- Ric Bucher, NBA Reporter, ESPN The Magazine Senior Writer
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Were the NBA's Memphis franchise to go south geographically as far as it has metaphysically in the last few weeks, the pregame intro for Friday's home game against the 76ers might go something like this: "Annnnnnnd now, in-tro-ducing, YOUR Yazoo City Grizzlies!"
For the Mapquest-challenged, that's in Mississippi.
Have you ever seen a team coming off 50 wins and a promising playoff appearance dissolve so quickly the following season?
Actually, I have. The 1993-94 Golden State Warriors went 50-32 before getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Phoenix Suns. Then the problems arrived -- contracts, the loss of a key veteran in Avery Johnson, fissures that the previous year's success camouflaged coming to light -- and the next season the Warriors crashed to 26-56, a .313 winning percentage.
The Grizz, as you know, won 50 games last season before getting swept out of the playoffs by the Spurs. They're now 5-11, a .317 winning percentage.
If all the talk coming out of Memphis is true, don't expect any major reversal.
Here's the short of it: everything that made the Grizzlies better than the sum of their parts last season is gone -- namely, a confluence of people willing to put aside their personal agendas to win. They didn't have 50-win talent, they had 50-win chemistry.
Hubie Brown, blessed by an 0-8 start under coach Sidney Lowe, inherited a pliant group of players desperate to do whatever he asked for a taste of success. They submitted to a 10-man rotation that allowed them to play at a pace and with an intensity that most teams couldn't match during the regular season. It also disguised their lack of a genuine go-to scorer and iffy interior presence.
It was fool's gold, of course, because that formula doesn't fly in the postseason. In the playoffs, there's no time to find out who's playing best on a given night and roll with them. Good teams can dissect an opponent's weaknesses and execute a game plan to exploit them. The playoff schedule, which rarely includes back-to-back games, also greatly reduces the endurance factor.
Whatever chance the Grizzlies had of duplicating their regular-season success started to evaporate over the summer. Several members of the hungry 2003-2004 team had their bellies filled. Shane Battier and Pau Gasol signed six-year extensions. Brian Cardinal came on board for a six-year, $40 million deal.
That left a whole bunch of other Grizzlies -- especially Bonzi Wells, Stromile Swift and Earl Watson -- wondering how they were going to get theirs. Or, more specifically, how they were going to showcase themselves to get theirs in a dad-burned platoon system. Cardinal being signed to replace a hardworking, incumbent vet, Bo Outlaw, only created more doubts.
Next came reports of a dispute between Hubie and president Jerry West over who should start -- Bonzi Wells (West's choice) or Mike Miller, because West wanted to showcase Wells in order to deal him. Then Hubie abruptly retired. Now sources say West plans to do the same at the end of this season, which GM Dick Versace apparently wouldn't mind.
No offense to Mike Fratello, who is expected to take over as head coach any minute now, but no Xs and Os can pull together a franchise splintering from top to bottom. He can shorten the rotation, but the talent isn't there to win conventionally. He can slow down the tempo and emphasize defense, but it's hard to make that work if you don't have great defenders and their hearts aren't in it.
The word around the Grizzlies is no longer "Yahoo!"
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for ESPN The Magazine and collaborated with Rockets center Yao Ming on "Yao: A Life In Two Worlds," published by Miramax and available in bookstores beginning Sept. 29. Click here to send him a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.
Is Jerry West next out the door? Hubie Brown's retirement only revealed other problems in Memphis.