MEMPHIS, Tenn. - When the Allen Iverson experiment blew up on Memphis, it looked as if the Grizzlies had started yet another lottery countdown.
Five weeks later, they are playing their best basketball in years.
Memphis is 12-7 since a woeful 1-8 start, beating division leaders Dallas, Cleveland and Denver along the way.
No, the Grizzlies aren't ready for a coveted Christmas Day time-slot, and, yes, they still may wind up in the lottery lineup. But the often dysfunctional Grizzlies look like a real NBA team, and coach Lionel Hollins says Iverson's exit played a part.
"We were never able to build any camaraderie with him because he was out so much," Hollins said. "When he came back, there was all of that, so it had to play a part. But I think more so than Allen Iverson, it was the fact that we were starting a new season with so many new people and trying to develop trust and develop chemistry."
The veteran guard was signed in September but suffered a preseason hamstring injury and missed the first three games of the season. Iverson played his first game in Sacramento on Nov. 2 and immediately grumbled about his minutes and coming off the bench. He played three games before taking a leave of absence for personal reasons.
Memphis severed ties on Nov. 17 - enough of a benchmark that the Grizzlies still track their record since his waiving in their game notes.
With Iverson now back with the 76ers, Zach Randolph has become the most talked-about off-season acquisition.
Behind Randolph's 19.6 points and 11 rebounds per game, the Grizzlies are winning the games they should win. They are 5-0 at home against teams with losing records, the latest a 121-108 win Tuesday over the Golden State Warriors.
"I'm happy with where we are," Hollins said. "If somebody told me we were going to be at this point, with our schedule, I should be happy."
Credit better chemistry. Improved defense. One theory? The Grizzlies have learned how to play as a team.
"We're all trusting each other," center Marc Gasol said. "Everybody's talking, pointing, helping each other, and we can see the results."
Gasol is part of a major change to the Memphis' frontline. The second-year player out of Spain has teamed with Randolph to improve rebounding. Last in the league with 38.8 rebounds a game last year, the Grizzlies now are in the top five and the best in offensive boards.
Randolph and Gasol are the NBA's second-best rebounding pair. Randolph ranks eighth in rebounding, with Gasol 14th. Randolph had 32 points and 24 rebounds in a win over Denver and followed with 33 and 18 against Golden State.
"We're both fundamentally sound," Randolph said. "He's got a lot of skills. He can shoot the basketball, score on the block, and he's a good passer. We complement each other very well."
All five Memphis starters are averaging in double figures. Mike Conley is improving as an NBA point guard. O.J. Mayo has kept his scoring pace from his rookie season, and Rudy Gay is leading the team with 20.6 points a game.
Nuggets coach George Karl called the Grizzlies very difficult.
"They have a very good inside game, and they pass the ball very freely to one another. Their athletes on the floor can be very dangerous. Their starting five is an efficient offensive unit. They're probably a top-five or top-10 efficient offense," Karl said.
The Grizzlies' success lies solely in the starters, with little more than spot production from the bench.
Rookie Hasheem Thabeet, the No. 2 overall pick in the draft, has shown flashes of the defense Memphis wanted but remains a project. Sam Young, the rookie from Pittsburgh, has provided energy minutes, and Jamaal Tinsley, signed in November, has improved with assists but struggles to score.
The Grizzlies still have little margin for error.
They were dominated in a 110-97 loss in Atlanta on Dec. 16. Much of the success has come at home, where the Grizzlies are 9-5 - compared with 4-10 on the road.
"I think we are all learning how to trust each other, talk, and communicate," Mayo said. "As long as we keep it up for the entire 48 minutes, we'll be good. Sometimes we play 45, sometimes we play 40, and it's not good enough."
They are within sight of the eighth playoff spot. That is enough to turn talk away from the draft, the lottery, and the future while providing a boost of confidence to the Grizzlies.
"We believe we can beat anybody," Gay said. "We're going out and making a mark for ourselves, making a name for ourselves.
"I think in the future, people will know that Memphis is going to be one of those good teams in the West."