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Growing Greatness: Memphis Grizzlies Mid-Season Report

The Memphis Grizzlies have officially played half of their regular season games. Where are the Grizzlies in the Western Conference? How did they get there? Is the best yet to come?

Getting these guys to the free throw line, and Courtney Lee going in general, is key to achieving growth for Memphis.
Getting these guys to the free throw line, and Courtney Lee going in general, is key to achieving growth for Memphis.
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis Grizzlies Mid-Season Report

29-12 - 70.7% winning percentage - 3rd in the Western Conference, 1st in the Southwest Division

The Memphis Grizzlies are 41 games through the 2014-2015 season, officially halfway through their campaign. Injuries happened, hot starts were followed by cold Decembers, a trade changed the makeup of the roster, and players have flourished, or failed, in newly expanded or reduced roles. The season so far, by the numbers, paints a picture of the Grizzlies that is a mixed bag of sorts.

All numbers from NBA.com/stats as of January 20th, 2015

  • PACE - 94.2 - 27th in the NBA
  • Offensive Efficiency - 105.2 - 10th in the NBA
  • Defensive Efficiency - 102.2 - 11th in the NBA
  • Net Rating - +3.0 - Tied for 11th in the NBA
  • Rebound Rate - 50.1 - 15th in the NBA
  • True Shooting Percentage - 54.0% - 16th in the NBA
  • Assist to Turnover Ratio - 1.73 - Tied for 5th in the NBA
  • Assist Percentage - 57.7% - 17th in the NBA
  • Three Point Percentage - 34.7% - Tied for 17th in the NBA
  • Steals Per Game - 8.2 - 9th in the NBA
  • Blocks Per Game - 4.3 - 23rd in the NBA
  • Opponents Field Goal Percentage - 44.8% - 14th in the NBA
  • Opponents 3 Point Field Goal Percentage - 36.6% - 25th in the NBA
  • Opponents Plus/Minus - -3.8 - 9th in the NBA
  • Opponents Turnovers Per Game - 15.1 - 10th in the NBA

Of course, the most important numbers out there are the ones in the win and loss columns. These statistics, however, and the game film that accompanies them, have shown the Grizzlies to be a team that has improved a good bit in some areas as compared to their 2013-2014 counterparts, but could certainly still grow. The Grizzlies' offense has (for the most part) gotten out of the mud, thanks to ball movement and better offensive spacing/possession protection, as is shown in their assist-to-turnover ratio. They are still too prone to offensive stagnation and predictability at times, however. Their defense can still be stifling and can create turnovers through playing passing lanes and aggressive defending, but the three-point line continues to haunt Memphis far too often. Development is needed.

This improvement will be key; there is a thought process in coaching that the team that gets better the most from the midway point in the season onward toward the playoffs will win the championship.There is validity to this line of thinking with regard to the Grizzlies, seeing as how the Western Conference especially is so crowded. With 41 games to go, it is feasible that the Grizzlies could catch the current leaders of the West, the Golden State Warriors, who are only five games in front of them in the standings. On the other hand, it is also possible that Memphis could fall all the way to the eight seed, where there are only...five games in front of the current caboose of the playoff picture in the West, the Phoenix Suns.

Growth, even in areas of strength, is the key from here on out to a serious shot at a championship. Where can this growth have the greatest impact?

1. Keep Courtney Lee Scoring

Grizzlies TV play-by-play man Pete Pranica's most recent stat of the day on Twitter was particularly telling:

After the Dallas Mavericks game on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, in which Lee was 1-6 from the three-point line, that makes Memphis 15-11 in games that Courtney Lee makes 1 or less three-point shot (Lee missed 3 of those games, all in November, and Memphis went 2-1 in those contests). The correlation between Lee's performance and the team's winning ways isn't exclusive to three-point land either; his shot charts in wins and losses are drastically different.

Lee in 27 wins in 2014-2015:

Lee in Wins Shot Chart

Lee in 11 losses in 2014-2015:

Lee in losses in 2014-2015

It is as if green means "win" and red means "lose". Courtney's difference in overall shooting percentage in wins (53.6%) and losses (36.3%) is the largest among any of the most common starters for the Grizzlies this season at 17.3%; Marc Gasol (1.9% worse in losses), Tony Allen (6.3% worse in losses), Zach Randolph (6.5% worse in losses), and Mike Conley (6.6% worse in losses) all struggle when the Grizzlies fall, but not like Courtney Lee. Lee's 3-point percentage difference is particularly staggering: 57.1% from beyond the arc in wins and 27.2% in losses. That 29.9% drop means at least 3 points less per game in losses, and coupling that with overall struggles makes Memphis far less effective offensively.

