Sacrifice and Dedication.
Those are the words tattooed on O J Mayo’s biceps. It is also something the ‘Young and Hungry’ Grizzlies should make their team motto over the summer. It’s going to take a lot of sacrifice and dedication to dramatically improve this team next season. It became apparent during the season that many Grizz players were woefully ill-prepared for the rigors of the NBA over 82 games.
The yearopened at home on Halloween and ended at home on Tax Day. That alone should haveforetold how scarythingswere going to befor the 2008-09 Memphis Grizzlies. Still, Memphis won both games and for the first time in Memphis history began and ended their home schedule with wins.
The bright spots included O J Mayo’s development as a legitimate NBA star, MarcGasol as a legitimate NBA center andMike Conley’s development into an exciting Point Gaurd. Unfortunately thedark spots were morenumerous.
Memphis entered the year with a team most of the so-called experts predicted would be the worst in the league. They weren’t far off either.For most of the season the Grizzlies huddledaround the bottom three records in the league without any sign of turning things around.
The Grizzlies front office spent the summer finishing the dismantling of the Jerry West playoff Grizzlies when they traded Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal, Jason Collins and their top pick (Kevin Love) for O J Mayo, Marco Jaric, GregBuckner and Antoine Walker.Memphis also traded their 2nd first round draft pick, Donte Greene, and a future 2nd rddraft pickin a three team deal that eventually landed Darrell Arthur on the team.
After Juan Carlos Navarro left for SpaintheGrizzlies were left with6players from the previous season’s 22 win team (Javaris Crittenton, Hakim Warrick, Mike Conley, Kyle Lowry, Darko Milicic and Rudy Gay). It seemed for most of the free agent signing period that Memphis was content to stick with the youth movement and pocket the cap space dollars they acquired when they traded Pau Gasol to Los Angeles. Then late in the summer the team made a move for restricted free agent Josh Smith, signing him to a lucrative contract. It wasn’t lucrative enough however as Atlanta immediately matched the offer and squelched the Grizzlies attempt atexpediting the turn around effort.
So Memphis was left to pick through the pile of unsigned FA’s. The Grizzlies didn’t do too bad picking up Quinton Ross who did a decent enough job for the money but was not the type of impact signing that Josh Smith would have been. Looking to find lightning in a bottle Memphis also signed Darius Miles who providedflashes ofexcitement but ended the season buried on the bench.
The season opened with the team playing inspired basketball. The 3-3 start was among the best in franchise history includinga win in their home opener since the team moved from Vancouver. The last second shot by Rudy Gay to pull out the win turned out to be the best play of the year for the Grizzlies (or at least the highlight as voted by the fans voting). That is rarely a good sign by the way. Sure enough Memphis started to slide as teams adjusted and Memphis didn’t have the talent or experience to respond to the changes.
That is to be somewhat expected however when a team is starting 3 rookies, a 2nd year player and a 3rd year player. Rookies Mayo, Gasol and Arthur started a combined 221 games this including all 82 games for O J Mayo. That gives the youth some experience entering their second season that most players from this year’s rookie class didn’t get. Thefirst halfof the season was a series of bad losses and apparent lack of direction and growth on the team.
Things changed for the better on January 23rd. That was the day Heisley shocked many people by firing Marc Iavaroni. It wasn’t surprising that Iavaroni was in jeopardy but rather that Heisley was willing to eat the remaining 18 months of Iavaroni’s contract. Iavaroni was replaced as Head Coach by former Grizzlies assistant Lionel Hollins. Hollins was not a popular choice at first but his back to basics practice sessions and free style game coaching slowly but surely began to take hold of not only the team but the fans. Hollins literally was the opposite of Iavaroni who ran loose practices and over-coached during games.
The season ended with Grizzlies playing their best ball of the season. Mike Conley responded positively to Hollins’ coaching style just like Mike Bibby did while the Grizzlies were in Vancouver. Hollins also stressed ball movement rather than one on one basketball which helped open things up for Rudy Gay who returned to the form that made him a crowd favorite the year before.
The Grizzlies did improve a little this season over previous years records but more importantly the team seems headed in the right direction now. The five starters from this season should all return (barring another big off-season trade) and not one of them will be over 24 yrs of age at the start of the season. The strong finish to the year needs tofollowover into next year especiallywhen playing in front of the home crowd. The team isnot ready to compete in the Western Conferencein any meaningful way (meaning playoffs) but theyareimproving and with a successful draft and summer free agency period the Grizzlies mayjust surprise a few teamsalong thewaynext year.