Memphisopens their 10th season in Memphis with a tough local rival in Atlanta and they do so short-handed. Despite the excitement of an undefeated pre-season campaign, fans have reason for concern. Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies big man from Spain, suffered a class 2 high ankle sprain in practice Sunday and is expected to miss the game. It is not known how long Gasol will be out but most sprains of this nature take 2-4 weeks to recover from. Memphis defeated Atlanta in the pre-season but had to come back from a huge deficit in the 2nd half to do so. The Grizzlies can’t afford to fall far behind against the talented Hawks if they want to break their 10 game losing streak on opening night.
Atlanta comes to town with the same starting five that led the Hawks to the 3rd best record in the Eastern Conference last season but without the same coach. Larry Drew replaces Mike Woodson as the coach of the Hawks. Drew had a long NBA career but has never been a Head Coach in the NBA and it is not known how the team will handle the change. Drew’s pre-season record was less than impressive. Mike Bibby held off challenger Jeff Teague toreturn as the starting PG but it is only a matter of timebefore youth is served. The rest of the starters are not being seriously challenged. Atlanta’s continuity is being counted on to counter the effects of the new coach.
Point Guards:Mike ConleyvsMike Bibby
Mike Bibby faces challenges on all sides in this game. First he has to compete against a more aggressive Mike Conley who should have little trouble using his speed to get past Bibby and into the lane. Second he faces his own bench as new Coach Larry Drew has made it clear he expects Jeff Teague to take the starting job this season. Finally Bibby faces his dad on the Grizzlies bench. Henry Bibby, a Grizzlies assistant coach, has had a strained relationship with his son and the rumors are they haven’t talked in years. Bibby still is an excellent shot maker and has the experience to overcome his lack of speed. This is the first major challenge for Mike Conley this season and he needs to be more aggressive if the Grizzlies wish to break the Opening Game jinx.
Shooting Guards:O J MayovsJoe Johnson
Joe Johnson is one of the second tier of shooting guards in the league. He’s not Dwade or Kobe but he’s damn good just the same. Johnson does a little bit of everything. He can shoot the long ball, attack the rim, make the right pass and even rebound. O J Mayo should aspire to be the same type of player but has been struggling to take on the playmaking role. That is peculiar for a player who obviously wants to be a point guard instead of a shooting guard. Mayo’s problem is that he has a scorer’s mentality and poor ball-handling skills. Both of these issues limit hispotential as a PG in Memphis’ system and his lack of height hampers his ability as a two guard. Has Mayo become a dreaded tweener guard with no real position on the team?
Small Forwards:Rudy GayvsMarvin Williams
Marvin Williams is another player without a true position. The Hawks thought they had found the ideal partner for Josh Smith when they drafted Williams ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams but he hasn’t lived up to expectations. Williams isn’t a bad defender, rebounder or scorer. He’s just not great at any of these things either. Rudy Gay spent the summer on the USA National team and learned that he actually could contribute without having to score. How much of those lessons he takes to the Grizzlies remains to be seen. Gay will need to hit the boards hard with Gasol out and can’t rely on Gasol to back him up on defense so it is important that he steps up and plays a complete game against Williams and not simply rely on his scoring.
Power Forwards:Zach RandolphvsJosh Smith
An interesting dichotomy of power forwards. Z-Bo is the traditional power forward who uses his bulk and high basketball IQ to get rebounds in bunches, especially on the offensive end. Josh Smith is the new bread of PF with a fluid game that relies far more on athleticism than IQ. Smith can jump as high as anyone in the league and he uses that ability on both ends of the court from dunks to blocks. His speed makes him dangerous in the passing lanes and he is even developing a nice outside jump shot. Smith also is surprisingly effective passing the ball averaging over four assists last season. Smith however has one fault. He too often relies on his physical ability and coasts through possessions. He won’t be able to let up, especially under the basket against Z-Bo who is blue collar in his approach and never takes a play off, especially when an offensive rebound is available.
Centers:Hasheem Thabeetvs Al Horford
Horford is a terrific player but better suited to play PF than C because of his size and that size issue will be even more dramatic against 7-3 Thabeet, one of the tallest players in the league. Horford is hard working and capable. An excellent rebounder anddefender despite his size limitations, Horford is considered one of the top young centers in the league and future all-star. Thabeet is considered anotherbig man bust with the 2nd pick in the draft following in the footsteps of Darko Milicic, Stromile Swift andothers. Thabeet struggled to avoid foul trouble during pre-season and the only times he seemedcapable of doing that he was relatively inactive in other aspects as well. If Thabeet can use his size without picking up a bunch of fouls he could surprise but that has to be seen before even hoping for such an outcome.
Memphis had one of the worst benches, if not the worst, bench in the league last year. The team made some smaller type of moves (signing Tony Allen, Acie Law and drafting Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez) but the majority of the development is being counted on by maturation of Darrell Arthur and Sam Young since Thabeet is now starting after Gasol’s injury. If Arthur and Young can continue their strong scoring from pre-season then the Grizzlies bench is much improved but again that has to be seen to be believed. Atlanta’s bench is counting on Jeff Teague, Josh Powell and Zaza Pachulia to pick up some slack and for Jamal Crawford to continue his scoring. Crawford is upset with the Hawks for not extending his contract but pouting isn’t likely to get him anywhere, especially since the Hawks picked up sharp-shooting Jordan Crawford in the draft.