- Marc Stein, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
The start of training camp was just days away when Memphis Grizzlies president Jerry West was asked to describe how worrisome his summer had been, waiting for firsthand verbal confirmation that Hubie Brown felt healthy enough to spend one more season on the bench.
"Did I worry?" West replied.
"Or am I worried?"
Now we know why West kept it in the present tense, and why his subsequent smile was somewhat forced. With a 71-year-old coach, West was trying to tell us that he had to be even more pessimistic than usual on this subject. Not just because West, at 66, likes to worry himself, but because he knew Brown, on any given day, would walk in and tell West that his body could no longer handle the rigors of NBA X-and-Os.
That day was Thanksgiving Day, just over three weeks into the Grizzlies' 24-week regular season, and suddenly West's best move in Memphis has been undone.
Fact is, the reigning Coach of the Year had probably reached his limit with the Grizz, spiritually as well as physically, in what essentially amounts to two seasons. It's likewise likely that his unorthodox 10-man platoon system wasn't going to succeed for a second straight season. Yet there's no question that hiring Hubie -- a gambit probably only West would have tried -- helped make the Grizzlies a viable franchise for the first time.
Only now, all that inevitably leads you to wonder whether the reigning Executive of the Year can do it again.
Ever since his first Grizzlies draft, in which he took a disappointingly un-West-ian approach by drafting the safe choice (Drew Gooden) over Amare Stoudemire, Le Logo has been as bold as we remember him running the Lakers. He realized his Gooden mistake quickly and didn't even wait a season to try to fix it, sending the tweener forward to Orlando for swingman Mike Miller in another dice roll. West also took the risk of trading for Bonzi Wells and handed out one of the more eyebrow-raising contracts of the past offseason by signing Brian Cardinal to a six-year deal approaching $40 million.
In the middle of West's maneuvering came the stunning addition of Brown, who hadn't coached in a decade and a half.
How did it ever work? Well ...
With West's total support, and after the Grizzlies got Sidney Lowe fired by starting 0-8 in 2002-03, Brown didn't have to worry about relating to this new generation of players. They were going to have to relate to him, because West made it clear that he'd endorse anything Hubie wanted to try. So Hubie became a teacher again, playing his strongest role. When he taught better than ever, in an everything-went-right kind of season, Memphis wore teams down with its depth and zoomed from 28-54 futility to 50-32 excitement, in the West, no less.
Yet there's a reason why no one else in the NBA uses Brown's system of two five-man platoons, as opposed to a crisper eight- or nine-man rotation. The 10-man approach eventually makes too many players unhappy, with almost everyone playing fewer than 30 minutes per game. It's also dependent on teamwide selflessness, which was easier for Brown to muster last season, when the locker room was filled with hungry underdogs who had never achieved anything.
After Pau Gasol was extended a maximum contract in October, and with Gasol (bad ankle or not) still not quite playing like an $86 million man, the selflessness has been evaporating. Injuries have certainly been a factor in Memphis' 5-7 start -- James Posey's, most notably -- but a less-than-lovey team environment has negated the continuity edge that the Grizz had over many retooled Western Conference rivals to open the season.
"On paper it sounds good," Grizzlies forward Shane Battier said earlier this month, referring to that supposed continuity edge and a roster that, Cardinal apart, is teeming with returnees. "But the fact of the matter is, you've still got to bring it. We feel when we play our team game, we can compete with anyone. But we just haven't shown that yet. Our margin for error is very, very slim."
One reason for that slender margin: Gasol is a max player only because West's boss, owner Michael Heisley, is one of the league's biggest spenders. Another reason: Memphis still lacks a legitimate center as well as a franchise player, after unsuccessful attempts to score Erick Dampier in the offseason.
In short, it's a deep team with some big holes.
The name of Hubie disciple Mike Fratello has already surfaced as a leading contender to fill the bench void, and that makes sense. Fratello fits the Hubie mold -- demanding veteran from the TV table -- and, according to league sources, West is said not to be the biggest fan of interim coach Lionel Hollins.
The good news? As long as West stays to fill the holes, Memphis should stay legit. And he's due for another splash, coming off another un-West-ian draft situation: Troy Bell, the 16th overall pick in 2003, was waived coming out of training camp, after many draft experts wondered why Bell was selected in the first round in the first place.
Will West himself be around long enough to deliver another Hubie-sized home run, either with the coach he chooses or by trading for, say, Eddy Curry?
I'll let you be the one who bets against him.
"People said I was crazy," West told a September luncheon audience, recalling his Brown choice.
"And I am."
That time West was indeed joking, because with Hubie it was a good crazy. The impatient exec who eats every meal in 20 minutes or less really will miss the gabby coach who can ramble on for 30 minutes per topic. As strange a match as they seemed.
LINE ITEMS ...
Sacramento carries a six-game win streak into on Los Angeles on Friday to face the Lakers for the first time since Shaquille O'Neal and Phil Jackson left. "It's not the same rivalry anymore," said Chris Webber, not waiting to leap to conclusions. Yet Webber adds that he'll miss the Lakers in spite of the torment they caused the Kings, because "it was a real rivalry." ...
The Knicks' Kurt Thomas is off to his usual solid start (11.7 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and says he's ignoring the myriad trade rumors that feature his name. As usual. "My name's in the paper every summer," Thomas said. "My name's in the paper a lot. It just makes me feel like other teams want me." ...
One clear point of emphasis for Commissioner Stern in the wake of the Indiana-Detroit melee: "We have to find a way, when an incident has stopped and there is ample time for tempers to cool down and things to end, we have to find a way to end it right there. And that's a message that players who don't understand [it] are going to get in a firmer way henceforth, I can tell you." One suggestion is a time limit of some sort for players to get back to their benches after a scuffle, with suspensions and/or fines awaiting violators, so players don't linger and banter after the refs break things up. ...
Le Commish likewise acknowledges what we covered in a piece last Saturday. He indeed does follow how international soccer federations dole out justice and won't rule out the possibility that someday one of his teams will have to play a game in an empty arena as punishment for fan misconduct. "I would like not to think that would ever come to pass in the NBA," Stern said, "but we'll do whatever's necessary to make sure that we exemplify the best of sports and not the worst of sports." ...
Make that two other places for Byron Scott to imagine himself after the Hornets' next loss. Scott surely would have been a candidate to replace Hubie Brown in Memphis had he not agreed to replace Tim Floyd in New Orleans, just as Scott almost certainly would have been a candidate to replace Phil Jackson with the Lakers last summer had he waited. Yet what you'll hear from the Scott camp is that the Hornets' offer was too good to wait on maybes. Scott associaties insist that when agreed to work for George Shinn, it was unclear when either of the other two jobs would open up.
In reaching his limit, Hubie Brown took Jerry West's Memphis team to new heights.