Marc Gasol got married during the offseason so, naturally, he was asked how he was enjoying married life.
“It’s not that different,” Gasol said. “We’re still in the honeymoon phase.”
What’s true for the Grizzlies’ All-Star center is true for the entire organization as the team prepares for its first season after the best season in franchise history.
Yes, from the outside looking in it must appear there has been radical change in the wake of a 56-win season and trip to the Western Conference Finals: not retaining head coach Lionel Hollins and replacing him with long-time assistant Dave Joerger, whose previous head coaching experience came in the minor leagues, is not a typical move.
“I like our guys. I like our team. I think we’re gonna have a good season.”
– Dave Joerger, Grizzlies coach
Yet players speak of his voice as being familiar, of things not being that different. It looks, feels and sounds like, well, the honeymoon phase.
“There’s a good vibe going forward,” Joerger said.
So by all accounts, the early transition from old-school Hollins (my way or the highway) to new-school Joerger (he appreciates analytics and easily speaks of “sample sizes”) has been smooth.
The same can be said for the new ownership group headed by Ubiquiti Networks founder Robert Pera and team CEO Jason Levien.
While they certainly stirred the waters with trades, including last season’s deal that sent Rudy Gay to Toronto and the decision to replace Hollins, they are in the honeymoon phase, too. The NBA Board of Governors approved Pera’s purchase of the Grizzlies a year ago this month. But to Pera & Co., it still felt like they were late to joining in on the 2012-2013 season.
“There’s definitely more of a comfort level (this season) because when we came in last year we just inherited a team and a situation,” Pera said recently. “We didn’t really put any of our marks on it.”
Consider the franchise marks now: No. 1 in North American pro sports, according to ESPN The Magazine. That distinction was driven in large part by the fans’ level of satisfaction with the organization, including the on-court performance of the Grizzlies and the likability of the players.
With another 82-game grind looming and the Western Conference as tough as, if not tougher than, a year ago, there is a delicate balance between appreciating last season’s success and getting down to work on this season. In this area, a so-called honeymoon phase actually could be dangerous.
But outsiders might be helping the Grizzlies avoid that pitfall; there has been no shortage of chatter about how the Los Angeles Clippers were compromised and the Oklahoma City Thunder are but a reasonable facsimile of themselves in last season’s playoffs.
“I kinda got tired of hearing about it all summer long, about how everybody else around the world thinks if Blake Griffin doesn’t get hurt we don’t get out of the first round,” Joerger said. “I don’t know if I agree with that. You hear people say, well, if Russell Westbrook doesn’t get hurt, then you don’t get out of the second round.
“I like our guys. I like our team,” he said. “I think we’re gonna have a good season. How good of a season we’re going to have is relative to a lot of other things. Last year, we had one of the fewest games missed due to injury. I’m hoping we’re playing our best basketball at the end, I’m hoping that we’re healthy and I hope we get a great matchup in the first round.”
The particulars – the coach’s new up-tempo offense, rookie Nick Calathes as the latest would-be backup point guard, anticipated better 3-point shooting anchored by the return of Mike Miller and an ever-improving Quincy Pondexter – will avail themselves once there is – what else? – a good sample size.
So, too, Joerger’s aptitude for managing a game, the players’ minutes when he has a deep roster, and the ability to hold respect in the locker room through good times and bad. And let’s not forget that there are, and will always be, more financial challenges.
Rumors will persist about the possibility of trading 32-year-old power forward Zach Randolph. Will the team decide to offer new contracts to young players in Pondexter and forward Ed Davis or allow them to become restricted free agents after the season?
And what are realistic expectations months removed from that glorious ride to the Western Conference Finals? Did the Grizzlies, in fact, catch lucky breaks last season? Are they legitimate contenders to win the West now? Or, to borrow again from the marriage/honeymoon analogy, how will the Grizzlies look without their makeup – when they have those inevitable rough patches in a new season, under a new coach and still relatively new management team, when everything must be earned all over again?
“It really doesn’t matter what people think, where people put you on a list,” Gasol said. “It’s about what are you gonna do to make the team better. And how badly do you want it?”