We interrupt the Yao Ming apocalypse to bring you something pretty cool.
After the Rockets faced the Grizzlies in Memphis a few weeks ago, Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue emailed me and thought we should dish on our respective teams. 3 Shades of Blue is the TrueHoop Network site for the Memphis Grizzlies, and Chip writes quite a bit for the site, including game previews, which look really similar to mine.
We disagreed on a few positions and advantages, including the power forward spot, so he wanted to ask my opinions on some things and offered to answer some of my questions. What follows are his responses to some questions I emailed him.
Again, thanks to Chip Crain of 3 Shades of Blue. Seriously, go check it out. I've read some stuff there over the past few days, and I wouldn't lead you to a site that I didn't think was worth the time. Especially interesting are his unusual interview with Memphis GM Chris Wallace and a coming interview with Mike Conley. The Wallace piece is linked in the interview. Also, I answered some questions about the Rockets season so far, and those are up on his site, too, if you'd like to check it out.
1) Most people in Houston only like to root for winners. They hardly ever show up to Rockets games and make real noise. The Grizzlies haven't experienced much success overall. How do fans and bloggers like yourself maintain support?
The easy answer is they don’t. Memphis has only ranked outside the bottom five in league attendance once and that was the season when the FedEx Forum opened. The crowds are starting to come back slowly now as the team is showing some life but it’s been hard to keep people interested when the team won only 68 games over three seasons.
As a blogger it is easy to maintain the interest. I, like you, write pre-games so that’s a minimum of 90 blogs a year. I throw in commentary maybe once or twice a week and that usually suffices. The funny thing is I wasn’t interested in blogging at first. I was a message board devotee and was talked into considering it by Josh Coleman, who founded 3 Shades of Blue. A week or so later I met Chris Wallace, the Grizzlies GM, at a Memphis sports bar and wrote about our conversation. ESPN found out about the blog and the rest is history.
I have been an NBA fan since my college days at SMU. The Mavericks were an expansion team my first year there and I got free tickets while taking photos for the school paper. I got to sit on the floor next to Sports Illustrated and other major periodical photographers and I was hooked. I have lived in Dallas, Atlanta, Washington, Milwaukee and now Memphis and been a season ticket holder since I started working in each city.
2) What were Grizzlies fans hoping for at the beginning of the season? Have those goals changed at all?
Great question. The team is gunning for the playoffs and right now they aren’t too far out so I wouldn’t say the goals have changed but the difficult early season schedule (something Houston fans are very familiar with) has put a damper on some of the early season enthusiasm. Then came the big home wins against Miami and the Lakers so things are looking up again. Beating Portland Monday night for the first time in five seasons in Memphis has risen spirits as well.
Of course if the Grizzlies can’t beat Houston again this season the chances of making the playoffs are somewhat dimmed.
3) To me, the most interesting Grizzly is Zach Randolph. He's seemingly found a second wind in Memphis. Why is that, and why do feel he's better than Luis Scola?
First off, I don’t know if Randolph is better than Scola per say. They are two of my favorite players in the league. Real old school, blue collar, give everything they’ve got every night type of players. The main reason I have given Randolph the edge in matchups is that Z-Bo is a better offensive rebounder and he has Marc Gasol next door. Scola has to defend Zach on the defensive end which is a load every time down the court and then gets Gasol leaning on him on the offensive end more often than not while Z-Bo relaxes with Hayes. If they had a fair fight with both playing against each other solely I feel Scola’s superior defense would give him the edge.
Either way it’s a great match up to watch. Both are among the least appreciated great big men in the league. The simple answer to what’s changed with Zach is he’s matured. I happened to run into Zach at the airport when he came to town to be introduced to the media (no, I wasn’t stalking him I just happened to be coming back from Dallas). I asked him right then why he would be good for the team since his reputation was being a team killer and the Grizzlies were so young. He told me that his daughter’s birth had changed him and he wanted to be a leader and someone she could be proud of. He’s been active with local charities, he gives 100% every night and he's been a team leader both on the court and in the locker room so either that was it or he was embarrassed about being traded straight up for Quentin Richardson.
Whether it was his daughter’s birth or his lack of respect around the league, he’s been the best player on the team since arriving.
4) Lionel Hollins: good coach or just has talented players?
Talented veterans can succeed with bad coaches but inexperienced players need a solid hand to win no matter how talented they are. Hollins has appeared to be the steadying influence that took a lot of undisciplined talent and is molding it into a team of young players who are ready to win. I would say he’s a good coach in that respect. I don’t know if he’s better or worse than most coaches in a game. The team usually scores coming out of timeouts so he is doing something right. I just don’t know how much of a difference individual coaches make over the season.Hollins has done a good job of developing a bunch of young players (the Grizzlies have the youngest roster and the 2nd least experienced team in the league after all) so he is doing something right. The team has struggled against weaker teams and beaten stronger teams. Is that poor coaching or just the team’s youth showing?
All in all the A-Train has done a good but not great job in my opinion.
