Grizzlies’ forecast brightened after A.I. left
Iverson played just three games with the Grizzlies, none in front of Memphis fans. That, however, was long enough for him to leave his mark on the franchise. He complained about his role and his presence seemed to disrupt the team’s chemistry as players separated into cliques. The Grizzlies and Iverson eventually agreed to part ways, but by then the team was spiraling toward a 1-8 start and once again seemed intent on strengthening only its position in the lottery.
And, then, just as quickly as Iverson was gone, so were the Grizzlies’ problems. Some two months later, Memphis is now one of the NBA’s hottest teams and in contention for a playoff berth. As excited as the Grizzlies are about their future, Hollins is doing his best to forget the team’s chaotic past with Iverson.
“It’s over. It’s gone. Bye,” Hollins said. “We are thinking about the next game. The next practice. We don’t worry about who is not on our team. He played in three games. We moved so far away from that. You’d have to ask each individual player how it affected them. But it’s gone. It’s over.”
The Grizzlies won six of their final 11 games last season, and had hoped to build upon that modest success after trading for forward Zach Randolph(notes) and signing Iverson. Iverson missed most of training camp because of a hamstring injury, then returned three games into the season. Favoring Michael Conley and O.J. Mayo(notes) as his starting backcourt, Hollins decided to bring Iverson off the bench. That didn’t go over well with the veteran guard.
“Go look at my réesumé and that will show you that I’m not a sixth man,” Iverson said after a loss in Sacramento. “I don’t think it has anything to do with me being selfish. It’s just who I am.”
As Iverson complained to reporters, Conley was sitting in the locker room, listening to every word. Conley had struggled at the start of the season, and it was widely assumed Iverson believed he should be starting over him.
“He likes to speak his mind,” Conley said of Iverson. “When he was doing that in Sacramento, it was something that was new to me. I tried not to take it personal. If anything, I tried to use it as motivation to better myself and help the team out more. … It was a tough time the way we were playing as a group, with him coming back and things like that.
“I heard a lot of things. I tried not to pay attention to them, but I could feel it throughout the city in Memphis just the way conversations were going and how people loved Allen Iverson and how they described [the situation]. Of course it’s going to bother you knowing that all this stuff is going on and the only way you can control it was to perform well. What people say was their opinion. They could say what they want, and I could keep doing what I’m doing on the court and hoped it worked out.”
The Grizzlies’ problems also extended beyond Iverson. The team didn’t put much effort toward playing defense, was selfish offensively and the players didn’t seem to have much camaraderie. During one game, Mayo and Rudy Gay(notes) shouted at each other.
“The toughest part of it was just seeing how our team had kind of changed,” Conley said. “We got separated a little bit. Groups formed a little bit, separating sides. The year before, at the end of the year, it seemed like we were making a lot of progress. We grew apart a little bit at the beginning of the season.”
Said Randolph: “We didn’t have the chemistry. We didn’t have a feel for each other.”
The Grizzlies snapped a seven-game losing streak against the struggling Minnesota Timberwolves on Nov. 14. Two days later, Iverson’s days with Memphis officially ended. While the Grizzlies said publicly Iverson’s status wasn’t a distraction, the players seemed much more at ease once he was gone.
“When you have a 1-8 start and all the off-the-court distractions going on and not knowing what was going on with Allen Iverson and whether he’d be with the team or not … there were so many things going on as a group that we didn’t have an identity,” Conley said. “We didn’t know where our place was. That was the most frustrating part of the season not knowing who we were and what direction we were heading in.”
The Grizzlies began to repair their chemistry once Iverson was gone. They also signed veteran point guar Jamaal Tinsley(notes) to back up – and mentor – Conley. Randolph began performing like an All-Star candidate, and Mayo, Gay and center Marc Gasol(notes) also stepped up their play. The Grizzlies went 9-4 in December with wins over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Dallas Mavericks, Denver Nuggets and Miami Heat. During January, Memphis has already beaten the Phoenix Suns (twice), San Antonio Spurs, Utah Jazz and Portland Trail Blazers.
