By The Assocated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The whole dalliance with Allen Iverson didn’t work out at all for Memphis. How coach Lionel Hollins handled that whole circus helped turn the Grizzlies from clowns to competitors.
Now they want to become winners.
Memphis (40-42) fell just short of a winning record and the playoffs for a fourth straight season, but the Grizzlies went from looking at pingpong ball odds for the draft lottery to spending the final month of the season checking the standings for playoff possibilities. Owner Michael Heisley rewarded the coach originally hired in January 2009 with a three-year contract Thursday.
“Let’s hope I get through those three years,” Hollins said.
Weathering the drama of that Iverson soap opera played a key role for a team that had more than the one problem.
“We grew up watching him play, and he was one of our favorite players,” guard Mike Conley said of Iverson. “What coach was able to do was very impressive because guys started following him and seeing that he was making the right decisions and doing the right things. Once you’ve got the team behind you, it is a lot easier to win games.”
The Grizzlies started 1-8 as Iverson, signed with much fanfare on Sept. 10, missed preseason with a hamstring injury, and didn’t play until a West Coast road swing. Iverson immediately began complaining about playing time and not starting, leading to a showdown with Hollins.
Iverson left the team and was waived on Nov. 17, having never appeared in a Grizzlies’ home game. Memphis began playing better, so much so the team highlighted its record in the post-AI stretch each game. The Grizzlies finished 38-34 without Iverson.
Forward Zach Randolph said eliminating distractions helped.
“It was real important,” Randolph said.
Randolph’s arrival last July in a trade with the Clippers was overshadowed by Iverson, and fans worried about his reputation. The 6-foot-9 forward lived up to his stats and led the team with his 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds per game and becoming only the second player in franchise history to be named to the All-Star team.
“Zach’s had a great year. He’s contributed to us winning,” Hollins said. “We wouldn’t be here at 40 wins without Zach.”
But the troubles that had followed Randolph during his 9-year career never materialized. Hollins said Randolph won everybody over.
“He’s showed he’s not a bad guy. That he’s a nice guy. A very friendly, lovable guy. A fan-friendly guy, and he’s a good player,” the coach said.
Randolph and the emergence of second-year center Marc Gasol gave Memphis one of the top inside tandems in the NBA. Memphis led the league in inside points and ranked fourth in rebounding with 43½ boards per game, a significant improvement from last season when the Grizzlies were last.
Rudy Gay was second with 19 points per game, O.J. Mayo provided stability in the backcourt, and all five starters averaged in double figures. Hollins knew a key challenge would be getting them to share the ball.
“I think this group has shown that in order to win, this is how you have to play,” Hollins said. “We could have just taken turns, where certain guys score and certain guys just are left out completely. Then nobody’s happy.”
That heavy reliance on the starters posed a problem with little production from the bench, which included rookies Sam Young, DeMarre Carroll and first-round project Hasheem Thabeet. He suffered through his first season so badly, he was sent to the Development League for a couple of weeks only to start late when Gasol was shut down with a neck injury.
Finding consistency is next.
Memphis won a franchise-best 11 straight home games from Dec. 18 to Jan 25 and put together a seven-game road winning streak Feb. 17 through March 10. That coincided with an eight-game home losing streak, the first time the Elias Sports Bureau found a team with such road success suffering through a home-skid.
The Grizzlies played well enough to hold playoff hopes before the All-Star break. They floundered at the end, losing nine of their final 11 including the season finale 114-105 in Oklahoma City on Wednesday night.
“Somewhere in there, we just couldn’t find ourselves anymore,” reserve forward Darrell Arthur said. “I thought we had a great season compared to the last two seasons.”
The foundation is set, but Memphis needs more veteran leadership and production off the bench. Randolph estimates a couple of players would put the Grizzlies where they need to be.
“We made progress,” Randolph said. “We surprised a lot of people.”
That they did.