Photo Credit Brandon Dill
It’s springtime in Memphis, an especially amazing time of year. And not just for Memphis in May or barbecue fest. Or because of the azaleas or the honeysuckles or the crepe myrtles.
Spring in Memphis is made better on those special years when the city’s NBA franchise heads to the playoffs.
And as the Grizzlies prepare for another postseason foray, it’s worth reflecting on whence the team has come – and where they are headed now.
For the second year in a row, the Grizzlies won 50+ games. For the second year running, the team won the Southwest Division title. For the second year straight, the Grizzlies finished with the second seed in the western conference.
If the west has been ‘wild’ over the last decade or so, nomenclature that suggests the competition levels have been fierce, this year the eastern conference is the wild side of the NBA. At least three teams from the east are considered contenders – the 2021 champion Milwaukee Bucks, the Boston Celtics who lost the championship to the Warriors in last year’s NBA Finals, and the Philadelphia 76ers: a team that has not advanced beyond the Eastern Conference semi-finals since the Allen Iverson led Sixers lost to the Shaq and Kobe Lakers in the 2001 NBA finals.
Out west, where the Grizzlies have been ‘good,’ it appears Denver must make believers out of the many skeptics who seem to think the Eastern Conference will claim the Larry O’Brien trophy. Phoenix has become a new story, a team that national talking heads talk about with no end following the addition of hall of famer Kevin Durant. The Lakers have won 10 of 15 and Lebron James appears to be injury free-ish. The Warriors are the defending champs, a four time juggernaut that seems like it might just have a little more left in the tank. Sacramento has a lot to prove, and will face said Warriors team in what is bound to be a high scoring affair.
So what about these Grizzly bears? According to the statistics site 538, the Grizzlies still have the best odds of reaching the Western Conference Finals to face Denver – 41% to Golden State’s 40%. They have the second best odds to reach the NBA finals coming out of the west, 24% to Denver’s 30%. But Golden State closely trails the Grizzlies at 21%.
Aside from prognostications, what’s the state of this team in as it prepares for a 2023 playoff run?
Last year, the Grizzlies surprised the league by being ahead of schedule – notching 56 wins, going to six games in a seriously contested series with the T’Wolves, and then falling in 6 to the ultimate champion Warriors. Last year, the Grizzlies lost Ja Morant to injury in that semi-final series and Desmond Bane could barely walk. But the season was an unbridled success given the low expectations across the board to start the campaign. The Grizzlies won 38 Games in 2021. In 2022, they rocket-boosted that win total to 56.
This year, with many (myself included) anticipating a minor step back, the Grizzlies did in fact win less games. But the growth and emergence of some homegrown talent has made this year every bit as exciting as last year’s early bloom. Below are a few notes on the work the team has done this year to prepare itself for a post season run.
“Can Anything Good Come From This?”
In the wake of Ja Morant’s 8 game suspension following his extracurricular’s at Denver’s Shotgun Willie’s, Sam Amick of The Athletic asked the question: “Can Anything Good Come from This?”
In terms of on court production for the Grizzlies, the answer to that question is an emphatic yes.
The Grizzlies pivoted to super-sub Tyus Jones to lead the team. He was great as always, with 13 points per game and 7 assists in the month of March on 38% 3 pt shooting (and low turnovers per usual). But the most important team developments happened outside the point guard position.
In March, Desmond Bane averaged 22 points on 16 shots, shot 40% from 3, and averaged 5 assists and 5 rebounds. In April, he averaged 23 points on 17 shots, shot 41% from 3, and posted 6 rebounds and 5 assists per game. All those numbers are up slightly from his season averages. Desmond Bane got better this year. He gets to the basket more often, with more ease, and my goodness – that off the high glass running lay up has been money all season.
But the real story lay with the Grizzlies’ most important player: Jaren Jackson, Jr.
In March, Jaren averaged 21 points, 7 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, a steal, and took 14 shots per game. So far in April? Jaren has 31 points on 19 shots, shot 54% from 3 on 6 attempts per game, grabbed 7 rebounds and blocked 2 shots per game. His +/- was 4.5 in April.
