What's up with Kosta Koufos' shooting struggles on the Memphis Grizzlies?

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sport

At the time of writing, Kosta Koufos' field goal percentage has dropped a full 10.0% from where it was last season with the Denver Nuggets. We investigate his inconsistencies, and contrast that to what has worked well.

Ed Davis and Jon Leuer have been revelations this season as big men off of the Grizzlies' bench, leaving the expectations held for them behind in the dust. In Marc Gasol's absence, Davis and Leuer were both 20-minute per game players. Davis looks as confident and energetic as ever throughout his NBA career, while Leuer is seemingly sinking every catch-and-shoot jumper he gets his hands on.

Editor's take: Davis with a 17.27 PER and Leuer with a hefty 18.17. Perhaps there will be some minutes for the Leuertenant with this thumb injury to Mike Miller. Ed Davis is shooting 56% from the field and for the life of me I don't know how. His shots are on 80mph zip lines and the laws of physics seem to bend when those balls come blasting out of his arms. -CF

In contrast to them, Kosta Koufos hasn't been able to sustain the level of play that was consistent for him with the Denver Nuggets. Marc Gasol's injury left Koufos as the fill-in starting center, so he still averages more minutes per game on the season than Davis or Leuer (both more suited for the power forward position than center). However, his play hasn't been as laudable as Davis' or Leuer's. With Marc back in the lineup, Davis has actually overtaken Koufos in the Grizzlies rotation. In January, Koufos is playing 15.1 minutes per game compared to Davis' 19.0 (interestingly, Leuer's minutes have taken a hit too as he's down to 11.8 minutes).

Editor's take: Sometimes when I watch Koufos play I see a very athletic guy who might be better fitted for a different sport, but because he's a 7 foot beast he's stuck in the NBA. Shave half a foot off of him and I bet he'd be really fun to watch on a football field.

Where has Koufos struggled most? It's not rebounding or defense, as both have kept more or less steady from last season's level (good and solid respectively). Instead, it's his offense, which has simply taken an atrocious tumble. After shooting 58.1% from the field last season with the Nuggets, Koufos has dropped all the way to 48.1% this season. Not only is it an incredible drop in efficiency, but for a 7-footer who attempts 83.85% of his shots within 8 feet of the basket, that's just incredibly bad overall.

Editor's take: Wow. When you put it that way it really does raise an eyebrow.

It's not as if Koufos' offensive skills have disappeared. In spite of his lower shot percentages, we've mostly seen the same skill set on Koufos that he showed with the Nuggets: the soft touch, the pool of hook shots and flip shots, and the mobility to get up, down and across the floor are all still there. Nothing has suddenly fallen off of a cliff.

Instead, what's changed for Koufos has been his situation. Last year's Nuggets team and this year's Grizzlies team have provided Koufos with very different offensive settings. In many cases, they're polar opposites. From the looks of thing, Koufos was much better suited in Denver than he is in Memphis.

Last year, the Nuggets were an offensive juggernaut under head coach George Karl. They were fifth in offensive rating (110.4) and second in pace (95.1). Koufos started all 81 games he played last season, scoring 12.8 points per 36 minutes on 58.1% shooting. That points per 36 mark ranks lowest among all Nuggets that played at least 500 minutes, but the field goal percentage is tops among that same group. Plays were rarely ever ran for Koufos, and he was often the fifth option on the floor. Yet, he was an important offensive piece for that team.

Because of his ability to float in shots from five to eight feet out, Karl often positioned Koufos outside of the paint and on the baseline to free up space in the paint. Often, he would even be out of bounds. It's a location that Koufos can catch and put up a flip shot from, while also dragging his defender just far enough from the rim that he'd have enough space to score if his defender helped on a driving player. For a team that ranked 29th in both three-pointers made and attempted last season (yes, the Grizzlies were last in both categories), it was typically clever of Karl to use Koufos to create space.

After spacing the floor and making timely cuts back into the paint, most of the rest of Koufos' scoring was made out of the pick-and-roll, offensive rebounding and running the floor in transition. He's mobile for a big man and active both as a roll man or on the break for one of the league's most uptempo teams. His offensive rebounding has held steady at an elite level through the past few years, having been ranked in the top 15 of offensive rebound percentage for each of the past three years (top 10 twice, including 8th this season at 13.6%).

