Before last season the Memphis Grizzlies franchise had never won a playoff game and between 2006 and 2009 amassed a total of 68 wins.
To put it nicely Beale Street wasn't exactly used to winning basketball but after earning 46 victories in the regular season a year ago, upsetting heavily-favored San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs and giving Oklahoma City all it could handle in the Western Conference semifinals before finally falling in Game 7, the Grizzlies are now regarded as one of the best young teams in all of basketball.
And remember Memphis made its unlikely postseason run a year ago without its best all-around player, Rudy Gay, who was sidelined after undergoing surgery to repair a left shoulder subluxation.
The Grizzlies kept their impressive nucleus intact by re-signing talented center Marc Gasol to a four-year, $58 million dollar deal. Gasol teams with double-double machine Zach Randolph to give coach Lionel Hollins perhaps the best one-two, low-post punch in all of basketball.
With Gay added back into a mix that also includes a solid young point guard in Mike Conley as well as defensive stopper Tony Allen, Memphis could be a shooter away from joining the elite at the top of the Western Conference.
2010-11 Results: 46-36, fourth place Southwest; Lost to Oklahoma City in West semifinals.
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:
PG- Mike Conley SG- Sam Young SF- Rudy Gay PF- Zach Randolph C- Marc Gasol
FRONTCOURT: Many regarded Gasol, who was a restricted free agent, as the best available player on the market so locking him up long term was big for a small-market Memphis Club. Pau's baby brother got in better shape the past two seasons and always had the skill level to succeed. The 7-foot-1 Gasol offers Hollins a dominant one-two punch down low, perhaps the best in all of basketball, with Randolph. Gasol, who is the franchise's all-time leader in field goal percentage and an underrated shot blocker, has great hands and can be a lot to deal with, especially on second chances when teams double Randolph.
"In the short three years he's been here, Marc has advanced through the ranks and become one of the top centers," Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace said. "Not just one of the top young centers, but the top centers overall in the NBA."
There aren't a lot of NBA players with the ability to put up double-doubles on a consistent basis and Randolph is a member of that exclusive club. Z-Bo was the first All-NBA selection in franchise history, earning Third Team honors last year and may be the most underrated "star" in the NBA. A bull in the china shop on the blocks, you can forget it if he gets position on the entry pass.
For all his talent, Gay must develop more consistency and prove he can fit in with teammates that actually improved when he went down with his injury last season. An athletic marvel, Gay has the kind of talent to be a star at both ends on the floor.
"I'm hungrier than ever," said Gay, who averaged 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds before going down last season.
BACKCOURT: Conley doesn't get a lot of play but he is a talented young point guard that loves to play the passing lanes and steal more than the average cat burglar. He's loved to get Memphis going on the break where he's speed is quite an asset. Conley does need to develop more consistency and improve the jumper so defenders can't lag off, however.
Sam Young is a defensive-minded role player that offers enough productive minutes to allow Hollins to bring the explosive O.J. Mayo off the bench for instant offense.
BENCH: Allen isn't going to wow you on the offensive end but he's one of the NBA's best perimeter defenders. In his first season in Memphis, the veteran averaged 4.14 steals per 48 minutes of action, the highest mark since Nate McMillan in 1993-94. He also finished fourth in the 2010-11 NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting, behind big men Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett and Tyson Chandler.
Mayo has always had the skills to be one of the NBA's best pure scorers. The USC product hasn't really fit in with the other three other upper echelon scorers in Memphis, however, and Indianapolis has been close to acquiring him on a pair of occasions. For now Mayo is staying and will be asked to provide consistent offense off the bench.
Memphis also has 6-foot-6 swing guard Greivis Vasquez, a solid backup to Conley but injuries have hurt with the rest of the bench.
Xavier Henry. a shooter, was chosen with the 12th pick in the 2010 draft and has been ticketed as someone who could step in as the two guard but he has to stay healthy. Henry played in just 38 games during his rookie year and showed up at training camp with a walking boot and crutches. He is likely out for a month with torn ligaments in his right ankle.
Versatile backup big Darrell Arthur has an ever bigger problem. The 6-foot-9 Kansas product tore his Achilles in the preseason and will miss the entire year. The loss hurts since Arthur enjoyed a breakout third NBA campaign averaging career highs in points (9.1), blocks (0.79) and field goal percentage (.497).
To replace Arthur the team signed Charlotte's Dante Cunningham, a capable player that averaged 9.0 points, 4.0 on 51 percent shooting after being acquired from Portland last season, to a three-year offer sheet. The Grizz are still waiting to see if the Bobcats match the offer.
"He's a defender. He's a decent shooter from 18 feet," Hollins said. "He doesn't have Darrell's (shooting) range or consistency yet but he's a young player. He'll bring energy and hustle."
COACHING: The Grizzlies have turned things around and become a real contender under Hollins, a tough-minded former player that preaches accountability. Hollins has made Memphis a much smarter team by insisting that they never use youth or inexperience as a crutch.
OUTLOOK: Memphis basically has its entire cast back with the exception of the injured Arthur so it should be able to take the next step this season and join perennial Southwest powerhouses Dallas and San Antonio as big time teams.
Whether they are ready to break into the top half of the West on a consistent basis probably depends on whether they can generate some serviceable depth up front and if Gay can integrate himself back into the lineup successfully.
"It's obvious that as a team, we have a lot of optimism. We feel like we have a team to make a run at a championship," Conley said.