January 18, 2012

The cities of New Orleans and Memphis are separated by only about 350 miles and are of similar size, representing two of the smallest metropolitan areas in the National Basketball Association. The two cities basketball teams also have several things in common, including that the Hornets and Grizzlies finished the 2010-11 regular season with an identical 46-36 record, tied for third place in the Southwest Division.

Through the initial three weeks of the current NBA season, New Orleans and Memphis faced oddly similar adversity. Both clubs are currently without arguably their best player due to a knee injury. While Hornets leading scorer Eric Gordon has been sidelined with a bruised knee since Jan. 4, Grizzlies All-Star power forward Zach Randolph will be out of action for roughly two months after tearing knee ligaments on Jan. 1.

The absence of Gordon, who averaged 21.0 points in his two appearances this season, has made it imperative for other Hornets players to increase their offensive production. Through New Orleans first 13 games of 2011-12, the club had yet to score 100 points in a game, one factor behind the Hornets dropping 10 of those contests.

For Memphis, point production has also been a telling barometer for team success early in the season. The Grizzlies are 4-0 when scoring 100-plus points, but just 2-6 when held under 100 points. During the Jan. 1 game at Chicago when Randolph sustained his injury, Memphis finished with only 64 points. The Grizzlies have also had the misfortune of playing one of the leagues most difficult schedules, having already faced Oklahoma City and Chicago twice apiece. The Grizzlies lost by narrow margins to the fast-starting Thunder both times, by counts of 98-95 and 100-95.

Intriguing matchup: Center, Emeka Okafor vs. Marc Gasol
Two of the leagues most productive rebounders and shot-blockers square off in the paint. Last season, Okafor ranked ninth in the NBA among all players in rebounding average (9.5), while Gasol ranked 38th (7.0). With his teammate Randolph sidelined, Gasol is now averaging double-digit rebounds and has moved into the leagues top five. Through mid-January, both bigs were in the top 15 in rejections Gasols 2.56 swats per game earned him the No. 3 spot, while Okafor was tied for 13th at 1.7.


Memphis spent the latter half of the previous decade in full-scale rebuilding mode, posting a losing record four consecutive years between 2006-07 and 2009-10. However, the Grizzlies long-term efforts to revitalize their roster yielded dividends last season, when they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since 2006. In the first round of the postseason, eighth-seeded Memphis stunned top-seeded San Antonio, eliminating the Spurs four games to two. In their three previous first-round playoff series from 2004-06, the Grizzlies had gone a combined 0-12 in games, making last springs run the greatest accomplishment in franchise history. Memphis nearly reached the Western Conference finals, but dropped a hard-fought, seven-game series to Oklahoma City in the second round. The Grizzlies-Thunder series featured several thrilling games, including a triple-overtime Game 4. Based on Memphis surprising success a year ago, expectations entering 2011-12 were considerably higher, but the Grizzlies have gotten off to a .500 start. Memphis has struggled with consistency in the absence of Zach Randolph, one of the NBAs best interior scorers and a gifted rebounder.

Whats new
In just the previous month alone, the Grizzlies have reshaped their roster by completing two trades that involved the Hornets. On Christmas Eve, Memphis dealt second-year point guard Greivis Vasquez to New Orleans in exchange for second-year small forward Quincy Pondexter. Pondexter has been in the Grizzlies rotation on a nightly basis, averaging about 16 minutes per game. On Jan. 4, the Grizzlies and Hornets participated in a three-team deal (also involving the Philadelphia 76ers). As a result of that trade, power forward Marreesse Speights joined Memphis, while swingman Xavier Henry was sent to New Orleans. Speights moved into the Grizzlies starting lineup on Jan. 10. Along with new faces Pondexter and Speights, Memphis signed power forward Dante Cunningham and point guard Jeremy Pargo in free agency. Pargo is the younger brother of former Hornets guard Jannero Pargo.

Grizzlies star
When healthy, Randolph is the Grizzlies most important player, the only member of the current squad who has been selected to an All-Star Game. With Randolph temporarily out of the lineup, though, small forward Rudy Gay becomes the No. 1 offensive option. The versatile and athletic UConn product has often been a Hornet-killer during his pro career, averaging 18.2 points against New Orleans in 16 matchups. Gay is also shooting a scorching 48.9 percent from three-point range vs. the Hornets.

Grizzly on the rise
The subject of criticism early in his NBA career for not living up to his selection as the No. 4 overall pick of the 2007 draft, point guard Mike Conley has blossomed into a quality starter. The son of former Olympic gold medalist Mike Conley Sr., the younger Conley has also been one of the NBAs most durable players, appearing in 243 of a possible 246 games over the past three 82-game regular seasons. The fleet-footed southpaw has increased his assist average in each of his five pro seasons.

On the sideline
Lionel Hollins has had an unusual NBA head-coaching career, now in his third different stint with the Grizzlies. He previously led them during brief spells in 1999-2000 and 2004-05, before taking over again midway through the 2008-09 season. In his two full seasons, he guided the Grizzlies to 40-42 and 46-36 records, with the latter season culminating in the first-ever playoff-series victory for the franchise. As a player, Hollins was an All-Star shooting guard for the 1976-77 NBA champion Portland Trail Blazers.

Did you know?
It may seem strange that a team that calls Tennessee home is nicknamed the Grizzlies, but the moniker comes from the franchises original home in Vancouver. The Grizzlies joined the NBA in 1995-96, spending six seasons in Canada before moving to the Volunteer State prior to the 2001-02 campaign. Since the Grizzlies departure a decade ago, there has been only one Canadian NBA franchise, the Toronto Raptors.

Players the Grizzlies want shooting free throws in a close game... If the Grizzlies need a three-pointer, three of their best options are...
Name Career FT percentage (through Jan. 11)
Best option on a below-average team at line (70.2 percent in 11-12).
Often uses an incredibly effective pump fake to draw fouls.
One of NBAs most exciting dunkers in transition.
Name Career three-point percentage (through Jan. 11)
Left-hander dangerous when Memphis bigs are double-teamed.
Fourth-year reserve less reliant on treys than early in his career.
Launches one of the highest-arcing shots in the NBA.

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