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January 14, 2010
On the Beat
Grizzlies' Success Belies Their Youth

by John Perrotto

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One thing we know about the Memphis Grizzlies: they certainly aren’t grizzled.

Power forward Zach Randolph is in his ninth NBA season but the rest of the lineup is relatively inexperienced. Forward Rudy Gay is in his fourth season, point guard Mike Conley is in his third season and shooting guard O.J. Mayo and center Marc Gasol are in their second seasons. While Randolph is 28, none of the other starters are older than 24.

Despite their youth, the Grizzlies have been one of the NBA’s surprise teams this season as they are 19-18 and even entertaining hopes of making the playoffs for the first time since 2005-06.

“I’ve never been a believer that age equates to success or failure,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “I’ve seen young teams win and I’ve seen old teams lose. In the end, what matters most is talent. If you have talent, you’re going to win regardless of your age and we’ve been putting together a talented roster here the last couple of years.”

Hollins understands better than most that young teams are capable of winning. He was a starting guard on the 1976-77 Portland Trail Blazers team that won the franchise’s lone NBA championship. Hollins was 23 when the Trail Blazers beat the 76ers in the Finals, as was forward Bobby Gross, while guard Dave Twardzik was 26, forward Maurice Lucas was 25 and center Bill Walton was 24.

“It’s still the youngest team ever to win a title,” Hollins said. “We never thought that because we were young so we couldn’t win. That’s how our guys are. They believe they can win now.”

Hollins feels the reason the Grizzles have taken a major step forward after going 24-58 last season and 22-60 in the two seasons before that is because they have learned to work together.

“The only way you are going to win is if winning is your No. 1 priority and our guys are committed to that now,” Hollins said. “They realize that in the professional basketball the only thing that ultimately matters is winning. They are past the point of being more concerned with adjusting to playing in the NBA. Now, their focus is on doing the little things it takes to be a winner and sacrificing individual goals for the good of the team.

“You have to look at the backgrounds of our players, too. We have a lot of guys who were winners in college. They understand what it takes to win and they have that hunger to win. That makes a difference.”

With the season near the halfway point, it is too late in the season to consider the Grizzles a fluke. They are currently just 1.5 games out of a playoff berth.

“I know we’d be disappointed if we didn’t make the playoffs,” Randolph said. “We’re getting more and more respect. People know playing the Grizzlies isn’t an automatic win anymore. They’ve got to work to beat us.”

That is because the Grizzlies seem to get more mature each time they take the court.

“A lot of times in baseball, the best teams win even when their best pitchers don't have their best stuff,” Hollins said. “That's what building a good team is all about, finding a way to win when things don't go well and we’re winning games like that. I'm proudest when we win games after overcoming everything, like a lot of turnovers or getting outrebounded or calls that don't go your way. All that happens and you still find a way to hang in and win. It's a great lesson and growth step to being whatever you want to be.”

Stevenson Honors Arenas

While Washington Wizards management tries to put as much distance between the team and suspended point guard Gilbert Arenas as possible, DeShawn Stevenson is remembering his teammate. The guard is wearing tape with the words “Agent” and “Zero” across his left and right shins.

Arenas was suspended indefinitely by the NBA last week for allegedly brandishing guns in the Wizards’ locker room following their Dec. 24 practice.

“I’m just doing it because at the end of the day he's still our teammate and he's still on our team,” Stevenson said. “Me and him have history. He’s like a brother to me. The last couple of days it seems like everybody is against him but he’s a human being. He did what he did but I don't think he's gotten a hug or anything positive. Hopefully he knows that somebody still cares about him.”

Stevenson said Arenas has not returned phone calls or text messages.

“You never know what he's thinking,” Stevenson said. “There is a lot of pressure on him. At the end of the day, I just want to let him know that I love him.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the NBA waits to see if the Wizards decide to break up their team and put most of their veterans on the trading block. The Cavaliers would love to deal for forward Antawn Jamison so much that they reportedly would take back forward Andray Blatche’s contract in a trade.

On the subject of trades, the Miami Heat is looking to dump guard Dorell Wright to keep from paying the luxury tax. The Heat is $2.8 million over the tax threshold and Wright has a $2.9 million salary. If Miami stays over the threshold, the Heat would have to pay a tax of $4.5 million.

“It's a $7 million swing,” Heat president Pat Riley said. “So that's not something to sneeze at. That’ll be a corporate decision as much as it will be a presidential decision or a coaching decision.”

There has been much speculation that the L.A. Lakers are trying hard to trade for Toronto Raptors forward Chris Bosh with the idea of signing him to a lucrative contract before he could become a free agent at the end of the season. However, the Lakers already have Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom signed to expensive long-term contacts and might not be able to fit Bosh in the budget.

Utah Jazz general manager Kevin O’Connor denied reports that his team will try to avoid pay the luxury tax at all costs and shed a salary even if it means taking on a bad long-term contract in a trade.

D'Antoni Focusing on the Present

Give New York Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni credit for candor. He admits that he was already writing this season off when it began.

The Knicks made it clear from the beginning of the preseason that their entire focus for 2009-10 was making sure they had enough salary cap space to go after such superstar free agents as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Bosh in the summer.

Yet the Knicks are in the hunt for a playoff spot this season. Despite their lackluster 16-22 record, they are just one game out of a playoff spot.

“The bottom line is one day I woke up and said, ‘Yeah, that's what's got to matter,’” D'Antoni said about focusing on the present. “The fans deserve it. I'm just glad we started playing well.”

No Urgency for Celtics

With the Boston Celtics suffering injuries to an aging roster, there is much speculation that they need to win now before their window of opportunity for adding to their 2007-08 championship closes. However, the players say they are not thinking that way.

“We just do what we’re capable of doing,” guard Ray Allen said. “It's not really for other people to discuss us. We're not worried about that. We've got to go out and do our job every single day. We've been doing it for a long time, so we have great experience.”

Guard Rajon Rondo does not foresee the Celtics suddenly suffering a major drop off.

“The team that the owners put together, I feel that we should win these next couple of seasons,” Rondo said. “Even though they're older, the minutes they're playing with the guys they brought in this summer, it's given those older guys a lot of time off.”

John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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