5) Has the Gasol trade "evened out" yet? Do you think it ever will?
That depends on what you mean by evened out. Remember at the time the Grizzlies were the worst team in the league. This wasn’t the playoff teams of 2004-06. In 2007 the Grizzlies were the worst team in the league and when Gasol was traded in 2008 they were the worst team as well. Who cares who wins the NBA title if you are stuck with the worst record in the league and a bloated salary cap that has the team paying luxury tax?
The trade immediately moved the Grizzlies out of luxury tax payments and within a year they had a lot of draft picks, financial mobility and a young core of players including Darrell Arthur and Marc Gasol who were direct results of the trade. The financial freedom allowed the team to make trades that brought money into the coffers that was desperately needed (remember Kyle Lowry for expiring contracts and a draft pick also put $3 million on the bottom line). The team is now profitable, playing well and competing with the league’s best. The extra cash enabled the team to acquire Zach Randolph who Memphis fans like more than Pau Gasol as well. I hated what the team had to do but it had to be done. If the Grizzlies had won the lottery once during the three seasons they were at the bottom of the league’s standings or not blown the 2009 draft (more on that later) then this team would be in even better position today.
All in all I would say the trade accomplished what both team’s wanted. It looked much worse at the time than it does now and it could have been much better with a little luck but don’t blame Memphis because LA won those titles. Someone other than Memphis was going to win it either way. At least this way Memphis could get back on their feet financially and build a promising core heading forward.
6) What's going on with OJ Mayo? Hasheem Thabeet?
Two very different situations. Let’s start with O J.
Last season the Grizzlies had the worst bench in the league without question. The bench averaged 20 ppg. The next worst bench (the LA Clippers) averaged 25 ppg. The starting five of Conley, Mayo, Gay, Randolph and Gasol was among the best five starters in the league and that’s why the team finished nearly at .500. However those starters had to log an incredible amount of minutes to make the team respectable. That needed to change.
With Xavier Henry starting the team has a better defender playing the perimeter and Henry can score as well. Mayo gives the team a premier player to lead the bench. Darrell Arthur, Greivis Vasquez and Tony Allen all play better with Mayo on the floor with them. Now Mayo isn’t a typical back up player either. He may not be starting but he is definitely finishing games. He’s a leader on this team and his sacrifice has made the team better overall. He’s struggled at times with his new role but he’s starting to get comfortable now and the bench is much better with O J being a part of it. It doesn’t hurt that the starters are getting more rest either.
The news isn’t as good on Hasheem Thabeet. The Grizzlies didn’t know if Marc Gasol would continue to improve after his rookie season so they reached on a prospect big man instead of a safer pick with Tyreke Evans or Stephon Curry. Now it looks even worse than it did on draft night and we at 3 Shades of Blue thought it looked pretty bad even before the draft. The night after the draft I dubbed Hasheem "Thabust" and I have not seen any reason to change my mind on that assessment.
Having said all that there seems to be no truth whatsoever that either Mayo or Thabeet are on the trading blocks. With Gasol a Restricted Free Agent and Hamed Haddadi not developing either and a RFA this summer as well, Memphis can’t afford to give up Thabeet right now. Besides, Michael Heisley has already stated he was giving Thabeet three seasons to prove himself. He’s not even half way through the second season. Mayo is too valuable to the team both coming off the bench now and as a starter when Henry hits the rookie wall which will eventually happen.
7) Who wins on Friday, and why?
You did not just ask me that! My heart wants the Grizzlies but my wallet would put all my money on Houston if I was a betting man which I am not. That’s the best you will get out of me on that topic!
8) Are there any below-the-surface stories about the Grizzlies that the average NBA fan should know about?
Well I don’t know how below the surface it is but part of the reason Mike Conley has made such strides this season is because he spent a lot of time this past summer with a sports psychologist. In talking with Mike recently he talked about how much stronger he feels emotionally after those sessions. One of the exercises Mike had to do was call his teammates and tell them that he was going to be more aggressive, in better shape and a stronger leader than ever before.
So far it has worked.
He also discussed some of the mental exercises he’s gone through when he hit a slump shooting recently. He broke out of that slump with a 28 point game against the Lakers. He discussed his new found role of a leader on the team when helping Mayo with his move to the bench and Thabeet with the trade rumors. The players people see on the court is only a small part of the transformation from a little kid into an NBA player that Conley has gone through.
9) Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Another loaded question? No seriously I think the Grizzlies and Rockets are wonderful rivals. The team’s strengths match up so well it is scary. The Grizzlies need Henry to step up on defense against Kevin Martin and now that he’s seen him play once perhaps he won’t bite so bad on the fakes. Houston needs another big effort from Chuck Hayes and Brad Miller to contain Marc Gasol but other than that the matchups are great. Kyle Lowry vs. Mike Conley, Shane Battier vs. Rudy Gay, Luis Scola vs. Zach Randolph. It’s one great matchup after another. Throw on top a division rival and a playoff spot in contention and it makes for exciting NBA basketball.