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Despite widespread criticism, Grizzlies confident in big moves

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- No team in the NBA had a more whiplash-inducing summer than the Grizzlies. After two years of shedding payroll and stripping away veterans in favor of young talent, the Grizzlies appeared to do a 180-degree turn in the offseason when they signed 34-year-old guard Allen Iverson and acquired 29-year-old power forward Zach Randolph.

Despite the need for the talents both players bring to the table -- Iverson's scoring boosts an anemic offense that finished 29th in points last year, and Randolph's low-post game adds a dimension the Grizzlies have been lacking since they traded Pau Gasol in February 2008 -- the acquisitions were universally panned throughout the league.

Iverson, it was said, would take minutes away from Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo, two former lottery picks in whom the Grizzlies are heavily invested. Randolph would take time away from second-year forward-center Marc Gasol and rookie center Hasheem Thabeet. And both Iverson and Randolph would take shots that should be going to Rudy Gay.

Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace isn't buying it.

"Look, there are 240 minutes in an NBA game," Wallace said. "There are ample minutes for the players. I don't see how it's going to impede their progress. You have got to be flexible in this league. You have to seriously look at some players because you can add players who can add wins to your total every year and help your team significantly. I have no idea how many, but there will be more wins than if we didn't have them."

Wallace said he and Grizzlies owner Michael Heisley considered the checkered background of both players before making the deals. Iverson was effectively banished from the Pistons last February after refusing to accept a bench role. And despite career 16.7-point, 8.3-rebound averages, Randolph has been traded three times in the last two years.

"We looked into the totality of these guys' careers and we talked to a lot of people that were around them," Wallace said. "We brought them in on our terms. We did not have to do a deal where we had to trade an O.J. Mayo or a Rudy Gay or a Mike Conley or a Marc Gasol. We didn't have to trade any draft picks. The longest contract is Zach with two more years. You can make the case that we were mortgaging our future if we started trading our core players. That's not the case. We are able to throw them on top of what we have and not shed any assets. Zach took cap room this year. He was essentially our free agent. And we got him for a less significant long-term commitment than if we went out and signed a new free agent on the market."

Wallace contends that the Grizzlies' development will be furthered by a more competitive season. A 4-13 start put Memphis in a deep hole by the end of last November, and after coach Marc Iavaroni was fired in January, the Grizzlies were effectively playing out the string.

"At some point, you have to add some significant veterans to become more competitive to put yourself in position to be in games," Wallace said. "Or essentially your regular season begins to look like summer league. There has to be some meaning. Your players don't just grow with minutes; they grow with being in games that have some significance. Even if you don't make the playoffs, you're in the playoff race until later in the year. You're in higher stakes games in March and April."

For Wallace and the rest of the basketball staff, the Grizzlies' ability to be competitive late in this season could determine whether they return for another. Coach Lionel Hollins enters his first full season as a lame duck, and though Wallace has managed to keep Memphis on fiscally sound ground -- despite the second-worst attendance in the league last season, the Grizzlies actually made money -- Heisley is likely going to want to see a return on the $19.5 million investment he is making this season in Iverson and Randolph. It's a feeling that has trickled down from the front office to the locker room.

"We're all focused on one goal and that is to have a better season than last year," Mayo said. "We definitely have enough firepower to do that. It's our job to put it together. There is no time for any setbacks. We have to get to the postseason."

1. After missing the final three months of last season and not playing much organized basketball to avoid injury while he was seeking a contract, Iverson reported to camp in woeful shape. After missing the Grizzlies' presaeason opener, Iverson was shelved for up to three weeks with a partially torn hamstring.

Randolph, however, dropped a very noticeable 10 pounds coming into camp and has been an offensive force in the low post. "That's what I'm here for," he said. "That's what this team needs."

2. It's shaping up to be an important season for Gay, who, barring a sudden turn of events, will begin the season without a contract extension and become a restricted free agent next summer. Gay estimated he packed on 15 pounds of muscle in the offseason and says he is "100 percent committed" to making the Grizzlies a playoff team. Privately, though, there are some concerns within the organization that if Gay's shot totals start to decrease with Iverson and Randolph on board (not to mention an improved Mayo), the 23-year-old forward, who averaged 18.9 points per game last season, will try to compensate by doing too much.

3. Marc Gasol looks like his older brother. Literally. After dropping 25 pounds, Gasol reported to camp looking like Pau's identical twin. "They really look alike now, don't they?" Wallace said. "We wanted Marc to drop that weight. We had our strength coach over [in Spain] for a couple of weeks working with him. He's really put in the time this offseason."

Hasheem Thabeet is raw. Very raw. During one recent practice, Thabeet missed six consecutive shots from point-blank range and was unable to shake backup center Hamed Haddadi. While acknowledging that Thabeet's offensive development will take time, the Grizzlies' coaching staff believes he can eventually develop a smooth right- and left-handed hook shot. In the meantime, the shot-blocking Thabeet can still expect to get significant playing time with Randolph shouldering the bulk of the offensive load in the frontcourt.

Said Wallace: "The skills Thabeet has, we just don't think you can get a guy like that very often."

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