Monday, August 16, 2010

Vancouver-Memphis Grizzlies: NBA All-Time Starting Fives

The Grizzlies’ lack of success is no secret, but there’s a surprising dearth of positivity to mention here.

The Vancouver Grizzlies entered the NBA a decade and a half ago, at the same time as the Toronto Raptors. In that time, the Raptors have parlayed moderate, but by no means spectacular, team success into an immensely loyal fan base and an enduring relationship with the city of Toronto.

Vancouver on the other hand, received the same treatment that Seattle was forced to endure seven years later with Clay Bennett and the Supersonics—the fact that no one really cared about them.

The team survived just six seasons before lackluster attendance made keeping the team in Vancouver financially unviable. Waning attendance across the league thanks to the 1998 lockout certainly played a role, but it’s safe to assume the Grizzlies’ inability to win more than 28% of their games in a season was also a key driver.

Although they kicked off the 1995-96 season by winning the first two games in franchise history, the Grizzlies won just 13 of their next 80 games- including a record-tying 23-game losing streak, and finished with a league-worst 15-67 record.

The following years were not much better, as the team won just 33 games over the next two seasons combined, and turned in an 8-42 record in the lockout shortened 1999 season. This set the stage for a “breakout” run of 22 and 23 wins in the next two seasons, after which the team was relocated to Memphis.

Combine this on-court ineptitude with a string of generally uninspiring draft picks, and fans had little to get excited about. As good as Shareef Abdur-Rahim was in his days with the Grizz, the likes of Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, Antonio Daniels and Stromile Swift weren’t exactly capturing the imaginations of Canadian hoops junkies.

Hell, Steve Francis cried at the draft after being selected by the Grizzlies, and flat-out refused to play for the team.

In 2000, with the team for sale, the initial stance by the NBA was that the Grizzlies would not be allowed to leave Vancouver. In fact, a sale to Bill Laurie, then-owner of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues, was rejected after Laurie admitted to wanting to move the team to St. Louis. Manufacturing mogul Michael Heisley subsequently bought the Grizzlies, promised to keep the team in Vancouver, and moved the franchise to Memphis after just one season in charge.

The 2001-02 season, the Grizzlies’ first in Memphis, saw the arrival of Pau Gasol, acquired in a draft day trade in exchange for Shareef Adbur-Rahim, accompanied by three consecutive seasons of franchise records in victories. It was during this run, led by Gasol, Jason Williams, Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller, that the Grizz posted their only three winning seasons and made the first playoff appearances in their history. However, despite boasting one of the game’s best big men and solid corps of supporting players on the perimeter, the Grizzlies have nothing to show for three straight playoff trips except for an 0-12 postseason record.

As the best stretch in franchise history ran its course, Gasol was shipped to the Lakers for a less-than-overwhelming package that included super-bust Kwame Brown and Pau’s younger brother, Marc.

The younger Gasol has shown the capacity to be a top-flight NBA big man, and combined with Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley, makes up the foundation of what should be a solid team in the coming years.

As we move through the Grizzlies’ all-time five, with one notable exception, you’ll quickly notice a theme emerging, the case for every player considered can be easily perforated. Rarely in Grizzlies’ franchise history has individual brilliance been accompanied by team success, and vice versa.

PG- Jason Williams (11.9 ppg, 7.2 apg, 1.3 spg in 284 games)

This was a two-horse race between a pair of lead guards that put up comparable numbers with the franchise.

Before breaking out as a star in Sacramento, Mike Bibby joined the Vancouver Grizzlies after two years and an NCAA title at the University of Arizona. Bibby had the look of an outstanding PG prospect, improving both his scoring (13.2, to 14.5, to 15.9) and assist (6.5, to 8.1, to 8.4) averages in his three seasons with the Grizz.

Bibby is also the lone active NBA player to have played for the Vancouver Grizzlies. While his numbers (14.7 ppg, 7.8 apg, 1.5 spg in 214 games) do trump those of Jason Williams, the advantage in assists is modest and fails to offset the Grizzlies’ 53-161 (.247) record during Bibby’s time with the team.

