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Two Man Power Trip: Marc Gasol & Mike Conley Must Respond

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There is no denying that the Memphis Grizzlies as a whole are struggling. If the Bears of Beale Street hope to turn their season around, however, it will depend on the actions of two men in particular.

The finger of responsibility should first be pointed at the two best the Grizzlies have to offer.
The finger of responsibility should first be pointed at the two best the Grizzlies have to offer.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

We get it, Memphis. You're pissed.

You're pissed off that your beloved Memphis Grizzlies are 3-4 and have lost all four games by double digits. You're screaming at the sky for the heads of those who have wronged you; the dreaded Matt Barnes-es and Jeff Greens of this terrible world. Some are even agreeing with Marc Stein of ESPN.com's column from this past weekend saying that Dave Joerger is on the hot seat- with the name of Tom Thibodeau being mentioned...dare I say...longingly?

Your frustration is understandable, but it is not in the right place. Jeff Green, the dreaded villain of this version of the Memphis Grizzlies, is what he is at this point- an athlete who sometimes scores the ball but can't defend in this scheme consistently. Matt Barnes was the only player who looked as if he wanted to fight back in to the game in Utah against the Jazz this past Saturday night. Dave Joerger, while struggling in his own right, cannot play the game for these men and should not have to motivate professional athletes night in and night out.

By all means, be frustrated. The issues with Memphis are not with role players, however; they start at the top.

It is not even Tony Allen and/or Zach Randolph who are to blame; Z-Bo and TA have the best net ratings on the team at the moment among players who have played in every game so far (-3.6 and -4.7 respectfully). However, these two names have come up in trade possibilities over the weekend as the only realistic pieces Memphis has left with regard to trade value (outside of Jeff Green). This is especially concerning, since the Grizzlies will never get true value back in return for these two staples of Memphis legend. They are more important in the Bluff City than they ever will be anywhere else, which makes them that much harder to move.

Everyone should take some semblance of ownership in these early struggles. The two players who should be feeling the most pressure with regard to their early performance, however, are Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The two cornerstones of Memphis' future, the two best players on the team, are so far the two biggest problems on the roster. Whatever Dave Joerger does, whoever plays alongside these two men, does not matter until they get back to where they should be in terms of positive impact on the floor for the Grizzlies.

So what is the problem? And how can it be fixed?

Marc Gasol: A Softer Start On Both Ends

Let's compare Marc Gasol's first seven games of 2014-2015, part of his contract season (or BP, Before Payday) to his performance so far this year, or AP (After Payday), using some advanced statistics from NBA.com/stats.

2014-2015 2015-2016
Offensive Efficiency 101.4 93.1
Defensive Efficiency 90.7 104
Net Rating 10.7 -10.9
Assist/Turnover Ratio 0.86 1.92
Rebound % 11.9 11.4
True Shooting % 57.9 46.4
Usage % 25 23.5

There are some numbers that are consistent with Marc's great start from last season- His rebounding percentage, for example, is only .5% less than it was through seven games last season. That's to be expected- Gasol is not a dominant rebounder, nor is he an awful one. His assist to turnover ratio is actually an entire assist higher, showing a better job protecting the basketball so far. While his usage rate has gone down comparatively speaking, that difference of 1.5% is nothing that a couple of great games and emphasis on aggressive offense can't improve relatively quickly.

There are, however, two glaring differences. First, his offensive numbers are considerably worse. His True Shooting percentage being 11.5% worse now than it was in 2014-2015 is especially staggering. The two shot charts during these seven-game stretches are pretty drastically different- here is Marc's 2015-2016 first seven games on the top where he has shot 39% followed by his first seven games in 2014-2015 on the bottom, where he was shooting 50.5% through seven games.

Gasol SC First 7 1516
Gasol SC First 7 14-15

Marc attempted about 2 more shots per game in 2014-2015, showing a bit more attention to getting involved in scoring the ball than facilitating for others. He also only attempted shots in seven areas of the floor that NBA.com tracks, with two of them being green in places where he took twelve or more shots, meaning that he was performing above the league average in those areas. So far this season? At least one shot attempt in ten areas, with Marc performing above the league average one area of twelve or more shots above the league average. Marc is searching for his shot both literally and figuratively. His greatest issues come at and around the rim, where he is currently 23.8% worse so far and is taking 6.4% less of his shots in that area.

Marc's offensive woes shooting the ball can be explained. The neck injury is surely hampering him some. He is back to facilitating at an efficient level consistently, as his assist to turnover ratio shows, meaning he is differing more than he did last season (his shot attempts being lower backs that up as well.) The lack of success and actual attempts in and around the rim? Injury again perhaps, or just a lack of engagement in the paint overall as he seems to be fading away with his shot more, avoiding contact and falling from the rim, making his shot that much more difficult to convert.

Basically, he needs to attack more, like he did here in the pick-and-roll with, shock of shocks, Mike Conley.

