After years of struggling to scrape together an offense that would rank anywhere close to league average, the Memphis Grizzlies have finally broken free of the mold, busting their way into the top 10 of offensive ratings this season. It's impossible to understate the importance of this evolution for a team that has consistently been one of the league's best defenses, but which has always been relegated to the second tier of darkhorse contenders in the NBA with the weight of their offense dragging them down.
This season, the Grizzlies rank 8th in offensive rating, scoring 109.2 points per 100 possessions. Their offensive success has freed up everything – including their league-leading 15-2 record. Opposing teams are faced with the same old stout Grizzlies defense, but now they also have to deal with the new bite this team features on the other end.
Free throw rate has been up across the board for individual Grizzlies, after the team got to the line at an obscenely low level last season. As a team, they've made the jump from 29th in free throws attempted per field goal attempt last season, all the way up to 8th this season. Some of it has been regression to the mean for a team that plays extremely physical ball down low, but Dave Joerger has put a clear emphasis on attacking the rim.
The main culprit here has been Marc Gasol, the new focal point of the offense. He's slimmed down after adopting a new diet in the offseason, and it's clear that the training camp reports of Gasol being pushed to be more aggressive made a lasting effect into the regular season. This new Gasol is more mobile, and channels all of the skills of the Gasol we knew into MVP-level production.
Mike Conley and Zach Randolph shouldn't be forgotten either. Both of them have seen their free throw rates shoot up by about ten percentage points, so that now they rank second and third behind Gasol on the team in freebie ratio. Despite early struggles with his floater, Conley has cut down on long jumpers and continued to use utilize his shiftiness and speed to slash his way into the paint. Randolph too has trimmed his midrange game in favor of more juicy looks closer to the rim. It's been a good thing on the whole: I'm sure I'm not the only one irked by Randolph mid-post fadeaways and Gasol tip-toe jumpers.
Make no mistake, though; Gasol has been the focal point. He still dishes from the high post and quarterbacks hand-offs with a level of ingenuity bordering on the savant-esque, but now he's attacking the rim more. Joe Mullinax already wrote the defining opus to read on New Marc, and the difference today is that where he might've settled to pass or shoot a jumper, he's driving to the rim with a new level of aggression. Watch him flip this high-low setup into a drive with Randolph shoveling bodies out of the lane for him:
He's fighting harder before the catch on the block and making a concentrated effort to drive out of the post, even (or maybe I should say especially) if it means absorbing contact for the foul:
In general, Gasol is a lot more active:
Gasol's free throw rate is up by almost twenty percentage points, up to .504 from .339 last season. It's led to a .591 True Shooting Percentage, also up significantly from .526 in 2013-14. Most impressively of all, that increase in efficiency came with Gasol shouldering a greater load of the offense – his usage percentage is up to 25.6%, which now leads the team after coming in at a distant third behind Randolph and Conley last season. More of this Gasol, while easing down the touches of a physically dominant but often inefficient Z-Bo, is a good thing for the offense.
A big part of Gasol's success is attributable to having an extra inch of space before help defenders come crashing down on him. It's incredible what shooting can do in the NBA. Courtney Lee has been stroking it from deep after faltering at the finish line last season, ranking third in league 3-point percentage with a blistering 53.2% mark. Almost any lineup with Lee in it has torched opposing defenses. Conley has hit a groove with his jumper, too, shooting 43.4% from deep. He's taking fewer than he did before, going to the drive more often than the 3-pointer, and now Conley is more picky about his openness on the shot before firing away. Even Tony Allen, in for the relatively static Tayshaun Prince, has commanded some attention off the ball by virtue of being a constant and unpredictable threat to cut backdoor.
The Grizzlies' starting lineup now has a 114.5 offensive rating, which ranks 5th among all five-man lineups that have played over 125 minutes. Having an extra inch of space means help defenders rotate a split second later, which pairs well with Gasol's aggressiveness on rim rolls and low block post-ups. To further emphasize that window of opportunity, Gasol's been slipping more screens out of the pick-and-roll, too, thereby getting into his roll quicker.
He doesn't even set a pick on this play, cutting into the vulnerable belly of the Lakers' defense instead, after sensing Jordan Hill making an early commitment to defending the pick-and-roll:
Defenders are on alert now whenever they see Gasol rumbling down the lane, and that has a trickle-down effect for the rest of the team playing off of him. There are tasty open jumpers to be had for a couple of guys feeling it from deep.
It all comes together on this play – Rudy Gay, the former bane of an inefficient Grizzlies offense, leaves Allen alone on the weak side to deter a Gasol rim roll. Allen makes a heady backdoor cut out of Gay's sight, and draws Ben McLemore on to him, which is how Lee ends up as the only guy on the weak side of the court.
With increased efficiency on increased usage, Gasol has been at the center of the Grizzlies offense. Everything has revolved around him, whether it's rolling to the rim, scoring on the block, or spinning magic from the high post. His presence and the hot shooting stroke of Lee and Conley have enabled the Grizzlies to weather the shooting slump of the Vince Carter/Quincy Pondexter bench duo. They've shot 29.1% and 28.9% on 3-pointers respectively, terrible numbers for guys who have jacked three-plus long distance attempts per game.
Carter, at least, should bounce back. He's had good looks and been bothered by a nagging foot injury so far. Pondexter's track record as a 3-point shooter, particularly above the break in the arc, is a bit spottier, but he's feasted upon Marc-supplied open shots, too. Not every NBA defender is fully comfortable helping off these two guys the way they are with someone like, say, Prince (who actually has scraped together a decent 36.4% 3-point percentage this season, though the 11-shot sample is teeny).
Lineups that slot Carter, Pondexter, or even Prince with the starting lineup in place of the oft-unwieldy Allen (a common look for when Allen's lockdown one-on-one defense isn't necessary) have all looked good on offense. It likely helps to have Conley and Lee to turn to, but when Carter and Pondexter find their range, watch out for the 'core four plus an extra shooter' lineups.
That was the bet that the Grizzlies made this offseason. They would run it back with the same group, adding only Carter and a healthy Pondexter to bolster their wing corps and shooting, but largely relying on continuity otherwise. They locked up an aging Randolph early in the offseason to maintain that continuity, agreeing to a three-year extension (his option year plus two more years) before free agency even officially started.
The Grizzlies are looking pretty sharp right now for their decision to count on the same group of faces with an extra dash of spacing and more comfort under Joerger in his second year to generate an offense befitting a contender. Turnovers are down by a lot, and the decision to tweak the balance of touches between Gasol and Randolph has been a smashing success.
Gasol's December injury last season aside, the Grizzlies have been on an upward climb ever since a rocky start to the Joerger-led era. They've hit a peak in offensive efficiency now, and there's been no sign that they will let up – the potential of a Carter and Pondexter bounce-back means their offense may look even better a few months from now. For the first time in a long time, the Grizzlies are fielding a top-10 NBA offense. It's a scary new world for the rest of the league.