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Playing Down to Competition, or Why the Grizzlies Can't Beat Down Bad Teams

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There have been some close games this season, and it seems that most of them have been against teams that have no business competing with the Grizzlies. Is this an overreaction to their early season success, or can they really not put bad teams away?

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My house is too big for my Wifi to reach every room.

Someone wrote me a check and now I have to go to the bank.

My garbage disposal eats better than 98% of the world.

I shared my Netflix password with a friend. He is ruining my suggestions with his terrible taste

#firstworldproblems

I love #firstworldprobelms jokes. If you want to make me laugh, send them my way. No seriously, I will love it. Just the absurdity of the modern and technological world that we live in now is hysterical enough, but these jokes put the absurdity over the top. Most of us that have time to write a blog post about a small market basketball team, or the people who have time to read said post, live in a very privileged place relative to the rest of the world. So no matter what kind of day you are having, keep that in mind.

I also feel like being a Grizzlies fan in 2015 has become a bit of a #firstworldproblem itself. I moved to Memphis in 2004 and became a fan right away because I love basketball and the team was rather good. After three straight playoff appearances (sweeps…but appearances), a fan can get used to success. Then came the drop off. Some core players got old. The Battier/Gay trade happened. Missing out on the Oden/Durant draft happened (Mike Conley tho…). The Pau trade crusher happened. The Kevin Love/OJ Mayo trade and the Allen Iverson debacle happened. THE THABEET DRAFT happened!!!!!! All of these can depress a fan base, but can also affect expectations.

That drop off is why the last four years were so enjoyable for me. The team’s latest success, culminating with the Western Conference Finals appearance in 2013, has grown the fan base and the local and national consciousness of the team. What is different now as compared to then is that with the increase in social media and internet coverage, we've put the fan base right back into the #firstworldproblems dilemma again. Gasol has a bad game…he isn't being aggressive enough. QPon misses a wide open three…fire up the trade machine. Jon Leuer gets schooled by a better player…total bum, you clueless zombies!!!! All of these are subjective, and at the end of the day, are probably meaningless.

Not that criticism is always bad, but I wanted to focus on an interesting outcome of the first part of the season. Last Tuesday, the Grizzlies crushed a short-handed New York Knicks team full of injured players, missing guys who had been traded straight out of their warm-ups, and guys who should be in a church league. It was a rare blow out win for the team in Beale Street Blue. With (most of) the Knicks game as a recent exception, it feels like the Grizzlies have "played down to their competition".  So I went down to the Grizzly Bear Blues stats department (which is line after line of nerd sized hamster cages with laptops, calculators, water bottles full of Mountain Dew, and bowls full of Doritos and Pixie Stix dust…it’s amazing) and I wanted them to investigate a common refrain amongst Grizzlies fans: Why can’t the Grizzlies just kick a bad team’s ass?

Are the Grizzlies beating bad teams?  And if so...how badly?

Nearly thirty-five games into the season, it would be hard to win almost seventy-five percent of these games without beating teams that suck (and by suck…I mean teams that would be…as of January 6th…teams that are in the lottery from each conference…which are IND, BOS, ORL, DET, NYK, PHI NOP, OKC, SAC, DEN, LAL, and MIN). As it turns out, the Grizzlies have been beating these teams. Memphis is 15-2 against the lottery-bound teams, with a point differential of +77. This averages out to a winning margin of +4.5. They have three double-digit wins against these teams (Boston on 11/21, Sacramento on 11/30, and New York on 1/5). The Grizzlies have one bad loss (a 29-point loss to Denver) which throws off the point differential, but the difference is minimal.

Are other good teams beating teams they should be beating?

So, the Grizzlies are beating down teams they should be. What about the rest of the league? If you took the top eight teams in the NBA (ATL, CHI, TOR, WAS, GSW, POR, MEM, and DAL) and pitted them against the lottery teams, the top teams are 122-14, and are routinely kicking the crap out of the bottom teams in the league. Observe:

-Golden State- 17-0, +264 point dif., 10 double digit wins (19 total)

-Dallas- 16-0, +265 point dif., 9 double digit wins (13 total)

-Toronto- 15-1, +167 point dif., 9 double digit wins (17 total)

-Portland- 17-2, +176 point dif., 9 double digit wins (15 total)

-Washington- 15-2, +132 point dif., 6 double digit wins (10 total)

-Atlanta- 13-2, +116 point dif., 6 double digit wins (7 total)

-Chicago- 14-4, +78 point dif., 3 double digit wins (7 total)

So, how come the Grizzlies aren’t beating down bad teams?

While the Grizzlies would not have the worst record against bad teams, they do have the worst point differential in these games. They would also be tied with Chicago in double-digit wins against the lottery bound teams, although the Grizzlies have blown out six teams that would be in the playoffs if they started today. So it is obvious that the Grizzlies are having trouble smacking around bad teams…but why?

1) Pace - the Grizzlies have always been fantastic on defense, and this year is no exception. The Grizzlies rank in the top ten in Defensive Rating (104.1 points per 100 possessions). The Grizzlies offense is finally coming around as well, with a top ten Offensive Rating (108.7 per 100 possessions…for more on this see Grace Baker’s article on the new and improved Grizzlies’ offense). However, pace is slightly up this year, but not by much (from 29th to 27th). A majority of the league’s best teams have pace ratings in the top half of the league (of note…Golden State is 1st , Dallas is 9th , while Toronto and Washington are 17th and 19th respectively). However, having more possessions per game with an efficient offense and defense can lead to some butt-kickings. For example, Golden State has the 4th rated offense in efficiency, 1st in defensive efficiency, and 1st in pace, and a lot of thrashings this season.

2) Minute Restrictions - Coach Joeger has made it a priority this season to restrict the minutes for the starters for this team. No Grizzlies player has averaged over thirty five minutes per game in 2014-2015. Marc Gasol is playing his lowest minutes per game since 2010 (not counting an injury laden season last year). Mike Conley is playing his lowest amount of minutes since 2009. Before being injured, Zach Randolph played his lowest amount of minutes since 2011, when he was injured. Less minutes from your elite talent means less time during which there is an obvious talent advantage.

3) Not enough games against the Knicks - The good teams are 13-0 with a point differential of +183 against the Knickerbockers. The Grizzlies have only played this team once, while every other team except Golden State has played the Knicks at least twice.

4) Matchup - The Lakers suck. This is a truism throughout the league. And yet the Lakers have played the Grizzlies tough in three games this season, losing by a grand total of 13 points in the three meetings. And yet…teams with chuckers in the back court and athletic bigs often times give the Grizzlies fits, and the Lakers have done just that.

5) Injuries - All of the teams in the top eight have had injuries this season. The Grizzlies' injuries have been important due to Z Bo’s rebounding and surprisingly good defense. Plus, the sixteen points and twelve boards that Randolph has been giving the Grizzlies have not been replaced. Come back soon, Z-Bo.

So most of the difficulty comes from roster makeup, scheduling, and strategy...which probably will not change.  As the season goes on, bad teams tend to shut players down for next season, while good teams tune up for the playoffs.  Maybe this will turn itself around.  Or maybe suffering through some close games against terrible teams is our lot.