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Two seasons ago the Grizzlies were the young team on the rise, touted as potential contenders for years to come in the Western Conference. That prediction was partly borne out when they earned the first two playoff berths in franchise history. But Memphis struggled last spring to grab the eighth spot in the West, and the club was swept in the opening round each year. In the off-season general manager Jerry West decided his Grizzlies had to become more grizzled. Fast.
Jettisoned were swingman Bonzi Wells, guard Jason Williams, and forwards James Posey and Stromile Swift--all of whom had between five and seven years' experience. Their replacements were guards Bobby Jackson, Damon Stoudamire and Eddie Jones, who are entering their ninth, 11th and 12th seasons. The old blood is being counted on for more than just perimeter shooting whenever Pau Gasol kicks the ball out. Those players are expected to instill professionalism in a locker room that had players bickering over their roles last year. "We're not going to give the coaches problems," Jackson says. "We're going to play and lead by example."
Jackson and Stoudamire, for instance, have handled their battle for the starting job at point guard diplomatically. "All that matters is leaving it all on the court and making things happen," Jackson says.
Stoudamire understands the sense of urgency in Memphis. "In the NBA the window of opportunity is short," he says. "Hopefully we can be the ones to get this team to that next level." But the challenge for the Grizzlies may go beyond maturity. In a deep conference the next level is difficult to reach for old and young alike.
The Grizzlies' backup unit is more impressive than their starters. Shane Battier is the ideal bench player: He can guard anybody on the wing, he rebounds, he does it all offensively and he always seems to come up with the loose ball. Rookie Hakim Warrick is athletic enough to be part of an aggressive pressing unit that can come in and change the pace of the game.... With Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson taking over at point guard, the Grizzlies should be a little more controlled. Stoudamire takes a few bad shots, but he's talented enough to make them, so you learn to live with them.... At 34 Eddie Jones can still shoot, and he focuses much of his energy at the defensive end.... Pau Gasol should be given a little more credit for Memphis's winning record in the last two years. He can improve his rebounding, and he sometimes gets caught standing upright on defense, but most of the time he's the guy drawing the attention that gives his teammates open shots or clear runs at the basket.... The fact is, the Grizzlies are too small at center alongside Gasol, and they don't have a superstar. But there are no easy answers. They've got to keep getting better players, hope they get lucky with a draft pick and count on Mike Fratello to keep them well-prepared.