Monday, July 5, 2004

By Chad Ford
ESPN Insider

Jerry West has one thing on his mind this summer. . . and it's a whopper.

"Our primary goal is for a big guy. Our primary wish is for a big guy," Grizzlies president Jerry West said. "We're going to try to be aggressive. We have to go get our coach (Hubie Brown) another player that will help make a difference."

Over the course of the last two seasons, West has worked miracles in Memphis. He has, brick-by-brick, rebuilt one of the sorriest franchises in the league. Whether it was the hiring of Hubie Brown, the new professionalism that he's infused within the entire franchise or role players like James Posey who he's helped turn into stars, the Grizzlies have become the Pistons of the West -- a starless, selfless team that values teamwork, depth and playing the right way over everything else.

A stunning 50-32 record last season landed them their first-ever appearance in the playoffs. Brown took home coach of the year honors. West walked away with the executive of the year award.

However, all of it provided little solace to either Brown or West when the team was swept by the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs. The rout exposed the Grizzlies' two biggest weaknesses -- a physical dominating presence in the middle and a point guard willing to play tough defense. Tony Parker drove to the basket at will virtually untouched despite the fact that the Grizzlies knew that getting physical with Parker usually shuts him down. They also had no answer inside for Tim Duncan or even Rasho Nesterovic.

West didn't build this team to win 50 games. He wants to win a championship. Can he use his depth to acquire that elusive big man who has escaped him since he left the Lakers? Here's a look at what to expect as Insider continues its summer blueprint series.

Grizzlies Summer Blueprint

DRAFT: The Grizzlies traded away their first-round pick last season as part of the trade that sent Bonzi Wells to Memphis. No matter. There was only one guy who West really had his heart set on -- Texas Tech's Andre Emmett -- and the Grizzlies picked him up in the second round.

The Grizzlies had fallen hard for Emmett pretty early in the process and actually tried to move up into the first round to get him. When he slipped into the second round, the Grizzlies pounced. Emmett was one of the top scorers in college basketball last season. He can drive to the hole on anyone and has a nice-looking mid-range game. His only weakness is his deep shot.

The team also picked up a local product, Antonio Burks, who many teams were pretty high on. Burks is a tough, physical point guard who should immediately be the team's best defender at the point. Sergei Lishouk, a native of the Ukraine, was also drafted, though he'll be kept over in Europe for the next few years to develop.

Overall, the Grizzlies did a good job of finding value in the second round. However, the addition of Burks and Emmett were pretty duplicative of the guys they drafted in the first round last year -- Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. Neither of those guys played last season. Will Burks and Emmett ever see the light of day? If the Grizzlies pull off the trades they'd like to make, the answer could be yes.

FREE AGENCY: The Grizzlies have one big free agent they want to re-sign and one bigger free agent on the open market who they'd like to sign. The key will be getting them both in Grizzlies uniforms next season.

Stromile Swift hit restricted free agency last week, and all indications out of Memphis are that the team wants him back and will match any offer sheet for him. Swift started just 10 games for the team last season and averaged just 9.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg and 1.5 bpg. But he did it in under 20 mpg.

Why would the Grizzlies be obsessed with keeping a guy at any price with those numbers -- especially one who has been in Brown's dog house repeatedly? Because the Grizzlies see the same thing 15 other teams wooing Swift right now do. He's a rare athlete who gets up the floor super fast, has offensive skills and can change the pace of the game with his defense. On most teams, Swift would get a lot more blow. In Memphis he won't, but it doesn't make him less valuable.

The guy the Grizzlies are working overtime for is Warriors free agent Erick Dampier. Last summer, West believed that he had a three-way trade in place between the Warriors, Pistons and Grizzlies that would've landed Dampier in Memphis. The trade talks progressed to the point that the teams were ready to schedule a trade call with the league only to be thwarted by the New England blackout that took place last summer. As things waited over the weekend, the trade fell apart and the Grizzlies were forced to scramble.

This year, with Dampier an unrestricted free agent, they're crossing their fingers that they're in the drivers seat this time. Dampier wants to play in Memphis.

"I have a lot of friends there, and it will be close to home," Dampier said last week. "Plus, I like the fact that they're an up-and-coming team. If they had a center, maybe they would have advanced in the playoffs."

