Saturday, December 27, 2008

At Center Court with Chip Crain

I secretly heart the Memphis Grizzlies. Guilty pleasure. Divided loyalties. Innocent crush on a cousin. Eh, bad example. You know what I mean. They're a solid young club that could become a force. Their great weakness is their owner, and that is often difficult to overcome. I hope he sells the team and it moves to Las Vegas or London. But, as usual, I digress. 3 Shades of Blue's Chip Crain has met us At Center Court to answer a few questions about his beloved Grizzlies.

TV: I think it's Jeff Van Gundy who is fond of saying that it isn't Kwame Brown's fault that he was drafted #1 when he should have been drafted #15. I feel the same way about Darko Milicic. He's had good performances against the Spurs this season. Generally speaking, he's an above-average post defender with some ability to score. His main problems seem to be mental. What do you make of his game? Is he a long term fit in Memphis?
CC: Before I answer that question I would like to say Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Joyous Kwanza, a general Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year to all of your readers. As a family man I love this time of the year and I truly hope everyone can share this time with their families and friends.

Darko is a potentially dynamic big man. His problem has always been that his head gets in the way of his game. He is a fantastic defensive player...at times. He can score...at times. He can do just about anything that a quality big man can do and he is only 23 years old and won't be 24 until June. It just seems like he should be much older because he was drafted into the NBA at 17. What people forget is Darko's really didn't play his first 3 years in the league and last season he played through a host of injuries that would have sidelined many a player. In many ways the rap on Darko is more an issue of maturity than talent.

Darko is Serbian and people here really don't appreciate what that means to him and what he has seen. Do a little research however and you will realize that Darko's past is filled with horrors we wouldn't want our children to hear about much less experience. Darko turned to basketball as an escape from a lot of things. When he came to the USA he had never started in Europe, was very raw and frankly crumbled under the pressure of Detroit fans. He was rejected in Orlando when he was a vital piece of the team and that hurt him as well. I think Darko reacted poorly to his benching earlier this season as well. However he has regained his starting spot and is a fixture in the Grizzlies lineup now. His performances have been improving as a reflection of that. Memphis has not been destroyed inside this season and a large reason for that has been Darko's play.

What is his future? I honestly don't know. His contract is up at the end of the 2010 season and whether or not the Grizzlies step up to pay him a lot of money is in doubt. Marc Gasol is just a few months older than Darko, Darrell Arthur is only 20 and has looked good at times this season. Hakim Warrick is a dynamic scorer and the Grizzlies still have three #1 picks in next two drafts. Will the cost-conscious Grizzlies want to pay Darko or not? Besides Darko has already commented that he would like to return to Europe in the future since he believes his offensive skills aren't being showcased properly in the NBA. If he continues to improve and outplay Gasol and Arthur then yes I believe the Grizzlies will pay him to stay. If not, then who knows?
TV: In my opinion, the Grizzlies need to find someone who can score 20 in the post and a new coach. Agree? Disagree? And if so, who and how, on both fronts?
CC: So you think the Grizzlies need someone who can score 20 points in the post? Can you tell me what team doesn't need someone like that? Of course the Grizzlies need a major force in the paint but there aren't a lot of those players lying around on people's benches with team's willing to trade them. You have to acquire those types of players in free agency or the draft. So far Memphis, despite having one of the worst records in the league the last 16 years, has never won the lottery. The trade of Pau Gasol was needed if the team wanted to rebuild with youth. Pau didn't want to be part of a rebuilding and his attitude has never been good as a leader. The Grizzlies would never be able to sign a big name free agent with Gasol making max money. He didn't have a leader's mentality and, frankly, his less than physical playing style was turning off Memphis fans.

The Grizzlies did draft Kevin Love and a lot of people felt he would be perfect in Memphis but at this point can anyone seriously say they wouldn't want OJ Mayo more? And, in what seems like a first, Memphis has tons of cap space. Will Memphis be able to sign someone? I think so. Josh Smith signed with Memphis this past summer only to see his contract immediately matched by Atlanta. The idea that free agents won't come to Memphis is just wrong. There are some interesting big men who will be FA's this summer and I expect the Grizzlies will make plays for one of them if they don't strike gold in the lottery.

As for Coach Iavaroni the answer is more difficult. Marc was brought to Memphis to take over a slow and aging team and to make them into the Phoenix Suns' fast paced offense. Surprisingly with Damon Stoudamire, Mike Miller, Pau Gasol and Darko Milicic in the starting lineup that didn't work too well. There was not a lot of speed on the court to run with. Then the Grizzlies decided to remake the entire team and go young with rookies Mayo, Arthur and Gasol joining Conley (21), Lowry (22), Gay (23) and Milicic (23) as the core of the team, with only Hakim Warrick (26) as a player in his prime among the top 8 players on the team. This team is built to run much more effectively but now the owner wants to play defense like Detroit instead. What coach could look good with that much turmoil and change happening around him? Iavaroni is holding onto his job right now and my prognosis is he will last until the end of the season simply because of the economics of the situation in Memphis. However, I don't have a lot of faith that he will maintain the job next season. Not because he can't coach but simply because someone is going to have to take the fall for another lousy season here. A new coach, especially one with a reputation for excellence could promote ticket sales, which is needed. Keeping Iavaroni won't do that in my opinion. This is a business after all. The question will come down to how well the team is responding to him, how much would it cost to fire him vs how much would the team make by replacing him and whether the team is still committed to enacting their 3 year plan.
TV: Chris Wallace: following the Gasol trade he earned the reputation of being incompetent or, at best, a lap dog for Micheal Heisley? In hindsight, the Gasol trade doesn't look too bad and he landed Mayo. What do you make of him?
CC: Funny you should mention Chris Wallace next. I was about to talk about him in the Iavaroni question. People may have forgotten this or not realized it to begin with but Wallace was hired after Iavaroni. Marc wasn't his choice as coach so that could also have an effect on Iavaroni's job security because Wallace is on relatively solid footing right now. If Wallace is going to end up taking the fall for the poorly received Gasol trade then he is probably going to want to fall with his coach on the bench.

