GM Wallace slowly has built Memphis into team that needs to be taken seriously. And maybe something more.
By SAM AMICOFS Ohio
If you know the NBA, you know the buzz centers around the massive markets, their successes and their sometimes major dramas. New York, Boston, L.A. and Miami are always all the rage, their every shift chronicled faster than you can say “overkill.”
But there’s a little team in a smaller town that’s making big plans, a team that’s located in the Western Conference that packs the gym and is giving its fans reasons to believe.
It boasts postseason experience, approaches games with the enthusiasm of a college squad, shares the ball and excites the crowd. And this particular team, believe it or not, isn’t the one in Oklahoma City.
“Memphis is the best basketball town in the South,” Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said in a telephone interview with FOX Sports Ohio. “That’s a big thing that’s helped us -- we’ve developed a home-court edge.”
The Grizzlies haven’t been too shabby anywhere, actually. They’re 8-1 entering Monday’s game against visiting Denver, riding an eight-game winning streak that includes a rather definitive win against (you guessed it) the Thunder in OKC.
None of this, of course, should create any sort of mass basketball confusion.
If you know the NBA, you know the Grizzlies are primarily the same unit that rocked then-No. 1 playoff seed San Antonio two seasons ago. Last year, they lost in seven games to the L.A. Clippers in the best first-round series that perhaps no one outside of either city saw.
“In the past two seasons, we’ve played 20 playoff games, and we’re .500,” Wallace proudly pointed out.
Today, Memphis is the same as it ever was.
Forwards Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph, and center Marc Gasol, still form the starting frontcourt. Mike Conley Jr. and Tony Allen still man the guard spots. And Lionel Hollins, who took over in 2009, is still the coach.
That consistency provides the Grizzlies with a certain awareness, an understanding of their teammates and their coach. It can carry a team a long way, especially when that team has this type of talent and balance.
“Familiarity is not enough to win games,” Wallace said. “But coupled with big-game experience, it can help you. You try to be good in every area, but not many teams have every box checked off. We feel we’re getting close.”
Gay is a 6-foot-8 slasher of a small forward, and perhaps the closest thing this cohesive and unselfish bunch has to a star. He’s now in his seventh year and leads the team in scoring at 19.8 points per game.
"He can get to a sweet spot on floor and elevate, and he has a high-release point on his shot,” Wallace said. “When things aren’t going well, we can get him the ball and just sort of let him go.”
Gay is also the resident commander in confidence, having compared this year’s Grizzlies to last year’s Thunder -- the team and market Memphis most resembles.
“Last year, who would’ve thought Oklahoma City would be in the Finals?” Gay recently asked reporters. “Why not us?"
Things haven’t always been so cheery around these parts, especially for Wallace. If you remember, he was once lambasted for trading then-franchise face Pau Gasol to the Lakers in a deal that landed Gasol’s brother, Marc, a couple of draft picks and several other pieces (including the expiring contract of center Kwame Brown).
And Wallace wasn’t just hearing it from the fans. Even his boss piled on.
“I don’t know if I got the most value,” Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley said at the time. “Maybe Chris did call every team in the league. I don’t think he did, but maybe he should’ve.”
OK, maybe. But things were not well in Memphis with Pau Gasol. Sure, the Grizzlies made the playoffs three straight seasons (2003-06) -- but they hadn’t won a single stinking postseason game.
Wallace, realizing perhaps his team had hit its ceiling, felt something must be done.
“A couple of trends were occurring,” Wallace said. “When an expansion team gets off the ground (the Grizzlies moved from Vancouver to Memphis in 2001), everyone’s behind you because you’re new. But after a few years, that wears off. That happened, and after 12 straight playoff losses …”
Well, after 12 straight playoff losses, the Grizzlies were in need of an extreme makeover.
Wallace handled the remodeling -- and don’t think the result was a constant feeling of job security. In fact, it was probably the opposite, as the Grizzlies struggled mightily while Pau Gasol and the Lakers went on to win a couple of titles.
“We were winning 20-something games in the reload phase,” Wallace said. “But once we started to get some compelling players, we started to win, and people got behind us.”
Along with the starters, to whom Wallace offered detailed individual praise, Hollins is comfortable digging deep into a Grizzlies bench that features the likes of big men Mareese Speights and Darrell Arthur (when healthy), small forward Quincy Pondexter, and guards Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington.
Bayless and Ellington are both newcomers, with Bayless arriving via free agency and Ellington via a trade with Minnesota (for forward Dante Cunningham).
Those two in particular have helped ease the loss of former Grizzlies sixth man O.J. Mayo, who signed with Dallas in the off-season.
And let’s not forget Hollins, a mostly laid-back mentor and valuable teacher of the Xs and Os. Perhaps best of all, it’s clear that Hollins has the attention, and respect, of the men in uniform.
The early-season returns have been eye-opening -- with the Grizzlies dealing New York its first loss, burying Miami by 18 points, and controlling the Thunder on the road.
“One thing we’ve been able to do is, once we build up a lead, we’ve been able to avoid surrendering it,” Wallace said. “We have some terrific people who are very bright, put in the extra time and are very good teammates. … We’ve got a good thing going.”
Mayo is having a career season in Dallas, earning the starting shooting guard spot and averaging a team-high 21.3 points, nearly 10 more points per game than last season with the Grizzlies. He also leads the NBA with 36 3-pointers in the Mavericks first 11 games.
Mavs coach Rick Carlisle on Mayo: "We needed a starting shooting guard, and he wanted to be in Dallas. He’s done a great job so far, works extremely hard, and he’s a student of the game. I don’t know what happened in Memphis. They were different in terms of personnel. We had a really strong need for a guy who could start at that position. The timing was right.”
Word around the NBA is Utah guard Alec Burks is available. The Jazz aren’t desperately shopping him, according to one source, but have put out some feelers. Burks was the 12th overall pick in 2011. He has played in just five of the Jazz’s first 11 games and is averaging 1.4 points.
Atlanta is a team that's quietly surprised after trading shooting guard Joe Johnson (to Brooklyn). But the Hawks still have Al Horford and Josh Smith, and just wrapped up a four-game West Coast trip with two wins and a 4-4 overall record.
New Hawks GM Danny Ferry told FOX Sports Ohio: "We are still in the process of establishing our identity and habits as a group. (But) we've had a few quality wins early on here. We can and will get better."