(I worked as a Sports Editor from late 2004 until the summer of 2006. This is one of the many columns I was able to save that were originally published in The Sun-Times of Heber Springs, Arkansas.)
The feel-good story is done. All the warm feelings generated by last year’s magical run have turned into frustrated disappointments after four games of uninspired play.
Of course, I’m talking about the Memphis Grizzlies, who were swept out of the playoffs Sunday night by the Phoenix Suns. After their game three loss, the Grizz became the proud owners of the record for most consecutive playoff losses. Memphis is now 0-8 in 8 postseason appearances.
Last year it was enough just to make the second season. That’s not the case now. By most accounts, the Suns were favored to win, but not sweep. The finger pointing began before the final horn sounded, and in most cases, digits were aimed at the wrong targets.
A lot of the focus will be on Jason Williams, whose post game locker room tirade towards Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins has been on a 24-hour ESPN loop. Williams took Calkins’ pen away in response to a Sunday column in which Calkins questioned Memphis’ desire. And even more of a spotlight will be on Bonzi Wells and his personality clashes with head coach Mike “The Czar” Fratello.
The real brunt of the blame should fall on the shoulders of Fratello and GM Jerry West. The Logo’s hiring of Fratello quickly turned the Grizzlies season into an off-Beale Street production of ‘The Little Czar that Could’.
Fratello allowed personal problems with players to affect his team this season. For whatever reason, he practically split Williams’ playing time with reserve Earl Watson, sometimes to the detriment of the team, even though Watson couldn’t hold court down at Spring Park.
For the year, Williams averaged 3 more points, 3 more assists, less turnovers, more steals and shot a better percentage than Watson. And against the Suns, all you had to do was watch a game to see how much J-Will wanted to shine against Steve Nash.
He was doing a fine job too. But Fratello would inevitably pull Williams when he was hot and sit him for long stretches in favor of the offensively challenged Watson. Personality conflicts? Not sure, but I am sure that the momentum swings killed the Grizz.
Fratello also benched Bonzi Wells for no reason in game 2 and played him just eight minutes in game 3. Then before game 4, he announced that the two had mutually agreed that it was best for Bonzi not to even be in the building.
Granted, Wells has been a cancer in the past, but this time – at least publicly – he was saying all the right things. Suns coach Mike D’Antoni said Wells was one of the players his team feared on the Grizz, and rightfully so.
When Fratello played Wells 30 minutes in a regular season game against Phoenix, Wells responded with 16 points, 9 rebounds and 2 assists in a Memphis win. In game 1 of the playoffs, he logged just 16 minutes but finished with 8 points and 3 assists.
So, in order to give his team a fighting chance, he buries two of his most productive players on the bench. And that’s not counting Shane Battier, who Fratello sat down after the former Blue Devil was the only player on the floor showing any competitive fire in game 3.
It looks like there was a reason Fratello kept getting passed over for job after job during his five years out of the game.
Which brings me to Jerry West. Once considered the best executive in the Association, West’s tenure with Memphis has been filled with wrong moves and no moves whatsoever.
I guess I should have known something was up when his first action as GM was to sign Watson away from the Sonics. He was right on with his acquisition of James Posey last year, but then laid a dud with Brian Cardinal this offseason.
There have been many marquee free agents and players that have been traded while West has been in Memphis, and the biggest name he could grab was Bonzi Wells.
It looks like his decision to hire Fratello will be considered a miss. If the players were revolting against Hubie Brown and his strict substitution pattern early in the year, why hire a coach that was a Brown disciple and once dubbed “Little Hubie”?
West will most assuredly dismantle the team in the offseason. With my luck, he’ll trade the only player Memphis should keep on the roster. If Battier is playing in a new uniform in a different city next season, I might just wind up like Michael Douglass in Falling Down.
Instead of trying to deal J-Will, Ren, Pau, Miller or Posey, West should start with an overthrowing of the Czar, and then try polishing his own tarnished logo before the Grizzlies wind up hanging with Boo Boo in Jellystone.