People may not always see what Chris is thinking when deals go down but he is also not reviled either. The Gasol trade is a prime example of that. Memphis gave up an near all-star level talent to one of the most loved or reviled teams in the NBA depending on how you feel about the Lakers. What did they get for him? Kwame Brown, some Spaniard and Javaris Crittenton. That's how the pessimists saw it. In reality Wallace created cap space, got the Spanish League MVP in 23 yr old big man Marc Gasol (yes, Pau's brother) and a potential swing guard. Unfortunately, Crittenton couldn't get PT behind O J Mayo, so Wallace salvaged his losses by trading him for a Washington draft pick that Memphis had previously owned--it was actually a very shrewd move. Basically the Grizzlies couldn't trade a #1 pick away to acquire a player for 6 more years since it was possible that they owed that pick to Washington. But now, after reclaiming the pick in the Crittenton trade, Memphis has the ability to utilize that pick as an asset. Wallace has made some really smart moves so far as GM that havn't yet translated into wins but should down the line.

Of course Wallace also traded away Memphis' 2 best players in Mike Miller and Pau Gasol and has little to show for it so far. The fact that Memphis won 23 games in back to back seasons with Miller and Gasol as their stars should tell people that they weren't that important. Still fans grow attached to players, especially Mike Miller who was hugely popular in Memphis, so there has been a hit on ticket sales from these moves. That damage is seeming to diminish, however, as the young and hungry Grizzlies start impressing people.

I feel that Wallace is a draft genius but only a so-so trader. Of course, I don't get involved with the conversations between Heisley and Wallace so I don't know exactly what the plan is. His trades have caused alarm, but I think Wallace sees where he wants the team to go and is willing to drag the fans behind him. Whether that turns out to be smart or not won't be known for several seasons. Right now most people are convinced the trades Wallace made were in the best interest of the franchise.
TV: Why hasn't Mike Conley worked out?
CC: Mike Conley is starting to develop, but he was a risky pick at #4. So far he has to be described as a disappointment. Still, he has enormous potential. He came out of college after his freshman season and very few point guards develop who come directly out of college or after only one season in college. It is just a position that requires more development than others. Conley's recent demotion shouldn't be viewed as a statement of dissatisfaction with his play however. Mike is just a better scorer than Lowry and not as good a defender. The starting unit needed more defense and the bench needed more offensive punch. In this way, a Lowry/Conley switch made sense. Moving Mike to the 2nd team enabled the team a more balanced attacked throughout the game. Conley is still on the court at the end of most games so I still feel the ability to be a top level PG is there. It is important to remember that pass-first PG's need shooters around them to excel. Right now Memphis doesn't have enough true scorers. Once the team gets more developed then his true value should be more apparent. Conley is much improved on his shooting from his rookie season. By making his outside shot consistently, he forces defenders to guard him on the perimeter, which in turn opens up the court so his quick feet can scamper into the paint. Before people asked, why doesn't he get into the lane more often, but now people see him doing this and wonder if he'll learn to kick the ball out once he gets there. Once that starts happening then the question will be can he defend top line PG's at his size. Conley still has more questions than answers, but he is showing signs of progression.

What people have to realize is that Conley just turned 21. He's younger than O J Mayo and Marc Gasol, who are rookies. As with Darko and Rudy, fans need to be patient with Conley to allow him to develop into the player he will become. Patience is hard on fans so it is understandable how they want to label a 21 yr old PG who has played fewer than 82 games in his NBA career as a bust but if they hang with him and allow him the time to develop they will probably be pleased with the result. So it isn't that Conley hasn't worked out. It is more that Conley hasn't worked out yet.
TV: Steve Francis?
CC: Steve Francis: now that is a tough one. Wallace basically decided a 2nd rd pick now is worth more than a 2nd rd pick 3 years from now. Francis might be a great motivator for both of the Grizzlies young PG's (Lowry is only 22, by the way). He has skills that both PG's could learn from. Maybe he can still play but personally I think Francis probably came with enough cash to buy him out of his contract and the deal was to acquire a 2009 2nd rd pick for a 2011 2nd rd pick. Francis was the motivation for Houston to do the deal. By shedding his contract Houston fell beneath the Luxury Tax threshold, which means the Rockets can sign Mutombo for their playoff run. If Memphis is significantly better in 3 years (and the draft this year is better than I believe it is) then this is a smart deal for the Grizzlies. In short, a 2nd rd pick this year fits into the 3 year plan. The 2011 pick didn't.


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