According to Synergy, 83.0% of Koufos' offense with the Nuggets came from cuts (which includes the sideline lurking-type plays), as the pick-and-roll roll man, in transition and hitting the offensive glass. No other play type accounted for more than 5.4% of Koufos' offense. The Grizzlies have employed Koufos very differently, however. Here's a comparison of Koufos' top-four play types this season compared to last year, again with stats provided by Synergy.

Kosta Koufos with the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets Kosta Koufos with the 2013-14 Memphis Grizzlies
Cut (37.0%) (that's a lot!) Cut (24.9%)
Offensive Rebound (19.0%) Post-up (23.0%) (5.4% usage in '12-13)
P&R Roll Man (14.1%) Offensive Rebound (17.7%)
Transition (12.9%) (5.8% usage in '13-14) P&R Roll Man (16.3%)

Here are the most notable takeaways: the "Cut" plays that Koufos excelled in have seen significantly less usage (granted, it was an unconventional way for Karl to use his big man). Post-ups have shot up in usage, and transition plays have gone the other way. Unlike last season's Nuggets, the Grizzlies play a very slow brand of basketball (pace of 90.0 this season, last in the NBA) and run a significant portion of their offense through the post.

That really hasn't worked out well for Koufos. He's shooting 31.8% from the post this season, and has historically struggled to make shots through contact. The touch on his hook shot is there and he has a nifty running hook to go with nimble footwork, but a contesting defender can throw off his concentration easily. Losing the fast break opportunities hurts his overall efficiency too, because not only are those easy baskets by nature, Koufos ran extremely well for a big man and thrived in those opportunities.

The Grizzlies will be a slow team by nature, but there certainly isn't a need to be constantly posting up Koufos. Post ups are generally inefficient, and while it's one thing to post up with Z-Bo, it's another entirely to be throwing it into Koufos so much. Koufos had his best years in Denver because George Karl understood how to maximize his strengths, something that Dave Joerger hasn't yet figured out.

Editor's take: Joerger shot! Whoa whoa whoa! One thing at a time. We're just now figuring out what to do with Nick Calathes. ; )

It's not only the plays Joerger runs for Koufos that have hurt his efficiency. Between Zach Randolph or Ed Davis spending a lot of time around the low block and the overall lack of shooters (especially before Courtney Lee and when Koufos was starting in that practically shooter-less starting lineup), help defenders are readily available to rotate on to Koufos. It really neutralizes Koufos' effectiveness because of his troubles finishing through contact.

Editor's take: Conley-Allen-Prince-Randolph-Koufos makes my face twitch.

In this play, the Detroit Pistons give the Grizzlies a zone defense look. Kosta Koufos catches the Pistons defense flat-footed with their heads turned early in the shot clock and slips right to the rim, but Josh Smith has no qualms about leaving Tayshaun Prince alone behind the three-point line and forces a difficult shot for Koufos out of an easy catch.

Aside from his issues with scoring through contact, Kosta also struggles in one of the staple scenarios for the Grizzlies. On Z-Bo's post ups, Koufos gets pushed deeper in the five-to-eight feet range where his range gets inconsistent. He can hit a hook shot from there, but a pass coming from the post will rarely be quick enough for Koufos to get a shot off before his defender recovers and contests. It's not as effective as, say, a pass off Andre Iguodala's dribble penetration.

Editor's take: Kind of makes me wonder if the Griz FO had a surefire plan for using Koufos or if the injury to Marc just derailed that plan by forcing Koufos into the starting lineup and now he's playing catch-up to settle into his originally intended role.

What has worked? Well, Koufos is shooting 56.6% on cuts and 60.4% as the roll man. The cuts have dropped in volume because of the difficulty in finding opportunities, especially compared to the way George Karl engineered them in Denver. However, when a big man is in the high post (this could be Koufos or his partner) and someone like Mike Miller or Courtney Lee is on the floor, there can be enough space and respect for shooters for Koufos to find a seam and get an open shot when his defender helps away from him.