However, he'd prefer for the two sides to work out a sign-and-trade so that he can earn more money. Right now, the most the Grizzlies could offer Dampier is a six-year, $40 million contract. With a sign-and-trade, Dampier could make more.

The Grizzlies appear to have the pieces in place to make the trade. However, it's believed that the Warriors are holding out for Swift to be included in the deal. If the Grizzlies give him a starting salary of about $5.5 million a year, he won't become a base-year compensation player, making him available to trade. That might be too much for the Grizzlies to swallow. Their vision of a dominating front line includes both Swift and Dampier. Given Dampier's age and history of injuries, giving up Swift might be too high of a price to pay.

After Dampier, the market begins to fall a little flat. Vlade Divac is the best veteran center available, but he's a much shorter-term fix for the Grizzlies. Boston's Mark Blount showed major promise last year with the Celtics, but was he a one-hit wonder?

TRADES: If Dampier isn't available, there's been lots of talk that West would go after his old center, Shaquille O'Neal. The Grizzlies are one of the few teams that appear to be, on paper, deep enough to swallow Shaq's contract.

The problem is that trading for Shaq would sap the Grizzlies of the very thing that made them special last year -- depth and a relentless 48-minute-a-night attack. For the Grizzlies to get Shaq, they'd have to give up their best player, Pau Gasol, and an assortment of role players, including Lorenzen Wright, Bo Outlaw and likely Bonzi Wells and Earl Watson. While the Grizzlies would still have plenty of good players left on their roster, no one appears willing to alter that foundation of the team that dramatically.

That doesn't mean, however, that the Grizzlies won't be trading. In addition to trying to hammer out a sign-and-trade for Dampier, the team would like to package some of its depth for one more solid player. Again, the preference is a big man. Currently, the team has eight guards on its active roster. There's no way they're going into the season like that.

Gasol seems to be the only guy on the roster who's untouchable, though it's clear that the team would love to keep Posey and Mike Miller around. After that, any combination of players might give the Grizzlies the last missing piece they're looking for.

Another big target for the Grizzlies is the Bulls' Eddy Curry. A combo of Posey and a re-signed Swift could probably land them Curry -- but that may be too high of a price for the Grizzlies to pay.

COACHING: Hubie Brown is a miracle worker. His coaching of the year honor last year was well deserved. In the course of one full season, he taught the Grizzlies how to play team basketball. It was an amazing transformation and Brown deserved most of the credit.

He's got a job in Memphis as long as he wants it. However, he told Insider last year that once his contract is up at the end of next season, there's a good chance that he'll retire. Age is a major factor here. Brown has already accomplished so much in Memphis. Whenever he decides to retire, after next season or 10 years from now, his turnaround of the Grizzlies will be his crowning achievement as a coach. The only issue? Who in the world could replace him?

FRONT OFFICE: West has been great for Memphis, though he obviously hasn't been flawless. His first two drafts for the Grizzlies were just so-so. He passed on Amare Stoudemire in favor of Drew Gooden and last season picked up two players -- Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones -- who never played. But he's even turned his mistakes into strengths. West was able to parlay Gooden into Mike Miller the minute he saw that Gooden wasn't the right player for the Grizzlies. He may yet use Bell or Jones in a trade that gets them their big man.

He's had other successes as well. He picked up James Posey for the mid-level exception last year while opposing GMs rolled their eyes. The conventional wisdom was that West overpaid for Posey, known then as little more than a defensive stopper. The CW now? Posey was the best free-agent bargain on the market last year. Adding Bo Outlaw and Bonzi Wells to the mix were also big improvements to the team.

But West's best move was hiring Brown. He was the perfect coach for that team. At the time, West may have been the only guy on the planet to see it. Like Brown, he's got a job in Memphis as long as he wants it, though he claims that he too may step down soon, especially if Brown retires.

Regardless of what happens to the Grizzlies next season, West's tenure here will always be remembered as a success. Getting this team to the playoffs while still handcuffed with bad contracts and salary restraints was as impressive as anything he's done in his career. A deep playoff run would be nothing but icing at this point.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.