Tarence Kinsey started 12 games and Kyle Lowry played in a total of 9 games all season but still everyone from Barone down to the fans of the team see Kyle Lowry as being a key component to the Grizzlies returning to respectability. Barone said at media day that Lowry may even be able to start the season at the point. Incredibly optimistic feelings from the fans and coaches for a player will almost no NBA experience.

Of course the broken wrist that robbed him of his rookie year is reportedly mended and the rehab has begun. He should be ready for summer camp and hopefully will get plenty of burn in the summer leagues as well. How well Kyle performs could determine how hard the Grizzlies search for a new PG. It is a dangerous play this way but one that could pay great dividends if Lowry is ready to go.

Lawrence Roberts: Season- 5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 0.67 spg, 0.24 bpg
Career- 3.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 0.5 spg, 0.1 bpg

LRob is another player in a precarious situation with the Grizzlies. Since the Grizzlies have rights to match any offer, LRob may have to wait until the end of free agency to know where he will be playing next year if in the NBA at all. On the bright side are games like he had in Boston when he set a career high of 18 pts and the Charlotte game when he grabbed 11 rebounds in only 25 minutes and the 14 rebounds in only 26 minutes against Sacramento. On the dark side is the knee surgery to repair the meniscus in his knee following the Boston game and the cyst that developed on his other knee to prematurely end the season.

If Roberts can avoid the injury bug then the Grizzlies would definitely want him back but the risk is so high for a revenue strapped franchise. With Cardinal already guaranteed and sidelined with knee pain can the Grizzlies afford to resign another player with questionable knees no matter how high the potential seems to be. One aspect favoring a return by Roberts is that he was purchased with two 2nd rd draft picks. One of those picks is to be paid this season. That means the 1st pick in the 2nd rd won’t belong to the Grizzlies because of Roberts. That may be enough of a reason to keep him around a year or two more.

Junior Harrington: Season- 5.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 41.6 FG%, 26.9 3pt%, 0.72 spg
Career- 5.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.1 apg, 37.1 FG%, 27.4 3pt%, 0.9 spg

Junior was the last player cut from the team before the season began. He wasn’t the first point guard brought in after the team realized they needed help. He also started 8 games at the point this season. That tells you how weak the PG position has been this year. Actually Junior brought something to the point position that the team hadn’t had since their game in Cleveland. That is the ability to deny the opposing PG’s easy access to the lane. His defense helped the Grizzlies lower their team defensive scoring dramatically.

Brian Cardinal: Season- 4.5 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 40.9 3pt%, 49.4 FG%, 0.8 spg
Career- 6.9 ppg, 3.1 rpg. 39.7 3pt%, 42.5 FG%, 0.9 spg

Brian came out of camp being called the most impressive player of the camp. That either meant that the camp was really bad or that BC failed to live up to his pre-season play because he wasn’t the most impressive on the court during the season. BC’s knees are shot and it is doubtful that the season ending surgery he underwent is going to change that. If he comes back next season at anything less than 100% then he may become a target of fan dissatisfaction.

Alexander Johnson: Season 4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 53.8 FG%, 0.42 apg
Career: 4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.6 bpg, 53.8 FG%, 0.42 apg

AJ was the shocking starting PF for 19 games in November and December. Then we became the forgotten man for the rest of the season. Most disturbing about this was his apparent lack of understanding on why that was the case. AJ averaged nearly 3 fouls every 13 minutes of court time. That means he couldn’t play half the game because of foul trouble alone. Once AJ learns how to play defense without fouling his future looks very bright in Memphis. He should know that is what he needs to work on this summer.

Eddie Jones: Grizz - 5.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 0.8 spg, 37.7 FG%, 29.7 3pt%
Season- 7.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 1.1 spg, 42.2 FG%, 35.1 3pt%
Career- 15.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 1.3 spg, 43.8 FG%, 37.5 3pt%

Eddie was apparently disappointed to be traded from a world class team like the Heat to Memphis last year. He was not going to play hard this season when it became apparent to him that this team wasn't even going to be competitive and he quit on the team. I can't blame him except he wore the C on his jersey. A team can't have the highest paid player and their captain quit so blatantly like Eddie Jones did.

Scott Padgett: Grizz - 0.3 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.14 spg, 14.3 FG%
Season- 1.5 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 0.16 spg, 28.6 FG%
Career- 4.2 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 0.70 spg, 41.0 FG%

The only question one has to ask about Scott Padgett is why does he have stats for the Grizzlies at all. Obviously a cost cutting move, one has to wonder why he got on the court 7 times for the Grizzlies.

Jake Tsakalidis: Grizz - 2.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.5 bpg, 40.0 FG%
Season- 2.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 0.3 bpg, 40.3 FG%
Career- 4.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 0.7 bpg, 49.0 FG%

Jake heard the Grizzlies were going to be running more this season than in the past, so he decided to lose about 30 pounds from his bulk for the new game. Unfortuantly he didn't get any quicker in the process. Nor could he jump higher, hold his position in the lane as well or set picks as strongly. His move was an obvious statement that the team doesn't see him in their future and the money they saved didn't hurt either.

Will Conroy- Grizz – 3 games, 0.0 ppg, 0.3 apg, 0.7 rpg
Season- 7 games, 0.0 ppg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 rpg
Career- 7 games, 0.0 ppg, 1.3 apg, 1.0 rpg

Will wasn’t here long enough to form an opinion. We hardly knew you and didn’t fall in love with what we saw.