Grizzlies: One-on-One with GM Chris Wallace
By Bill Ingram
Aug 1, 2007, 10:05
When former Celtics GM Chris Wallace decided it was time to leave the friendly confines of Boston he went looking for a team that had a great shot at being good right away. He didn't have to look far. The Memphis Grizzlies, looking to fill Jerry West's vacated GM spot, provided plenty for Wallace to get excited about.
"This is a very attractive position for a number of reasons," explains Wallace. "First of all, Jerry West left us a significant amount of young talent in the likes of Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry, Hakim Warrick, and the older players who are some of the better players at their position in the NBA, like Pau Gasol and Mike Miller. It's an attractive roster that was left behind. This team had been in the playoffs three of the last four years before stepping out of the postseason last year. So this team can win, the talent is there to win, and when you add the arrival of Marc Iavaroni as head coach, that was very appealing to me, as well. I really am impressed with his background. He was on a championship team as a player, he played in Europe later on, he's been with Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone and John Stockton up in Utah as a player. As a coach he's worked on the collegiate level with the likes of Jim Larranaga, who led George Mason to that Cinderella run to the Final Four two years ago. Then in the NBA he's been with Mike Fratello, Pat Riley, and Mike D'Antoni. As a coach he's as well prepared as any assistant I've seen who's ascending to a head coaching position. He has significant experience on both sides of the ball from some of the best offensive and defensive coaches out there. He also has a great track record as a developer of young big men and as a developer of talent overall. That's a very attractive coaching package right there. When you add up the talent we have and the presence of Marc Iavaroni, it was an easy decision to come to Memphis."
One of the first issues Wallace had to address was the very public trade demand issued by All-Star power forward Pau Gasol. The Grizzlies refused to seriously entertain the notion, preferring instead to make all of the changes necessary to make Gasol happy.
"My conversations with Pau have been very positive," confirms Wallace. "He wants to win and being in that type of environment and we're going to provide him a winning environment. We think he's going to thrive in Marc's system because he's such a versatile and skilled offensive player. His talents are going to be accentuated to the highest degree. We're going to get up and down the court and everything we're going to do will feed into his strengths."
Two things that needed to happen for Gasol to change his tune were addressed right away by the Grizzlies' new GM. First, he drafted an outstanding floor general in Mike Conley, Jr. Second, he added a quality big man to play center next to Gasol. Conley has yet to prove he's ready to start, of course, but Wallace plans to give him plenty of time on the court regardless of his spot in the lineup.
"It's a little early here in late July to say who's going to start in any of these positions, but he's going to get an opportunity to play a great deal - as much as he can handle this year. Mike has tremendous speed and quickness and in today's NBA quickness and speed kill. It's so difficult to guard the real burners out on the perimeter with the defensive rules that have been in place now for a couple of seasons. You see what Tony Parker can do, for example, in San Antonio. Speed and quickness in the point guard position is imperative in this age and Mike has that in abundance. He also has decision-making and maturity on the floor that belies his youth. He conducts himself and makes decisions like a much older and more experienced player."
Now at center will be former number one draft pick Darko Milicic. He rode the bench in Detroit for three seasons, finally got a little playing time in Orlando, and will now get to show what he can do with a full-time starting role.
"I think having Conley, having Gasol, having all of our players is going to be very instrumental in getting Darko to go up a couple of notches and become the player that everyone's thought he could be for quite some time. Darko is going to be a great complement to Pau Gasol. He not only is the big body that Pau needed on the front line, but he is a player who has great versatility and skill in his own right. He can score on the block with either hand, he can go out and face the basket and hit the outside jumper, he passes the ball well, he's a good offside shot blocker, he's a decent rebounder - that's the area he needs to improve the most in. But we're very excited about getting him in here in September after his time with the Serbian national team is completed and really getting to work with Darko in bringing out these incredible talents that he possesses. Darko reminds me a little of Jermaine O'Neal in the sense that they both played for very strong teams, talented, veteran teams. Jermaine was in Portland and Darko in Detroit. They didn't get to play a great deal, but they went to practice on a daily basis against some of the best front court players in the NBA. Then he went off to Orlando and received more playing time and did some good things with that opportunity, particularly in the playoffs last year. He did well against his old Detroit Pistons team. Darko's got a huge carrot out in front of him, too. He's just 22 years old and at the completion of his contract he'll still just be 25. He can coveted by the rest of the NBA at the end of his contract if he performs here for the Grizzlies."