So, how can you best put Courtney Lee in a position to succeed? Catch and shoot opportunities in particular are where Lee shines. His effective shooting percentage on these shots is a phenomenal 67.1%! Almost all of his three-point attempts are of this variety, but his shots inside the line are more spread between catch and shoot and off the dribble attempts.

Lee Shot Tracker Attempts

He is pretty good at varying his shot attempts. At times where Courtney is struggling, however, it would be best to run sets for him in which he can really focus on the catch and shoot aspect of his game, like this one from the recent game against the Nets.

Lee Pindown 1

Lee passes the ball to Zach Randolph in the post, a common occurrence to be sure, as is Marc Gasol floating around the free throw line. Surely a Zach isolation on the way...except it isn't.

Lee Pindown 2

Gasol comes down to the right elbow and sets an off-ball screen on Lee's man. Randolph, noticing/expecting the congregation of Nets defenders around himself and Gasol, kicks the ball to Courtney Lee, who has rotated to the other end of the key to give a better angle off of the Gasol screen.

Lee Pindown 3

Lee has a ton of space to work with thanks to Gasol's efforts and Randolph's pass, ensuring that no dribble is needed to get space for a shot attempt. Courtney steps in to the shot, sets his feet and rises up in rhythm for a converted three-pointer, one of his three makes in the contest. This pin down screen is just one example of a set that can be run more consistently when Lee is struggling; running the baseline off of screens and the beloved elevator doors sets are others that can give Courtney this space to work with without losing his rhythm and footing.

Courtney Lee also has shown more aggression since the trade for Jeff Green; in the four games Green in which has appeared, Lee has attempted 12.8 shots per game, four more than his season average of 8.8, and has taken 2.5 more threes during that same time period. Courtney Lee's aggression is a key aspect to monitor moving forward - we need to see more shot attempts and more sets designed to get Courtney in rhythm and into his role as a major part of the game. Some of this likely coincides some with the Mike Conley ankle injuries, but if this trend continues, it will only help Memphis stay out of the offensive "mud" more often than not thanks to his spacing capabilities.


Defending the Three Point Shot

Looking at the numbers at the beginning of the article, one really jumps out at you in a negative way - how well opponents shoot from beyond the arc against the Memphis Grizzlies. Almost night in and night out, it seems that teams have season high performances from range against the Bears of Beale Street. There is an element to this that can be chalked up to dumb luck, as you'll see in the following clips. Make no mistake, though; there are elements to scheme that influence this higher rate of conversion for opponents.

There was, for example, the night Nikola Mirotic went off against the Grizzlies:

Again, some dumb luck here (step back three-pointers are not the most efficient shots, especially from NBA rookies), but whether it was Zach Randolph, Jon Leuer, or Quincy Pondexter, there were elements of flawed coverage. Going under screens allows for a team to take away dribble penetration, but against three-point threats it creates enough space to get good looks at the rim from range.

The Grizzlies are also habitual ball watchers and over helpers, especially Tony Allen; collapsing on driving players and committing too far into help defense leads to open three-point attempts, often for the wrong guys, like in this play from the most recent game Monday night against the Dallas Mavericks.

Dirk Open 1

In this situation, there must be a lack of communication about a defensive switch between Tony Allen and Marc Gasol. Gasol sticks with Monta Ellis, perhaps expecting Allen to rotate back since Gasol has the help of the baseline to defend Ellis, but something goes horribly wrong because DIRK NOWTIZKI THE FUTURE HALL OF FAMER IS WIDE OPEN!

Dirk Open 2

Regardless of who is wrong or right, one of the greatest shooters in NBA history now has an open three-point attempt. If Mike Conley had helped more, it would have meant an open Devin Harris, who killed the Grizzlies on this night. Tony Allen almost assuredly wouldn't be guarding the seven-foot Dirk normally, but again perhaps it was his job and he should have defended the three faster. Gasol, from afar, can only watch as Nowitzki hits a huge shot, plus the foul from Tony Allen being too aggressive in his attempt at a defensive recovery.

