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Rise and resilience (and fall?) of Grizzlies’ Grit & Grind

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Grit & Grind was borne out of Tony Allen loathing his defensive assignment.

Allen was mostly coming off the bench in his first season with the Grizzlies, as they prepared for a Feb. 2011 game against the first-place Thunder. So, he studied to guard Oklahoma City super-sub James Harden.

But, with O.J. Mayo already suspended, Rudy Gay was a late scratch due to injury. Memphis inserted Allen into the starting lineup – and told him to cover Kevin Durant. With no time to prepare, Allen seethed.

“It felt like my livelihood, my manhood, everything, was on the line,” Allen said. “I didn’t want to get embarrassed.”

Allen carried his anger into the game and played his heart out. In a four-point overtime win, the Grizzlies outscored Oklahoma City by a whopping 24 points with Allen on the court. He scored 27 points on 9-of-12 shooting with five steals and three blocks. Though Durant finished with 31 points, he’s a generational scorer, and Allen slowed him just enough late.

After the game, Allen was still riding a wave of emotion when, in an on-court interview, he uttered the two words that would define an era.

“It’s just all heart,” Allen said. “Grit. Grind.”

Six years later, a core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are still leading Memphis, which has adopted Grit & Grind as its perfectly fitting slogan.

The quartet’s seven seasons together is NBA’s longest active run for a foursome – one year longer than Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Patty Mills (yes, five) have all been with the Spurs. In that time, the Grizzlies have established themselves as a team that plays tough and defends.

“It might not be the prettiest of basketball,”Gasol beams. “It might not be the most spectacular.”

But it has been darn effective.

The Memphis quartet reached playoffs all seven seasons together, upsetting the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the 2011 first round and peaking with a trip to the conference finals in 2013. At 34-23, the Grizzlies appear headed back to the postseason again.

There little idea this core would achieve so much when it was formed.

Conley arrived in Memphis first, drafted No. 4 in 2007 and overcoming premature bust labeling. Gasol followed in 2008, when he signed after the Grizzlies acquired his much-overlooked rights in an earlier trade of his brother, Pau Gasol. Then, in 2009, Memphis traded for Randolph, who came cheaply because he had developed a reputation as a troublemaker with the Trail Blazers and Knicks. Allen was the final enduring piece to the puzzle, signed after helping the Celtics win the 2008 title and return to the 2010 Finals as a reserve.

Through the years, they’ve developed a bond evident in their linked competitiveness and on-court chemistry.

“These are the people that I want to go to war with,” Gasol said.

The players have established such a strong culture, it has survived through three coaches.

It blossomed under Lionel Hollins, whose hard-nosed style was integral to the Grizzlies establishing their identity (especially given his insertion of Allen into the starting lineup for that Feb. 2011 game). Dave Joerger followed, and Memphis endured. Now, David Fizdale is in his first season.

“They already had some success before I got there,” Fizdale said. “I just felt like what I needed to do was fill in the gaps to get us a little bit closer to the promised land.”

Fizdale has rejuvenated Conley-Allen-Randolph-Gasol as a unit after it slipped last year. When they shared the floor, those four played better than a 53-win team in each of their first five years together. That dropped to playing like a 38-win team last year. This year, they’re up to a 70-win pace when sharing the court, important considering how little Memphis has gotten from its splashy offseason signing, Chandler Parsons:

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Fizdale has given Conley a larger offensive role, and the point guard is absolutely thriving in it. Career highs in usage percentage (26.0) and true shooting percentage (58.7) have led to him scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game and adding 6.3 assists per game.

Per Fizdale’s suggestion, Gasol has expanded his range beyond the arc. After making 12 3-pointers in his previous eight seasons, he has already hit 77 this season. And he’s doing it efficiently, converting 39.1% of his 3-point attempts.

Fizdale is bringing Randolph off the bench. Not only does that set a tone of sacrifice, Randolph is excelling in his new role, averaging 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds per game. The only other primary reserve to meet those marks in the last 25 years was Lamar Odom in 2011.

The coach has unleashed the active Allen on the offensive glass. A poor outside shooter, Allen is hunting offensive rebounds like never before. His 9.4 offensive-rebounding percentage is the best by a rebounding-leaderboard-qualified guard this century. Every other guard ever to hit the mark has been at least eight years younger.