Small sample size? Sure. But Jaren is taking more shots, hitting them with a high degree of accuracy, and he is taking guys off the bounce, in the post, and hoisting and making threes.
He also, of course, protects the rim at an elite level. He had the 7th highest block percentage *in NBA history* this season. He is playing at an elite level on both sides of the ball. Believe it or not, his foul rate of 4.8 per 36 minutes has been consistent since January. And it actually dropped to 4.5 over four games in April.
Jaren is our tipping point player, and he has been tipping towards excellent at just the right time.
And that’s good, because the Grizzlies will need it. It’s likely that Anthony Davis awaits this team in the playoffs. And there will likely be no Steven Adams to provide the much needed girth, strength, and size in the team’s frontcourt.
So yes, Sam. Some good things did come from a 23 year old young man’s poor decision at a nightclub in Denver. It was Jaren growing into the dominant player we all knew he could become right before our eyes. It was Demond Bane taking a play out of Ja Morant’s downhill playbook. It was the Grizzlies finding ways to win amid adversity, even if those wins did come during a soft spot in the schedule.
And it was also the Grizzlies doing a better job in the halfcourt offense.
A Tale of Two Seasons?
The Grizzlies went into this season, following their loss to Golden State in last year’s West semis, with a clear need: improve the half court offense. They let two turnover, fastbreak point generating machines find new homes this summer in Kyle Anderson and D’Anthony Melton. And they drafted five rookie players, four of whom were seen primarily as shooters.
At the trade deadline, seeing a glaring need for wing shooting as the missing piece of the puzzle, they brought in Luke Kennard.
So how’s it going?
Well, according to the stats site Cleaning the Glass since the trade deadline the Grizzlies have the 12th best half court offense at 118.1 points per possession. Before the trade deadline? The Grizzlies had the 12th best half court offense at 116.2 points per 100 possessions.
Last year? The Grizzlies had the fourth best half court offense – 116.8 points per 100 possessions.
So technically, the Grizzlies half court offense did get better during the latter half of this season. The problem is that everyone else’s half court offense also got better. Like, way better.
This year will go down as the most explosive offensive season on record in the NBA. It’s been well documented.
But there is good news here for the Grizzlies. On the year, the Grizzlies have been the second best half court defense in the league – holding opponents to 111.3 points per 100 possessions.
The Grizzlies half court offense is better a year ago, but so is everyone else’s halfcourt offense. The defense, though, is likely good enough to limit opponents in the half court context of the NBA playoffs.
Memphis holds opponents to 52.7% effective shooting per 100 possessions, good enough for second in the league.
They hold opponents to 36% from 3, which is 9th in the league.
The Grizzlies 3 pt defense has looked worse that it actually has been this year, as teams shooting it better than at any point in NBA history makes it seem like noone can really guard (which might be true). Yet and still, perimeter defense will be something to keep an eye on as Memphis progresses through the post season.
Perhaps counterintuitively, The Grizzlies ultimate playoff hopes might come down to their own perimeter shooting – a commodity the Grizzlies have needed since, well, always.
Before the trade deadline, Memphis ranked 24th in the league in 3 pt shooting accuracy at 32.3%. Since the trade deadline? Memphis is 10th in the league at 37%.
Luke Kennard has been a massive acquisition for the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are now the only team in the league with two-top-ten three point shooters on their roster. Per Cleaning the Glass, line ups with Kennard and Bane have been VERY good for the most part – but especially when either Dillon Brooks or David Roddy have been on the floor to help with perimeter defense. And, Kennard line ups work especially well when Jaren has played the five.
The Grizzlies ran out a Ja/Bane/Kennard/Dillon/JJJ line up to start the game against the resting Milwaukee Bucks this past week. It was an experiment that is likely to receive further testing in the crucible of the playoffs.
Finally, Jaren has shot a solid 35.5% from 3 during this regular season, and Dillon Brooks has shot the exact same percentage since the all star break. Dillon’s 3 pt shooting is up from 31.5% in the first half of the season.