If this is indeed partly because of scheme, then it is up to coaching to make adjustments in-game more effectively in this area. If a Mirotic or Ellis is heating up, going over screens and hedging more aggressively may be needed, along with personnel changes depending on the matchup. If you're playing a Wesley Matthews, Kyle Korver, or Dirk Nowitzki type on the opposing team, perhaps ball watching and over helping off of that shooter are not the best philosophies. No team is a one size fits all squad; as the NBA becomes more three-point-centric, it would be in the best interest of the Grizzlies to adapt when these shots are having an especially negative effect on the flow of the game.

In the 29 Grizzly wins, their opponents shot 44% from the field overall. In their 12 losses, opponents shot 47%, just a three percentage point difference. From three point land, the difference is much more drastic; opponents shoot 42.9% from three in wins and 34.1% in losses, an 8.8% difference. Adapt to the arc when necessary, or die at the hands of the modern NBA.

Use Contact, Get to the Line

In Grizzly wins, Memphis attempts 24.7 free throws per game and makes 18.8 of them. In losses, the Grizzlies shoot 21 free throws and convert on 17 of them. Even though their percentage in losses (81%) is higher than it is in wins (76.2%), the lack of attempts and makes means missed opportunities for points, which Memphis can always use more and more of. The missed chances at the charity stripe surprisingly do not coincide with a lack of attempts in the lane. Here are the Grizzlies' shot charts in wins and losses so far this season.

Memphis in wins as of January 20th, 2015:

Memphis Wins Shot Chart

Memphis in losses as of January 20th, 2015:

Memphis in Losses

On average, Memphis attempts 52 shots in the four main zones in and around the paint in wins, and 53.2 in losses in the same area. Aside from three-point shooting, which, like Courtney Lee is drastically worse in losses (23.6%) than in wins (39.4%, a 15.8% difference), the Grizzlies' shot distributions line up for the most part across the board while some areas are somewhat colder in losses than in wins. So, what is the difference?

It must be the officiating...or the calling of fouls. Memphis Grizzlies fans no doubt have had frustrations with the officiating this season.  These tweets from the Mavericks game are evidence of that.

Of course, this is a two way street. It is possible, perhaps likely, that some bad refereeing has followed the Grizzlies. Memphis' physicality makes them hard to officiate at times. However, the amount of calls going against the Grizzlies can be explained by poor rotations and communication, like against Dirk Nowitzki above, and inability to garner calls for themselves can come from not fully engaging contact.

That is not to say that the Grizzlies are not indeed getting fouled, and in no way is flopping the answer, but sometimes officials can use a helping hand seeing an infraction. Compare it to garnering a holding call in football; ripping your arm through as the opposing player maintains their grasp on you, and your continued movement, makes the hold more obvious and harder to miss as a call.

The Grizzlies can take, and utilize, this philosophy on the basketball court. Compare the Dirk example above, in which he gets contacted on the arm and falls to the floor due to the hit, to the screen shots of Marc Gasol below.

Gasol Contact 1

A familiar sight for Grizzlies fans - Marc Gasol getting contacted in the lane. Tyson Chandler, to his credit, is attempting to go straight up a la Roy Hibbert, but his arm is not straight up and is affecting Marc Gasol's shot attempt through physical contact with that arm. His body is also contacting Gasol.

Gasol Contact 2

No foul call, but look at where Gasol is in the lane. He's roughly in the same area as he was in the shot, with a bit of a falling away due in part to his own momentum taking him backward. His overall shot presence is not overly outwardly affected by the contact, which is nowhere near the impact that Allen's foul on Nowitzki had. While a foul could have been called in this situation, a more up-and-down attempt would have been more likely to earn a whistle and shots from the charity stripe, forcing the officials to respect Gasol's positioning. Instead, the Grizzlies wonder what might have been after a tough loss to a division foe.

Big men going up and into contact is not where it ends. Wings can embrace that contact and use their bodies on dribble drives and cuts to the rim to force officials to utilize their whistles, or hear it from Head Coach Dave Joerger even more than they already do.

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It has been a historically great start for the Memphis Grizzlies. How you start, however, is often not what defines your season. It is how you finish. With their new teammate Jeff Green along for the ride, Memphis must find ways to get their key role players such as Green and Courtney Lee in the best position to be successful, defend the three point line more effectively, and utilize contact to get to the free throw line more consistently in order to stay at their current level and continue to progress to the next one.

The team that improves the most from this point forward will win the NBA championship. It can be these Grizzlies, but the time for growing into greatness is now.

Follow @sbngrizzlies