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Time for a change

Brown's exit from bench should usher further changes in Memphis

Posted: Tuesday November 30, 2004 1:28PM; Updated: Tuesday November 30, 2004 1:28PM
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Earl Watson
Earl Watson's defense and offensive efficiency make him the right fit to take over the starting point-guard role in Memphis.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

It's been a crazy week in Memphis, but don't take my word for it. I'll let somebody else describe the situation for you:

"Now, you're Jerry West. You've just lost your head coach, who won the Coach of the Year award the season before and energized your team, OK. You've gone from winning 50 games in this league to 5-9 in the Western Conference, where you are surrounded by playoff-quality teams, eh-heh-heh, eh-heh-heh, eh-heh, OK.

Plus, your best player, Pau Gasol, is battling ankle problems, and your small forward James Posey, who gave you great energy, is out with a foot injury. OK, now, in spite of this, you also must recognize that you still have a roster that is deep and young and has tremendous upside, and with that, you still have the opportunity to win a lot of games in this league and get into the playoffs."

While Hubie Brown may not have said those exact words in his distinctive style, it would be an appropriate analysis of his former team. Within half a year of finishing a euphoric 50-win season, West and the Grizzlies have more blues than Beale Street. Brown's exit last week was the latest blow for the Grizzlies, but far from the only one.

Right from the get-go, Memphis lacked the energy that fueled last season's surge in the standings. In the home opener at the brand-new FedEx Forum, they were pummeled by a Washington team that had only one starter available and isn't exactly renowned for its depth.

Things haven't improved much since, leaving Memphis near the bottom of the Western Conference. But the key point for Mike Fratello or Eric Musselman or whoever coaches this team next is to identify what it's doing that's so different from a year ago, and how to improve upon it.

The first step is to figure out whether the problem is mainly on offense or on defense. Unfortunately, in this case it's both. Compared to a year ago, Memphis' decline has been almost evenly split between offense and defense. A year ago, they averaged 102.6 points per 100 possessions and gave up 100.2; this year those numbers are down to 101.5 on offense and up to 102.3 on defense. Given that the league as a whole averages about 0.6 more points per 100 possessions this year, it means Memphis has worsened by 1.7 points on offense and 1.5 on defense.

Let's consider the defense first. Everyone talks about how weak Memphis is on the inside, and it's true that its defensive rebounding is a huge problem. However, they lived with that same weakness a year ago and still thrived; in fact, Memphis' rebounding numbers are slightly better than last season's.

The real problem is that the Grizzlies are fouling like crazy. Fouls are up all over the league, but nowhere more than in Memphis, where the Grizzlies gave up 26.2 free throw attempts a game last year but allow 31.4 this season. The increase of 5.2 attempts a game is double the increase league-wide, meaning the Grizzlies are giving up an additional two points a game at the line. That explains the entire defensive decline.

The Grizzlies' offensive troubles are harder to pinpoint because it's a result of slight dips in several categories -- they're turning the ball over slightly more, they're not getting to the line as often and their field-goal percentage is ten points lower than last season.

So, if the defense is fouling too much and the offense is suffering a general malaise, how should the new general fix it? A couple of steps could go a long way. Here's my unsolicited advice:

Change point guards

As much as Jason Williams improved under the tutelage of Hubie Brown, one thing never changed -- he doesn't guard anybody. As a result, the Grizzlies are constantly under siege by opposing point guards penetrating into the paint -- a direct contributor to all the rampant fouling. Earl Watson not only is a much better defender than Jason Williams, but his offensive production this season makes it an easy case. On a per-minute basis, Watson averages more points, rebounds and assists than Williams and is shooting a higher percentage. While White Chocolate sells more merchandise, Watson clearly has been the better player thus far.

Choose flight, not Wright

One big reason the Grizzlies have struggled has been the terrible campaign from starting center Lorenzen Wright (6.6 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 37.9 FG%). If one swaps Wright's abysmal production with that of the high-flying Stromile Swift, suddenly the Grizzlies' offense doesn't look so bad. Swift scores twice as many points per minute as Wright, and while Swift is prone to defensive lapses, he also makes up for it with some serious shot blocking. As an added benefit, he's also a slightly better rebounder, which is the Grizzlies' soft spot. Moreover, since Memphis is going to struggle in the paint regardless of whom they start, they can at least use a front line of Swift and Pau Gasol to turn the tables on their opponents via huge advantages in skill and quickness. With Wright mothballed, underutilized Brian Cardinal also should figure more prominently in the frontcourt rotation.

Ditch the 10-man rotation

It worked great last year when the Grizzlies had 10 guys who could play. But with Posey out of the lineup and Wright doing an impressive impersonation of a corpse, they have to get more minutes from the starters this year. Otherwise, they're relying on guys like Dahntay Jones and Ryan Humphrey to play major minutes, with predictably harmful results. Shortening the rotation also would have the desirable effect of keeping their one star player, Gasol, on the floor much longer (right now he averages a mere 30 minutes per game). A rotation of Watson, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Gasol and Swift, with Cardinal and Bonzi Wells as the main subs and Williams seeing 10-15 minutes as the backup point guard, should cover things nicely until Posey returns.

While these steps can help stop the bleeding, they aren't a panacea. One way or another, the new sheriff is going to need to shake some things up if Memphis is to snap out of its malaise. But whatever the new coach decides, it's important for the Grizzlies to realize as a franchise that they can't recreate last season. Injuries like the one to Posey and suddenineffectiveness like that suffered by Wright are a part of any season, so it's unrealistic to expect to traipse through the year with a healthy 10-man rotation as they did a year ago. How the franchise adjusts to the new reality will go a long way toward determining its success the rest of the way.