Rarely does a professional sports organization undergo as radical a transformation as the Memphis Grizzlies have.
A new head coach, an entirely new coaching staff, a new general manager and four key acquisitions have alighted in Memphis, unified in their desire to wash away the residual sludge of last season’s 22-60 mark.
This season’s marketing campaign, “New Game”, could just as easily have been “Pretty Much New Everything”.
This is no superficial makeover though. More than simply the names on the office doors have been changed and will continue to change. From the day of his hiring, Marc Iavaroni talked about his desire to change the culture in the Memphis locker room. Last season, the Grizzlies weren’t much enjoying their jobs for reasons beyond the horrific record.
The team chemistry wasn’t bad, but all the circumstances that surrounded the team from the opening of training camp – injuries, the potential sale of the team and style concerns that had nothing to do with the NBA’s dress code – were more than the Grizzlies could collectively bear.
It was time for sweeping changes, if not necessarily in personnel, at least in the team’s culture. Enter Marc Iavaroni, who pledged to change the culture surrounding the boys in Beale Street blue.
Only time will tell how firmly the new culture will take root, but if the first few days are any indication, expect it to flower quickly. While there’s no doubt that Iavaroni is the captain of this ship, there’s also no doubt that he wants input from all quarters.
Assistant coaches are active participants in practice and drills, both demonstrating and explaining the values and benefits of each exercise. Iavaroni is wont to solicit input from his team. It’s a collaborative, positive, and nurturing effort that has already won raves from the team.
“Totally,” said Pau Gasol when asked if Iavaroni’s approach is a good one. “It’s all about being positive and acting positive and it will take you to good places.”
As someone who has been lucky enough to cover this team since 2004, I can tell you that this season’s team – and yes dear readers, I do realize there have been only a couple of practices – is already showing more joy and love of the game than I’ve seen in three previous camps.
Iavaroni won’t just talk a good game. He’s too well versed in education and motivation to throw out nice words with no backup. He’ll be consistent and persistent in his messaging to the team. Professional athletes are like anyone else; they hate uncertainty. No one likes to play looking over his shoulder, wondering what’ll happen when he next makes a mistake. Iavaroni doesn’t want players playing in fear. “Just play”, has been one of his common refrains in early practices. The translation is, hey, we’re going to make mistakes, but instead of hanging our heads over what happened, just play through and good things will happen.
Here are some other observations:
Iavaroni’s practices are meticulously planned and there is no wasted motion. The entire operation is like clockwork – chalk talks, stretching, drills and contact work. I daresay the Grizzlies are getting more done in two hours than most teams get done in three.
Damon Stoudamire looks good. No brace on his surgically repaired knee and no favoring of it either. He’s as competitive and feisty as I’ve ever seen him. I don’t know what role Iavaroni has in mind for Damon, but whatever it is, expect Stoudamire to work his butt off.
I think Juan Carlos Navarro will be a fan favorite. He has a good basketball IQ, appears to really love the game and can flat out score the ball. His enthusiasm should be contagious.
Strength and conditioning coach Mike Curtis appears to have been given a greater role in-practice in working with the team on stretching and flexibility, which (hopefully) will cut down on injuries.
Forget the debate on whether Iavaroni will be a defensive-minded coach (think Pat Riley) or offensive-minded (think Mike D’Antoni). He’ll have the Grizzlies proficient on both sides of the ball; working as a cohesive unit on defense will make the Grizzlies’ offense even more potent.