Last season the Grizzlies traded away Shane Battier to acquire Rudy Gay from the Houston Rockets. In his short time with the team Gay has already shown signs of becoming a rare and wonderful talent in the NBA. He had a remarkable summer league, scoring 18.2 points per game and putting on a show for the crowd at UNLV with his above-the-rim game.
"Rudy showed flashes of brilliance last year as a rookie, as he did during his two years at the University of Connecticut," says Wallace. "He has tremendous athleticism, I mean he can get in the lane and go over the top of basically anybody in the game to make that spectacular play at the basket. He has range on his shot, he just has to become a more consistent outside shooter. Rudy really has all of the skills and offensive talents necessary to eventually become a big time player in the NBA. He's going to fit in very well with Marc Iavaroni's system, and look for Rudy to also play some at the power forward spot, not just small forward. That will be in an effort to take advantage of his speed and quickness in some match-ups with power forwards."
Running next to Gay will be Hakim Warrick, who started coming into his own in 2006-07. He averaged 12.7 points per game and became a full-time starter for the Grizzlies.
"Hakim's also going to fit in very well in this new regime because this is going to be an up-tempo system and he's an up-tempo player," beams Wallace. "Hakim can get up and down the court, he has tremendous length and athleticism. Late last season he put several double-doubles together, I'm really excited about seeing him up close, now that I'm with the Grizzlies. I think he's going to thrive with Marc."
All of these changes and potential are great, but is this a playoff team in 2007-08? Chris Wallace gives us his take, starting with the health factor.
"I think, obviously, this is dependent on good health. Last year the team did not have an optimum season in terms of health for key individuals. For example, Gasol got hurt in the World Championships and was out until December. That was a lethal blow for the Grizzlies. Kyle Lowry only played in ten games and missed the final 72. You've got to have your health. If everyone's healthy I think we're going to be much-improved. Gasol now has someone to complement him on the front line in Darko Milicic. Our point guard position has been upgraded and is deeper now with the arrival of Mike Conley. Rudy Gay and Hakim Warrick and Kyle Lowry are all a year older. We've got outside shooting with Mike Miller, one of the best long-distance marksmen in the league. Casey Jacobsen, who we brought in, is also a big outside shooting threat. I think the big issues that the team faced heading into the draft were addressing the point guard situation, which we have with Conley, enhancing the front line to help Pau, which we got in Darko Milicic, and we also picked up Andre Brown, who's a hustling rebounder up front. He was one of the top players in the NBDL last year before he went to Seattle, where he stuck the remainder of the season. Then the outside shooting improved when we picked up Casey and also Darko is a considerable outside shooter. So we feel that we've addressed three of the biggest needs coming into the offseason. There's also been a great deal of excitement internally with this team with a new coach, a new system, we have a very hands-on player development coaching staff here, which is going to fit in well with the number of young players that we need to develop. We're well aware that the Western Conference is very strong, but at the same time we feel that this team has all of the ingredients necessary to turn things around very quickly."
It certainly seems as though the Grizzlies have made all of the moves necessary to put themselves in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase - if not in the quest for home court advantage. There are a number of teams in the West that are on the bubble, and the Grizzlies would like to serve notice that they're ready and willing to break the bubble.
Bill Ingram is Executive Editor for Basketball News Services, powering HOOPSWORLD.COM, SWISH Magazine, and The Basketball News Report. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association and primarily covers the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, and San Antonio Spurs.