On the pick-and-roll, Koufos gets the benefit of working with the supremely talented Mike Conley. Defenses respect Conley's ability to zip to the rim off the pick, and will often have the big man show to stop him. In that time, Koufos is quick enough to roll to the rim and (hopefully) get a shot up before the help defender comes over. What the rest of the lineup looks like can affect the effectiveness of the pick-and-roll as well. Having a shooter instead of a Tayshaun Prince and/or a big man on the high post instead of Zach Randolph pre-emptively boxing out can prevent a help defender interfering with Koufos' shot.

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In this play against the Milwaukee Bucks, Larry Sanders moves over to contain Conley, freeing up Koufos to roll to the rim unchallenged. The Grizzlies have Koufos rolling towards Courtney Lee (and not Tayshaun Prince) in the corner, so Lee's defender is unlikely to make a help rotation over. Zach Randolph is still in Koufos' way in this instance, which was undoubtedly a flaw in the play, and Ersan Ilyasova does help over and throw a hand up. The key here is that nobody bumps with Koufos to challenge his shot, and with some momentum behind him, he has no trouble floating a shot over the 6'10" Ilyasova.

The key for Koufos is, simply put, to get open enough that he can put a shot up. He's not the ground-and-pound player Zach Randolph is, nor is he the explosive leaper that Ed Davis is. Finding space to put up a soft hook shot can be much more challenging on this team than the Nuggets. According to NBAwowy.com, Koufos has a 47.9% field-goal percentage when on the floor with Zach Randolph, but shoots 52.5% when Conley is on and Z-Bo is off. Granted, there are other variables at play (shooting in the lineup, the drop-off from Conley to Nick Calathes or Jerryd Bayless), but that statistic is telling as is.

Editor's take: Another interesting stat: Koufos shoots a paltry 42% when coming off 1 day of rest (the most frequent scenario for the Grizzlies) while Davis shoots 54% and Leuer shoots 50%. Conversely, Koufos shoots 60% when coming of *zero* rest. Dude's a Spartan, rest just makes him weak.

When Zach Randolph is off the floor, the Grizzlies run a lot less offense through the post and are able to attack the paint through dribble penetration and the pick-and-roll, which benefits Kosta Koufos much more. Now, with Koufos back in the second unit and more shooting in the Grizzlies' offense, Koufos' field goal percentage in the month of January has skyrocketed to 56.8%. That number seems a bit extreme, but even if there's some random noise involved, it's believable that Koufos has played better this month in part due to the players around him. In other words, this should be sustainable to a point.

With the trade deadline coming up very soon and the surplus of big men still existing on the Grizzlies' roster, the timing of Koufos' bounce-back creates an interesting situation for the front office: Which big man do you trade? The improved shooting from Koufos in January seems sustainable, but it also may be an opportunity for the Grizzlies to sell high. At the same time, Koufos has a valuable 7-foot frame that Ed Davis or Jon Leuer lack. The final possibility to consider is if Zach Randolph gets traded. This appears less likely than a month or so ago, but judging from the statistics we have seen so far, it's reason to think that trading Z-Bo could elevate Koufos' play even further and make keeping him long-term more reasonable.

Editor's take: I'd be shocked to see ZBo traded at this point, but that's an interesting point. I'd like to know if the Grizzlies' coaching staff thinks they can develop some of Koufos' weak points in a long-term situation.

The calendar is about to turn to February, and we'll see how much of Koufos' recent improvement in shooting can transfer over to his season struggles. He's been solid or better in many other aspects of the game, including rebounding and defense (just outside of the top 10 in both rebound percentage and block percentage). His offensive inconsistencies have held him back so far, but if he redevelops Joerger's trust while keeping up the solid shooting, Koufos could work his way back into greater minutes and win over the hearts of Grizzlies fans just as Davis and Leuer have.

Editor's take: I'm starting to gain a firm belief that Dave Joerger and his staff can make adjustments to get the most out of their roster. That premise is basically their MO considering the weight they put into analytics. The Grizzlies played a whole lot of basketball without Marc Gasol, and while his return has fueled some instant success, there will undoubtedly be some secondary elements that take a little while to figure out. - Chris Faulkner

Thanks to Matt Cianfrone (@Matt_Cianfrone) of Roundball Mining Company for background information on the Denver Nuggets offense last season.

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