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Memphis Grizzlies Season Recap: Analyzing the Defense

In the first 7 games of the season, the Grizzlies only held one team under 100 points. Over the course of the entire 82 game season, the Grizzlies only held their opponents under 100 points in 27 games.

Even for a team playing slightly above average pace, that's not good.

There's no way around it, the Grizzlies defense was horrible this season. Fortunately the starters' offense more than made up for it. The bench, on the other hand, didn't have the luxury of always getting it back on the other end.

When it was all said and done, the Grizz finished 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency. They were slightly higher before Gasol was benched for the rest of the season, but its fair to say that with or without their defensive linchpin, the Grizz were one of the worst defensive teams in the Association.

In the offensive analysis, I responded to statements. That's easy with offense -- statistics are clearer on that end of the court. For defense, I'll be responding to questions. Feel free to leave your own in the comments sections, but these are the two most important, both organized around one central question:

With all their young athletes, why can't the Grizzlies get any stops?

Which Grizzlies are good defenders, and which Grizzlies are particularly bad defenders?

Here we'll primarily be using a statistic pioneered by the boys at Basketball Prospectus called dMULT. dMULT effectively tracks the box score opponents' production against a certain player as compared to their average. A rating of 1.000 is exactly average. Defensive Rating is how many points were scored against per 100 possessions, dR% is the percentage of defensive rebounds they grabbed while on the court -- steals and block percentage is the same principle.

Now the one problem is that without context these statistics are only helpful, not totally illuminating, so here's a nice little comparison chart with some more famous names for your reading pleasures.


Well, if you're looking at the same numbers as me, this looks pretty interesting.


Let's take a look at just the Grizzlies' numbers first. Clearly opponents' backcourts ripped the Grizzlies to shreds this season -- particularly opposing shooting guards, who just teed up on O.J. Mayo and Sam Young. Mike Conley's dMULT is awfully poor too, but who didn't see that coming. On the other hand, the frontcourt looks surprisingly solid. The three starters all held the opposition below their average output.

The defensive ratings tell a similar story, they're all high because the Grizz's team defense is bad, but the bigs are still the best on the team by a decent amount.

Looking at the comparison numbers, a few things are clear. Conley and Aaron Brooks are roughly similar in rating, and that's definitely not a good thing, but Conley gets picked on way more often. That could be because, again, the Grizzlies interior defense was shockingly decent. As far as the Mayo and Ray Allen comparison goes -- Allen proves a shorter shooting guard can prevent his opponent from scoring. Ray-Ray is notoriously hard working and plays every play like Mayo plays the last two minutes. If you saw some of Mayo's isolation defense at the end of games, then you'd know he has that kind of upside, but the effort isn't there yet.

In the frontcourt there's fewer surprises, except that Durant looks like he deserves defensive player of the year. Talk about a lockdown guy -- with him and Thabo its no wonder the Thunder were one of the best defensive squads in the league. Randolph compares favorably to Stoudemire, not surprisingly, and even scores a bit better in dMULT, likely because he stays home on his man more often (hence the almost non-existent blocks.) The Gasol-Gasol connection plays out as expected -- similar in the base stats, but Gasol's advanced stats get the nudge because he plays with 4 plus defenders regularly.

So what Grizzlies defenders are actually good? Rudy Gay looks solid, Zach Randolph is solid, and Marc Gasol is easily a plus defender. Shockingly Hasheem Thabeet actually might have been the team's best, though. He both locked down his man for a better-than-average dMULT and swatted 7.3% of the other team's shots. Thats even better than comparable defensive stud Samuel Dalembert (although Dalemberts 30% rebounding rate is dominant, while Thabeet's 20% is pretty average for a center).

And which Grizzlies defenders couldn't keep the ball in front of them? Mike and O.J., especially, but also Sam Young. Under these parameters O.J. actually looks like one of the worst in the league, which is interesting since many believe he's an excellent defender. As for Sam -- his offense was bad but his defense is worse. If he doesn't improve significantly he'll need to be completely out of the rotation next season.

What are the Grizzlies doing wrong as team defenders?

This one's significantly more subjective. We can check the stat book to see who scored on who, but not to know just how they scored or who might have blown a help-defense coverage. Two of the more noticeable shortcomings of many teams are three-point defense and defensive rebounding. To make my life easier, I'm calling both of these out as scapegoats.

The Grizzlies defensive rebounding rate was 73.3, good for just 20th in the league, mostly because of O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay's poor rebounding for their position. Rudy was 8th in the league in total rebounds per game, but was just 7th out of 11 small forwards playing over 35 minutes a game. Matt Barnes rebounding, with Dwight Howard in, was roughly equal to Rudy's while Barnes played about 14 minutes a game less. O.J. tells an even worse story. He was 14th in the league, and only 2 players over 35 minutes were worse (Kevin Martin and Ray Allen).

Rebounding wasn't even the real issue; the three pointers truly killed the Grizzlies. The Grizz were 2nd worst in the league in 3 point differential and gave up the 5th most total 3 pointers made. When your guards are the worst defenders on your team, I suppose that's to be expected, though.

Watching back over some clips using Synergy Sports, it does seem clear that it was the fault of the guards themselves. Zach and Marc benefited from occasional double-teams, just like almost every big man in the league, but mostly helped each other. Occasionally the shooting guard or point guard would show for a quick steal attempt, but rarely did they fully commit, even against guys like Pau Gasol or Amare Stoudemire

Ultimately it comes down to this: the Grizzlies ran solid defensive sets, but Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo were just too weak of defenders at their positions to get stops. That's problematic, because its almost impossible to successfully double on the perimeter over the entire course of an NBA game. Even the worst passers will begin to swing the ball into the corner three.

And that's essentially the story of the year. Neither starting guard -- and almost no bench players -- could defend their position regularly at the NBA level. You just can't leave two liabilities on the court at the time and expect to be successful, at least not without Dwight Howard.