And that’s why time is ticking on this group. Allen (35), Randolph (35), Gasol (32), Conley (29) won’t maintain this production forever – though they’ve already collectively hung on longer than expected.

Contract situations could also break up this group before Father Time. But, again, the Grizzlies have so far staved off that threat more easily than expected.

Despite big-market rumors and a pending salary-cap explosion incentivizing a shorter contract, Gasol re-signed on a five-year deal in 2015. That commitment presented major risk considering Conley would become an unrestricted free agent the following year. If Conley walked, Gasol could be stuck on a listless team.

But Conley’s teammates recruited it him in their own ways. Allen threatened to flagrantly foul the point guard if he signed elsewhere. “He was serious,” Conley said. “He might have showed up at my house.” Gasol went with honey to Allen’s vinegar.

It didn’t hurt that Memphis offered Conley a five-year contract worth more than $152 million – the biggest deal in NBA history. He of course re-signed, taking advantage of the new salary-cap landscape.

But Gasol returning on faith, in part to keep playing with Conley, the year before also factored.

“I guess there was a little bit there,” Conley said. “You didn’t want to let him down. You didn’t want to let the guys you played with over the last seven, eight years, to let those guys down by leaving, abandoning them. So, in a sense, I felt a sense of responsibility, a sense of loyalty, to my guys. I didn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Conley and Gasol are stars who nearly any team would covet. They determined their own futures. The other half of the Grit & Grind quartet is at the whims of the Grizzlies.

Allen has already popped up in trade rumors, and he and Randolph will be unrestricted free agents this summer.

Randolph walks the middle ground about his plans.

“I want to, of course, be here,” Randolph said. “It’s where I want to finish my career.

“You never know. It’s a business. You never know.”

Allen is more direct about his intentions.

“I don’t want to go nowhere,” Allen said. “I want to be in Memphis.

“I don’t need a lot. But I need to be tooken care of. But my heart is in Memphis.”

Heck, Allen will even answer on Randolph’s behalf.

“I’m pretty sure his heart is in Memphis, too,” Allen said. “I don’t think we’re going to go nowhere. But, obviously, Zach is a higher commodity than me. He’s a 20-and-10 kind of guy. He can start anywhere. That’s basically his deal, and he understands it’s a business. Me, on the other hand, I’ve got my feelings into it. I want to be in Memphis.”

Is it time for a new chapter, or will the Grizzlies keep this core together? Owing Parsons more than $72 million over the next three years complicates the picture. So does the changing landscape of the NBA game, which increasingly values speed and spacing.

But Gasol lays out, in simplest terms, why the Grizzlies must re-sign both Allen and Randolph.

“One is the president of Memphis,” Gasol said. “The other is mayor.”

Gasol, Conley, Randolph and Allen have set a winning tone. They each play off each other in their own way, and disrupting the ecosystem could destroy it.

Fizdale hasn’t been in Memphis long, but he has quickly understood who drives the team’s identity.

“It’s all four of them,” Fizdale said. “They all have an incredible toughness, an ability to rise to the occasion. They’re all connected.”

Those connections have survived countless ups and downs, big and small moments. Gasol looks back fondly on their dinners together. It’s not even the happiest times that stand alone. He recalls meals after playoff losses, when a group of four friends – bonded by pursuing a common goal over a long period off time – connect more deeply.

“Everybody is more vulnerable or more open,” Gasol said. “Everything is more real after a loss, and everybody is just more open. More fragile, maybe. I think, after a loss, you sit, and you talk, and you share some wine or whatever it is that you drink, or a Shirley Temple you may like to drink, whatever it is. And you just talk in there, and you open your heart and talk. We always find that we always stay on the same side.”

USA Basketball to host World Cup qualifier vs. Uruguay on Sept. 14 in Las Vegas

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado (AP) — USA Basketball’s quest to qualify for next year’s FIBA World Cup will resume Sept. 14 in Las Vegas, where the Americans will face Uruguay.

That will be the first U.S. game in the second qualifying round for next year’s world championships in China.

Like the first round, the U.S. will continue being coached by Jeff Van Gundy and will have a roster made up primarily of G League players. The Americans went 5-1 in the first round.