When your two best defenders can shoot a slightly better than league average 35.5% from deep, and when you have two of the best shooters in the league in your starting lineup? Pair that with Ja Morant, the only guard alongside Shai Gilgeous Alexander to be among the top ten point getters in the paint, and you have a nice half court offense to work with going into the playoffs.
After Rudy Gobert, he of the infamous wiping his hands all over everything when covid was announced as a global pandemic – only to become infected with the disease days later as his then Utah Jazz team ended their game with the OKC Thunder at half time to welcome the pandemic’s arrival in full force…THAT Rudy Gobert was sent home (without dinner) last night after (poorly) attempting to punch his teammate and former Grizz-beloved Kyle Anderson during a T’Wolves timeout. This was after their best defense stopper Jayden McDaniels broke his hand in a collision with a wall. McDaniels was subbed out of the game in the first quarter with two fouls, and was apparently quite unhappy about it. Good thing Jaren never gets that mad when he gets two first quarter fouls!
Anyway, I don’t think the T’Wolves will pull it together and land the 7th seed. I think that distinction will belong to the Lakers.
Ah yes, the Lakers! They of the glitz and glamor. The world champions in the bubble. The Lakers that seem to have at least half of last year’s Timberwolves on their roster.
The Lakers. The team that stunk so badly to begin the year (shout out Russell Westbrook!), but which now appears to have a healthy Lebron and AD. A team that has D’Angelo Russel! Malik Beasley! Jarred Vanderbilt! The 2022 Minnesota Timberwolves!
Since the trade deadline, the Lakers point differential has been +3.9, which is good enough for 7th in the league.
The Grizzlies? +3.6 – good enough for 8th in the league.
Since the trade deadline, the Lakers have been the 3rd best rebounding team in the league – at 47 per game. The Grizzlies are 13th, with 44 per game. Keep an eye on the glass in this series. The Grizzlies have been excellent historically by earning extra possessions off of rebounds. But that will be significantly harder this year with Steven Adams likely on the pine resting that knee.
Since 1 February, the Grizzlies and the Lakers are neck and neck with 3pt % – the Lakers with 36.3% and the Grizzlies with 36%.
But the Lakers have been better at defending the 3 pt shot, holding opponents to 33.8% – good enough for 4th best in the league.
The Lakers have drawn 22 fouls per game since 1 February, best in the league.
The Grizzlies? They draw 18 fouls per game – second to last in the league.
I think this series will likely come down to shooting and size. The Lakers will likely have the size, and thus the rebounding advantage…if Steven Adams does not play. But the Grizzlies might have the shooting edge, as noted above, and it’s possible that shooting will be the key to the Grizzlies success in the series.
It’s also worth noting that, while team defense might have been slightly better for the Lake Show since the all star break, the one on one matchups do not seem to favor the Lakers. The Lakers don’t really have a stopper for Ja. They might use Jarred Vanderbilt’s length against Ja, as did the T’Wolves last year, but that just opened up Bane for prolific of 3 pt shooting. Expect more of the same this year, with Austin Reaves likely taking the primary assignment on Bane. And add Luke Kennard into the mix? A seven footer who can shoot 3s? The Grizzlies may have the shooting advantage for once. (I do see you, Malik Beasley, lurking around there on the perimeter…)
And if the Lakers then use AD to guard Jaren, the series might come down to which of these players can be the better player. I anticipate JJJ and Davis cancel each other out production wise. Meaning, even if Jaren can’t match AD’s points, if he can stay close I think the series overall favors the Grizzlies. Look for easy dump offs inside to Xavier Tillman as the Grizzlies get the Lakers in rotation. Look for easy half court plays that get Luke and Bane open. In short, the Grizzlies are a better offensive team than the Lakers are a defensive team. And for the Grizzlies, a team that has been so good defensively, this series might come down to their ability to simply get more points on the board. That seems obvious (hello, that’s what winning means!), but I don’t think the Grizzlies will win this series with defense. I think it will come down to shooting instead, quite the turn for a franchise that has found winning primarily through excellent defense.