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MikeCheck on Grizzlies: Bickerstaff preparing Grizzlies for new-look Cavaliers retrofitted for LeBron’s dominance

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Grizzlies interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff sees an intriguing characteristic in LeBron James’ new-look Cleveland Cavaliers.

He believes they’re constructed a lot like James’ older Cavs’ teams – the ones that predate the squads that have helped the four-time league MVP reach seven straight NBA Finals appearances. And this was actually a compliment from Bickerstaff, who was impressed by the bold, midseason roster reconstruction the Cavaliers executed around James a few weeks ago at the trade deadline.

“It’s kind of a flashback to the group that (James) had in Cleveland before he left to go to Miami, but with younger guys and maybe faster guys,” Bickerstaff said after the Grizzlies returned to practice from the weeklong All-Star break. “It doesn’t have that superstar next to him, especially now with Kevin Love being out. But it has a bunch of really good players who understand the pecking order and can play really well off him. He sees a young core of guys who have huge capabilities and potential, and he can make those guys even better.”

The Grizzlies (18-38) resume their schedule against James and the Cavaliers (34-22) on Friday at FedExForum in hopes of slowing down arguably the NBA’s most rejuvenated team. Cleveland carried a four-game winning streak into the All-Star break, a run fueled by a set of trades that sent six aging, injured or disgruntled rotation players out and returned a solid, athletic and younger supporting cast.

Among the players the Cavaliers parted with in that flurry of transactions on Feb. 8 were Dwyane Wade, Isaiah Thomas, Derrick Rose, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert and Channing Frye. In return, Cleveland acquired Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. from the Lakers, George Hill from the Kings and Rodney Hood from the Jazz. The Cavaliers’ performance over the next few months and into the playoffs will ultimately determine if those drastic moves prove to be an upgrade.

Lebron James

But count Bickerstaff among those who initially view the new pieces as a better fit for James. Bickerstaff drew comparisons between the current revamped Cavaliers to the teams James played on from 2008 to 2010 that included Mo Williams, Antawn Jamison, Delonte West, Anthony Parker and J.J. Hickson.

Over a two-year stretch, those teams went 127-37 but failed to reach the NBA Finals. But what Bickerstaff sees now is a similar makeup to what the Cavaliers had back then in terms of a collection of younger and more athletic players around James who embrace their roles as complementary pieces. Clarkson, Nance and Hood are all 25, and George is a versatile facilitator who’s had years of deep playoff experience – primarily from his time in Indiana facing James’ Miami Heat teams in the postseason.

The change has given a significant punch to what had been a Cavaliers team mired in bickering off the court and major struggles on the court. It had reached the point where Boston and Toronto emerged as major threats to disrupt Cleveland’s dominance in the East after three straight trips to the NBA Finals.

The early returns have been impressive. All four newcomers contributed in comfortable road wins over Boston and Oklahoma City entering the break, and a more energetic James averaged 30 points, 13 assists and 9.5 rebounds in the first four games after the trades. That momentum carried into Los Angeles last weekend, where Team LeBron beat Team Steph and James was named All-Star Game MVP.

You always want to play the good teams because you want to show your city that you can compete against the best teams, and you want to make your city proud... obviously, they’re a well-known team that’s been to the Finals many, many years and we can learn things from them, obviously. And that’s what you hope for.
-- Marc Gasol

“I think we’ve got to get back to being the hunters and not the hunted,” Cavaliers coach Ty Lue said of the team’s change in mindset since the trades. “These young guys we have – able to shoot, drive or pass it – adds a different element to our team. They’re playing free, having fun.”

While the threat of James leaving Cleveland again in free agency after the season continues to loom, the greatest player in the game has publicly embraced the makeover engineered by Cavaliers’ first-year general manager Koby Altman. The challenge to keep his team moving forward on the fly to the playoffs is one that has renewed James’ spirits entering the regular season’s stretch run.

That post-break stint starts with Thursday’s home game against Washington before the Cavaliers travel to Memphis to face the Grizzlies on the second night of a back-to-back set.

“Koby did a heck of a job of understanding what our team needed,” James told reporters recently. “It just wasn’t working out for us … he made the changes that he felt best fits our team. It’s on me to make sure the new guys come in, fit in and make it as seamless as possible. So my voice has to be heard. Right now, I’m trying to fast-track it and make sure that the new guys are always hearing me behind them.”

Although the Grizzlies and Cavaliers are headed in different directions this season, center Marc Gasol insisted Memphis must be more than just the next stop on new-look Cleveland’s coming-out tour. The Grizzlies have lost seven consecutive games, but have routinely played well against some of the top teams in the league. Those efforts have included early-season wins over Golden State and Houston, and nearly rallying from a 22-point deficit in a close loss to the Thunder last week.

That also was the case in a Dec. 2 loss in Cleveland, where the Grizzlies came back from a 19-point deficit to tie the game late in the fourth quarter before James scored seven of his game-high 34 points in the final 82 seconds to secure his team’s 116-111 win.

Marc Gasol

Gasol said Friday’s game is more about civic pride and showing team growth.

“You always want to play the good teams because you want to show your city that you can compete against the best teams, and you want to make your city proud,” Gasol said. “Obviously, they’re a well-known team that’s been to the Finals many, many years and we can learn things from them, obviously. And that’s what you hope for.”

Grizzlies fans may simply hope for James to show up. Last season, James and Cleveland’s other star players skipped the Dec. 14 trip to Memphis for the second game of a strangely scheduled home-and-away, back-to-back set between the teams, with the first game in Cleveland.

The schedule is similar this time around, with the Cavaliers set to arrive in Memphis after Thursday night’s home game and then returning to Cleveland to face the Spurs on Sunday. Indications are James will make the trip to Memphis for Friday’s game. Entering Thursday, James had played in all of Cleveland’s 56 games, including both ends of 10 back-to-back sets this season.

Circumstances have changed significantly since Bickerstaff last saw the Cavaliers.

Back then, on Dec. 2, he was a week into his role as interim coach after David Fizdale’s dismissal. James had yet to play a game with Thomas, who was recovering from hip surgery. Love had dropped a double-double on Memphis and Cleveland was in the midst of its longest winning streak in franchise history.

The Cavaliers were rolling then, before adversity hit.

And they’re on the verge of regaining that groove again now, post makeover.

“So there’s an energy level going back and forth between the group, where they’ve elevated how they play,” Bickerstaff said of the midseason reboot around James. “And that youth adds a ton of speed on both sides of the ball for him. So you’ve got to give Koby a ton of credit for what he did at the trade deadline, with all the maneuvering. He made that team better. And it looks like it has energized LeBron, a guy who was already the best player in our league.”

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.