Back when Hubie Brown broke into the NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks as an assistant in 1972, he took notice of a couple things. First, the team was pretty good; it had won the NBA title in 1971 and, in his two years in Milwaukee, the Bucks would win 119 games and finish first in their division each season.
Second, he saw what happens, firsthand, when guys who think they should be playing are, in fact, not playing. The latter observation shaped his coaching philosophy to this day.
"Here we had this team with Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) and Oscar (Robertson) and Lucious (Allen) and we have our 11th and 12th man thinking they're better than those guys? They were ticked off they weren't playing," Brown recalled. "So I try to play 10 guys. That way, only two guys can be ticked off at me."
He laughed. Anyone with even a passing acquaintance of Hubie Brown knows that he worries more about his wardrobe than he does about his concerns about whether his players might be ticked off at him.
He does play 10 guys. Actually, he plays 11. Backup center Jake Tsakalidis goes 14 minutes a night -- 11th in minutes played -- and he's started nine games.
"We're a young team, fourth youngest in the league," Brown went on. "The idea is to play 10 guys and develop them and maybe turn them into two-for-one trades. You've got to do that these days."
They only needed Wesley Person (whose deal expires at the end of the season) and a draft pick to pry Bonzi Wells from Portland. Wells may have worn out his welcome and the Blazers would like to trim payroll, as long as they can't cut jerks. Memphis got James Posey via free agency and now they've added Wells, who may be in for a shock the first time he hears Brown at practice. I think we can safely state that it's going to be a little different in Memphis than it was in Xanadu.
The players may be getting it done, but it is Brown who started the whole thing rolling. He's a career coach who happened to have a longer-than-anticipated second job in television. He always has been able to get not-so-good teams to play better and decent teams to get into the postseason. His current oeuvre-in-progress, the Memphis Grizzlies, are merely another manifestation of Brown's style, coupled with a dose of hard, NBA reality. (They were 8-8 over 16 games, the best start in the history of the franchise.)
His best player, Pau Gasol, plays less than 33 minutes a game. In other words, Gasol sits out more than one quarter of every game. You would be hard-pressed to find any other coach who played his best player so few minutes. Brown might be technically correct when he notes, "We have no All-Stars," but he has one in the oven in Gasol, who would be an All-Star Game starter in the Eastern Conference.
Ten Grizzlies average between 18 and 33 minutes. Jason Williams, who Brown has basically reformed into a terrific, productive and less turnover-prone point guard, plays less than 30 minutes a game. He still averages 7.1 assists a game and remains one of the best in the league in assists-to-turnover ratio.
Williams, Gasol and the rest of the team know exactly what they're going to do, when they're going to do it, and for how long. So do Earl Watson, Shane Battier and Stromile Swift. They may not always do it well, or, even better, the way Hubie spelled it out in practice, but they know they're going to get the chance. Every night. Nine of the Grizzlies appeared in 15 of their first 16 games (Williams would have made it 10, but he is out with a bad back.)
"I've always thought that more coaches should coach this way," said John Nash, the general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers. "Most coaches will squeeze everything out of their stars.
"With the Grizzlies, I think what Hubie is doing helps them in two ways," Nash went on. "It helps them at the end of games, because the starters are fresher. And it helps them at the end of the season, when the whole team is fresher and the substitutes are so used to playing that they can compete as well."
After losing to the Grizzlies on Dec. 1, Celtics coach Jim O'Brien spoke with some degree of envy over what the Grizzlies are doing.
Nowhere was this clearer than in two recent road wins for the Grizzlies. They defeated the Cavaliers in double overtime, despite not having Williams, and basically going with Mike Miller at the point. They trailed by 20 late in the third quarter in that game and by 16 entering the final period.
Williams also was unable to go against the Celtics and Tsakalidis did not play. The Grizzlies again rallied from a second-half deficit and beat the Celtics comfortably, avenging a close loss in their Halloween home opener. As Paul Pierce, the Pau Gasol of the Celtics, watched helplessly from the bench with six fouls, the Grizzlies' depth simply wore down the Celtics. The Celtics didn't have what the Grizzlies have.
This is how Brown and Jerry West have decided to go and, so far, the verdict is pretty clear. Brown will become the winningest coach in Grizzlies history before the All-Star Game. (That's more of a reflection on how absurdly bad things were before he got there.) The Grizzlies are developing players and those players will be attractive to other teams. (We can think of one potential Lakers free agent who might force a deal for a few of the young Memphis studs to be reunited with West.)
Unfortunately for Memphis, it is in the wrong conference. The Grizzlies' .500 record would have led the Atlantic Division for the month of November. But, along with Denver, the Grizzlies are one of the early-season feel-good stories -- and it's a story rooted in a 70-year-old coach who brought discipline, respect and his wide range of knowledge to work every day. He has few rules, but two of them are "Be on time" and "Know when to pass or shoot."
"I just try to soak in as much as I can from him because there is just so much knowledge in that guy's head that you try to learn as much as you can," Miller said. "You don't know how long you'll have him around because he only has another year left on his contract, but hopefully it will be another six or seven years. You can only ask what he wants to give and he's done so much for the game of basketball that you try to soak in as much as you can from him."
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.