Sifting through the defensive woes of the Memphis Grizzlies

Four Grizzlies, one Kaman. - Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

(Editor's note: welcome Daniel, everybody! He's another new guy trying his hand at the GnG of GBB)

With the Grizzlies sitting at a disappointing 4-5 (heading into tonight's game in Sac-Town) after a too-close-for-comfort win against a below average Lakers team, it's safe to say the boys in blue have not followed up on their franchise best 2012-2013 campaign the way they would have liked to.

More disconcerting than just the losses, however, has been what looks like the loss of the Grizzlies' identity, the cornerstone of the Grit n Grind mentality that took them all the way to the Western Conference Finals last year. In short, what happened to the vaunted Memphis defense?

Grit n Hide - where did the defense go?!

While the stuck-in-a-phone booth spacing and outside shooting problems (to put it ever so nicely) of the Grizzlies offence is another issue altogether, this year's squad has been uncharacteristically sloppy on the defensive side of the ball as well, giving up almost 98 PPG, up 8 points from last season's 89.3.

This isn't a matter of an increase in pace (which adds more possessions and subsequently more points to a game) resulting in more opponents' points, as not only are the Grizzlies pace numbers very similar to those of last season, but they're also giving up an average of 5.4 points more per 100 opponent possessions. The Griz aren't playing any faster; they're just playing worse.

Five key stats

2012-2013

2013-2014

Opponent PPG

97.9

89.3

Defensive Rating (pts/100 possessions against)

105.7 (19th)

100.3 (2nd)

Opponent FTA

21.5

24.3

Effective FG% (FG% that takes into account 3's)

47.5% (3rd)

51.3 (18th)

Opponent Turnover %

15.2% (2nd)

14.8% (24th)

More often than last season, opposing ball handlers are finding lanes into the paint that result in high percentage shots and plays, especially from deep. Z-Bo looks slow, Tayshaun has trouble with bigger/quicker SF's, Marc has been late on a few too many rotations (for him), and at times even Tony Allen, God bless him, has been a bit too freelancing in his search for steals.

Opponents are shooting a higher percentage on both 2-pt and 3-pt this season (evident by the Grizzlies' drop in opponents' eFG%), and, perhaps most tellingly, are getting to the free throw line more often. There has simply been too many open jumpers and too many free points. If the Grizzlies hope to contend for a playoff spot and especially a higher seed, it has to start with keeping opponents out of the paint.

With teams finding it easier than last season to get into the paint, they're finding themselves with more freebies at the line (almost 3 more than last season) and also better looks from behind the arc. Opposing teams are shooting 38.7% from the 3-pt line against the Grizz this season, a nearly 5 percent jump that, while sure to regress a bit as the season goes along, should still be a concern for Memphis. With ballhandlers in the paint and the Grizzly guards needing to crash down to prevent easy buckets, opposing wing players have been able to camp out around the arc and in the corners for good looks.

Mike Miller, who has been thrust into a more prominent role because of his ability to actually hit a three point shot, has also been terrorized on the perimeter by opposing wings and opposing coaches, who have taken advantage of the slow footed Miller by running him around screens until he can barely breathe, and it's resulting in quality shots for the opposition.

The Griz have also seen their takeaway percentage fall, which could also spell trouble if it keeps up. The beginning of the season is often riddled with turnovers, especially for teams up against experienced units who are used to playing together. Memphis ranks 24th in takeaway percentage though, as they haven't been able to take advantage of the often-sloppier offense that is run in the early going as teams try to find their footing. Look for the Grizzlies' takeaway percentage to drop even further as the season progresses.

So the Griz can't stop teams from getting into the paint, getting to the line, or shooting threes, and they're not turning teams over at a high enough rate. Doesn't look good, does it?

Not so fast- let's not bury Grit N Grind just yet

While the Grizzlies' D has looked like a shell of its former self in the early parts of the 2013-2014 season, there are reasons to think this unit can get back to its former glory.

First and most importantly, everyone take a deep breath and say the two words that fans of struggling good teams love and fans of overachieving bad teams hate: SAMPLE SIZE!

With all that's been said about Memphis' issues, we are still only 9 games into the season, and there are still plenty of reasons to think this unit will bounce back. Marc is still one of the 10 best defenders in the world, ditto for the Grindfather (Allen), and Mike Conley has the quick feet necessary to stay with premier guards. The rotation should also sort itself out soon, which will give the second unit the cohesion that this defense relies so much upon.

Another positive to look at for Grizzlies fans has been the team's still strong defensive rebounding. Even including the offensive rebounding smack down put on by scorching hot Indiana last Monday, the Griz are still hitting the defensive glass hard, rebounding 77.3% of opponent's misses to rank 3rd in the league. With stalwarts Marc and Z-Bo leading the charge and good rebounders in Ed David and Kosta Koufos behind them, these numbers should remain high all season.

Finally, Memphis has also played the fifth hardest schedule in the NBA in the early going, including games against great offenses like the Spurs, Mavericks, and Warriors (a win!) and a game against the seemingly unstoppable Pacers. Add in the fact that Gasol, the team's best all around player and defensive cornerstone, followed up lat year's long season with a few months of Eurobasket, and this kind of slow start shouldn't come as too much of a surprise.

So don't pull out those panic buttons just yet, Grizzlies fans. The bears still board, the pieces are still there, and opposing teams are due for some regression. If nothing else, we know that the NBA season is one hell of a grind.

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