That 1-8 start? The Grizzlies have won 21 of 32 games since and are now talking about making the playoffs.
“A lot of things changed since we got back to basics and worrying about the little things,” Conley said. “It’s made us a better team. We’ve been winning games and got a lot of confidence. It allowed us to build together. It’s been a crazy, crazy month for us. We’ve been doing a lot of things we’re not accustomed to doing.
“I would say that after the way we started, I’m surprised at the way that we turned it around so quickly more than anything. The way we started, it’s tough to bounce back from something like that. It says a lot about us and how we can turn around our season.”
Iverson’s season also took a turn for the better. After declaring himself retired, he signed with the Philadelphia 76ers, returning to the franchise where he had enjoyed his greatest success. The Sixers haven’t won much and Iverson has battled knee problems, but his popularity remains intact: Fans voted him onto the Eastern Conference All-Star team as a starter.
“I wish it could have worked out,” said Randolph, who still talks to Iverson. “I’m happy for him now. He’s back where he started. You can’t ask for anything better than that as players that at the end of your career you finish where you started. It’s a win-win situation. He’s happy. We’re happy.”
Dream Team to meet Redeem Team?
The 1992 Olympic Dream Team is expected to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Aug. 13. Two of its members, Karl Malone and Scottie Pippen, are also expected to be inducted individually, but if the Hall gets its wish, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and the rest of the original Dream Team will be in attendance.
“It was an honor to represent your country in one of the greatest times of your life,” Charles Barkley said.
The current U.S. national team will be training in New York for the upcoming World Championships and USA Basketball officials are hoping the players can take a break to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony.
“It has the makings of an incredible night,” said Jerry Colangelo, who is chairman of both USA Basketball and the Hall of Fame. It’s way too early to talk about it, but to get that history and legend together for both teams … it could be really big.”
USA Basketball is expected to name a pool of 20 to 25 candidates for its roster before the All-Star game. Colangelo is expected to meet with potential members during the All-Star break. He’s already met with some players to assess their interest and has a meeting with Kobe Bryant(notes) scheduled in New York this weekend.
No deal for Karl?
Denver Nuggets coach George Karl is expected to suspend contract negotiations with the team if he doesn’t have a new deal in place by the All-Star break, a source with knowledge of the talks said. Karl’s contract ends after the season and he doesn’t want his status becoming a distraction during the Nuggets’ playoff push.
Karl turned down a one-year, $3 million extension over the summer in hopes of getting a longer deal and a raise. He is making $3 million this season with incentives that could boost his pay to $3.8 million. A source said the team has had internal discussions about offering Karl a three-year, $12 million extension, but those talks haven’t progressed.
Harris staying put?
Despite speculation the New Jersey Nets might be inclined to trade Devin Harris(notes), general manager and coach Kiki Vandeweghe says the franchise has “no interest” in moving its point guard. An All-Star last season, Harris is averaging 15.6 points, six assists and 3.2 rebounds in just 15 games.
“Devin is an All-Star caliber point guard,” Vandeweghe said. “He has been hurt most of this year. He’s had a right wrist injury that has hampered shooting. He’s getting healthy, slowly.
“He’s a young point guard, one of the best in the league, and those guys you don’t move.”
NBA sources said the Washington Wizards had “light conversations” about sending center Brendan Haywood(notes) to the Portland Trail Blazers for guard Andre Miller(notes), but nothing is imminent. The transition of the Wizards’ ownership has complicated any changes the team is considering making to its roster. One NBA executive said Portland still hopes it can use Miller to net a center or small forward. … The surging Charlotte Bobcats are in the market for a power forward and could dangle guard D.J. Augustin(notes) as possible trade bait. … While the Nuggets have made a run at Indiana Pacers center Jeff Foster(notes) and Chicago Bulls center Aaron Gray(notes), sources say no deal is imminent and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the team doesn’t make a move prior to the trade deadline. Teams have called asking for rookie point guard Ty Lawson(notes), but the Nuggets have declared him off limits.