In the end, the nod here went to Williams, the man for whom Bibby was traded. J-Will spent four seasons in Memphis, and despite just 51 Grizzlies’ wins in his fist two seasons, he was the lead guard for two of the three playoff teams in the franchise. Williams also ran the point for the 2003-04 Grizzlies, the only team in franchise history to win 50 games in a season.

In his time in Memphis, Williams became the franchise all-time leader in assists (2,041) and still ranks third in steals (369).

Williams’ greater team success, combined with accumulated stats from a longer run, earned him this spot.

SG- Mike Miller (14.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.3 apg in 371 games)

Like Jason Williams, Mike Miller was a solid piece on the only winning teams in franchise history.

In addition to being a good-but-not-great presence on the Grizzlies’ mid-decade playoff teams, Miller put up some excellent numbers on a pair of floundering, 22-win teams. In 2006-07, as injuries limited Pau Gasol to just 59 games, Miller picked up some slack, averaging a career-high 18.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg and 4.3 apg. The following year, during which Pau Gasol played just 39 games for the team, this time because he was traded to the Lakers, Miller posted another very high individual campaign, averaging 16.4 ppg, a career-high 6.7 rpg and 3.4 apg

Miller’s got one of the most beautiful jump shots ever seen in the NBA. While he is a devastating outside shooter, he’s a better rebounder and a more efficient scorer than he’s often given credit for. In his five full seasons in Memphis, Miller shot better than 46% from the field five times (he hit 50% twice), and trailed only Pau Gasol in rebounding average in his last two seasons with the team.

In his 371 games (sixth in franchise history) with the Grizzlies, Miller accumulated some solid stats as well. He's the franchise's all-time leader in 3-pointers made (his 737 are 340 better than No. 2), and ranks fourth in points scored (5,403 points), FG made (1,967), assists (1,221) and steals (317).

Another two-guard from the Grizzlies’ early days that’s deserving of a mention is Michael Dickerson. In his first two seasons in Vancouver, Dickerson was the team’s second option at the offensive end behind Shareef Abdur-Rahim, averaging 18.2 and 16.3 ppg.

Injuries limited him to just 10 games in his final two seasons (both with the Grizzlies and of his NBA career), which also happened to be the Grizzlies’ first two in Memphis. In his 162 games over four seasons with the Grizz, Dickerson averaged 16.7 ppg, still the highest average for any backcourt player that’s played 100+ games with the franchise.

SF- Shareef Abdur-Rahim (20.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.1 spg in 375 games)

Ever wonder what James Worthy would have looked like on the Clippers instead of the Lakers?

It’s an incredible shame that the best days of Shareef Abdur-Rahim’s career were wasted on terrible teams in a small, indifferent market, just before widespread adoption of the internet and NBA League Pass.

This guy was a hybrid of Chris Bosh and James Worthy, but never found himself in the right situation.

Was Shareef a “franchise guy?” No. But he was tall, quick and agile, knew how to the hit the boards and had an incredibly smooth all-around offensive game.

In five seasons with the Grizzlies, Abdur-Rahim led the Grizzlies in scoring five times and in rebounding on three occasions. He never averaged less than 18.7 ppg, putting up 20+ in four of five seasons. He improved his rebounding numbers each of the three years following his rookie season- he averaged 6.9 rpg as a rookie, and reached 10.1 in his fourth season (1999-2000).

Despite producing three, arguably four, clear All-Star-caliber seasons, Shareef was not selected to a single All-star team as a member of the Grizz. The lone selection of his career came in 2001-02, the season after he was traded from Vancouver to the Atlanta Hawks.

Rahim remains second all-time in Grizzlies’ history in points (7,801), rebounds (3,070) and steals (416), fourth in blocks (374) and fifth in assists (1,081).

In a couple years, this spot’s likely to belong to the current face of the franchise, Rudy Gay. In four solid seasons with the Grizz, Gay has emerged as one of the league’s most explosive and athletic wing players and is good for 20+ points on most nights.

In 318 games, Gay’s averaged 17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 1.3 spg. Over the past three seasons, he’s at 19.6- 5.9- 1.4.

PF- Pau Gasol (18.8 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.8 bpg in 476 games)

If Shareef Abdur-Rahim could be compared to James Worthy without Magic and the Lakers, Pau Gasol career started as “Shareef 2.0” until a 2008 trade turned him into Kevin McHale.