The U.S. and Uruguay are among 12 teams from the Americas zone vying for seven World Cup spots. The others are Argentina, Panama, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Canada, the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States is a heavy favorite to qualify, then will send NBA players to China for the World Championships (there is a workout for some of those players coming up in Las Vegas in a week).

Second-round qualifying ends in late February. The World Cup begins in August 2019.

Mavericks sign second-round pick Jalen Brunson to first-rounder style contract

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Dallas is excited about the potential of Jalen Brunson.

The point guard who led Villanova to a national championship last April fell to the 33rd pick in the draft last June, high in the second round, and Dallas traded up a spot to get him from Atlanta. The Mavericks were ecstatic, and to the surprise of nobody they have reached terms on a contract with him.

What is a bit of a surprise is the Mavericks gave him a first-rounder style contract — four years with some guaranteed money for the first three of them — reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

At Summer League in Las Vegas Brunson showed the qualities that Dallas liked in him — he’s a high IQ player with polish, and he’s a pass-first floor general — but his weaknesses were also exposed. He has to shoot better (23 percent in Summer League) and his defense needs to improve.

Both of those can happen, Summer League is more of a chance for teams to benchmark players than make decisions about them. Brunson reportedly has a great work ethic, he can figure the NBA game out.

Dallas is betting that he will.

Kemba Walker: “As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it”

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Kemba Walker is an All-Star level point guard who is heading into a contract season — he is a free agent in 2019. Walker is also a New York native, born in the Bronx he attended Rice High School in Harlem.

Combine all that with the fact both the Knicks and Nets will have enough cap space for a max (or more than one max) contract next summer, and you’ve got yourself a rumor.

One Walker shot down talking to Michael Scotto of The Athletic.

“As far as seeing me in New York, I doubt it,” Walker replied. “I’m a Hornet, and I’m planning on being a Hornet for a long time, so, yeah, I’m not sure about that (New York).”

Walker has said many times he wants to stay in Charlotte (providing they pay the market rate and are trying to compete).

That said, this is the NBA, so never say never.

A lot of NBA teams have been poised, waiting to see if new Hornets’ GM Mitch Kupchak — with the approval of Michael Jordan — decided to go full rebuild and trade Walker this summer. He has not, talking only about keeping this squad together. The Hornets are a solid team with Walker and Nicolas Batum leading the way, one that could make the playoffs in the East if things break right for new coach James Borrego. However, they will not be anywhere near contenders and if things don’t fall their way they may well miss the playoffs next season. Again. The Hornets also are not a bad team, meaning they are not going to get a high pick (without some lottery luck). They are stuck in the NBA’s middle ground, a place most GMs want to avoid.

Trading Walker could jump-start the rebuild in Charlotte, but the Hornets don’t seem to be going that direction. Yet. This summer they signed Tony Parker, Malik Monk looked good in Summer League, and they got Dwight Howard out of the locker room. They say they are a team poised to make a playoff push.

If that push falls apart early in Charlotte, watch and see if their plans change. And what that could mean for Walker. And the Knicks.

However, as of now, Walker wants to remain a Hornet, and they want to keep him. Which crowds New York out of the picture.

 

Report: Philadelphia tried to recruit Daryl Morey as new GM, was rebuffed

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The analytics movement is not dead in Philadelphia.

The Sixers are still searching for a new general manager to replace Bryan Colangelo (who had to resign in the wake of a Twitter scandal), and the rumors have always been about the big guns. David Griffin, the former Cleveland GM inexplicably let go by that franchise, is a name that kept coming up.

But the home of “The Process” wanted to jump back into the analytics waters and try to land the Rockets’ Dayrl Morey, the face of the NBA’s analytics movement. That was shot down, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

The Sixers are swinging for the fences right now — they met with LeBron James in free agency, they have tried to get in on the Kawhi Leonard trade sweepstakes, they wanted to meet with Paul George — and landing Morey fits in that mold. Philadelphia already has Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid in house, and feels they are on the verge of contention for years, but that they need one more piece. Morey is not that piece, but the guy who traded for James Harden and Chris Paul in Houston could get someone to come to Philly.

Morey is happy in Houston, however, and he’s staying put.

Instead, the Sixers search will continue. In the interim, coach Brett Brown is filling in a dual role (and doing a solid job, but with the recent run of struggles for teams that had a coach filling both positions it’s unlikely they keep this arrangement long term).