Gasol spent six and half seasons with the Grizzlies, and while his numbers were excellent, it was obvious that his exceptional all-around skill set and basketball IQ was unlike that of most NBA big men. It was clear that if surrounded by great teammates, this guy would be a championship-caliber player.

Only once in his days in Memphis did Gasol fail to shoot 50% from the field. He consistently hit his free throws. He’s not foul prone, but is an excellent rebounder. He’s as good passing big man as there is the NBA and may ultimately go down among the best ever. He can hit an 18-foot jump shot, but also has the most complete arsenal of post moves of any current NBA player.

As great as Pau Gasol has been in three Finals runs with the Lakers, he was every bit as gifted in Memphis. In fact, what Gasol managed to accomplish in Memphis is probably more impressive than what he’s done in L.A. considering he became a top-15 guy (yeah, he was, but no one ever noticed) without any help from Kobe Bryant.

As the centerpiece of the mid-2000s Grizzlies, Gasol led a bunch of good- but no excellent or great- players to three consecutive playoff appearances- still the only three playoff trips in franchise history. These three seasons also remain the only three winning seasons in franchise history.

Among players who’ve played at least 100 games with the franchise, Pau Gasol is the all-time leader in games played (476), points (8,966), rebounds (4,096; 1,026 ahead of #2), FG attempted (6,533), made (3,324) and FG percentage (50.9%), FT attempted (3,152) and made (2,3010) and blocked shots (877). He also still ranks third in Grizzlies’ history in assists, with 1,473.

One additional Grizzlies’ PF note: Prior to the 1997-98 season, in a deal with the Pistons, the then-Vancouver Grizzlies agreed to send a future first-round pick to Detroit in exchange for solid veteran PF Otis Thorpe. In his 47-game stint with Grizz, Thorpe averaged a characteristically solid 11- 8- 3.

And the draft pick? Well…

That selection went on to become Darko Milicic. Or, well, y’know, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Dwyane Wade, had the team chosen to go that way.

C- Bryant Reeves (12.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg in 395 games)

Don’t laugh! This guy was actually pretty good for a little while.

Reeves showed a lot of potential in his first three NBA seasons, averaging a respectable 13.3 ppg and 7.4 rpg as a rookie, before going on to average 16.2- 8.1 and 16.3- 7.9 in his next two seasons.

Following his solid 1997-98 season, Reeves, whose weight was never far from 300 lbs, fell victim to chronic weight-control issues and injuries. As a result, Reeves’ numbers fell off dramatically, though he remained the Grizzlies’ starting center for the Grizzlies.

Reeves played in just 25 games in 1999, as he averaged just 10.8 ppg and 5.5 rpg and hit just 40% of his shots from the floor. Over the next two seasons, Reeves scoring and rebounding numbers didn’t recover, and due to chronic back trouble, after having spent the entire season on the injured list, Bryant Reeves announced his retirement from the NBA midway through the 2001-02 season.

Selected #6 overall in the 1995 draft, “Big Country” was the franchise’s first-ever draft choice and the first player tapped to be the face of the franchise. And in a way he will forever be the face of the Vancouver Grizzlies, as his NBA career spanned the Grizzlies time in Vancouver- no more, no less.

On sentimentality, this spot may belong to Big Country for a while longer, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that a second Gasol, Pau’s younger brother Marc, will establish himself in the spot before too long.

After being drafted by the Lakers in the second round of the 2007 draft, Gasol was to the Memphis Grizzlies as part of a deal that included his older brother.

Although he’s still miles away form being the best NBA player in his own family, Marc has gotten off to an excellent start in Memphis. After averaging 11.4- 7.4 and hiitng 53% of his shots (breaking Pau’s 51.8% franchise mark for a rookie) in 2008-09, he was selected to the 2009 All-Rookie Second Team.

In 2009-10, his second in the NBA, Gasol averaged 14.6- 9.3 and made an awesome 58.1% of his shots and developed into a consistent double-double threat for a vastly improved, up-and-coming Grizzlies team. In his first 151 NBA games, Gasol’s averaged 13.1 ppg, 8.2 rpg and 1.3 bpg, while hitting on 55.5% of his field goal attmepts.

This spot belongs to Big Country for now, but “little” Gasol is closing fast!

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