This Marc, the attacker, the destroyer, is what is needed to force defenses to collapse and allow for Gasol to be the facilitator he so desperately wants to be. The right play is his play; force the defense to defend your presence, then create for your teammates.

Gasol's problems defensively are also pretty glaring. His 13.3 drop in defensive efficiency is much larger than the -8.3 difference in defensive efficiency. He seems a step slow on defense at times, missing rotations and players altogether at times. Opposing teams are not exactly shaking in their boots with regard to his defensive impact at the moment either; according to NBA.com/stats, opponents are currently shooting almost 3% better than they normally do when they are defended by Marc Gasol, and a shocking almost 13% better when Gasol is defending them six feet away from the rim or closer. Those numbers when Marc was playing so well this time last year through seven games?

Opponents shot 6% worse overall, almost 10% worse six feet or closer. Small sample size theater abounds here, but Gasol's defensive presence is lacking at best, non-existent at worst. Again, injury can be to blame for that to an extent. So can the fact that Gasol did not play Summer basketball for the first time in years and he is trying to get his legs under him, and some point to his fancy new max contract and question conditioning.

Whatever the reason is, until Marc returns to being aggressive on both ends of the floor he will continue to be a liability, and that is something that the supposed best player on your team should never be. If injury is affecting him that deeply he should sit, or at the least have his minutes limited until he gets right. This is not "max Marc" we are currently seeing, and it is killing Memphis.

Mike Conley: Some Numbers Sometimes Lie

Even in the age of advanced statistical analysis, your eyes can still tell you all you need to know sometimes. Marc Gasol's Player Efficiency Rating of 14.1, meaning he is playing below the league average of 15 and therefore currently a below-average player, would be an example of numbers backing up your eyes.

Mike Conley, however? A different issue entirely. His PER is currently 17.0, which would lead one to assume that he is performing above average and close to expectations. This, however, does not match up with game tape. Mike looks unsure of himself and is lost far too often on defense especially. Measuring him with the same NBA.com/stats numbers that we looked at Gasol with, it isn't pretty.

2014-2015 2015-2016
Offensive Efficiency 102.8 92.4
Defensive Efficiency 90 107.4
Net Rating 12.8 -15
Assist/Turnover Ratio 3 3.31
Assist % 31.3 37.7
True Shooting % 49.2 51.1
Usage % 24.5 22

Again, like Marc Mike performs well in some areas. He is assisting on teammates' made shots 6.4% of the time more than he did through seven games last season. His True Shooting percentage is actually higher right now than it was in 2014-2015. The net rating of -15, however, is a drastic -27.8 difference from last year, even larger than Gasol's -21.6. He is 10.4 worse in offensive efficiency and 17.4 worse defensively than he was at this point last season.

The two shot charts? Again, drastically different. Here is Conley's through seven games this season, a stretch in which he is shooting 38.3% from the field overall and 32.1% from three-point land while attempting four shots a game from beyond the arc.

Conley SC First 7 15 16

And here is Conley through the first seven games in 2014-2015, where he was only shooting 38.7% from the field but was an impressive 40% from three on 3.6 attempts per game.

Conley SC First 7 14 15

The major difference? The number of shots in the lane; Conley had attempted 44 shots in and around the rim at this point last season, 47.3% of his overall shot selection. Conley this season has only taken 26 shots in the same area, 32.1% of his total attempts up to this point. Mike is settling too often for the mid-range shot and not attacking enough. Mike is also ice cold from areas where he was performing well last season, especially from three. His struggles there, and his lack of attempts at or around the rim, are troublesome and part of the reason for Memphis' offensive woes. The Grizzlies need his ability to create off the dribble and pick-and-roll, as he does here against the Brooklyn Nets, to be consistent on offense. It is far from that so far.

Defensively? Mike is more gambler than he needs to be trying so hard to play passing lanes and create new opportunities offensively that he is finding himself out of position more often than not on the perimeter. It shines through in the shooting percentages of opposing starting point guards so far-

  • Mo Williams: 3-6 from three 50%
  • George Hill: 3-8 from three 37.5%
  • Jarrett Jack: 0-3 from three 0%
  • Stephen Curry: 4-8 from three 50%
  • Rajon Rondo: 0-1 from three 0%
  • Damian Lillard: 7-11 from three 63.6%
  • Trey Burke: 6-8 from three 75%
Now Burke did not start for the Utah Jazz in their latest contest, but Burke played the most minutes in that spot. Jarrett Jack is the only player (outside of Rondo, who has never been a three point shooting juggernaut) who has not made an impact from range against Conley and Memphis' perimeter defenders. Mike is the one who primarily draws these assignments, however, and he is struggling to defend his position to this point.

His defensive tracking numbers over at NBA.com/stats back that up, as well as the numbers above and the eyes of those paying attention. So far opposing players are shooting 9.3% better both overall and from three point land when defended by Mike Conley than they normally are. During this same stretch last year? Opposing players were still draining threes against Mike (9.7% better against him) but were much worse overall (.3% better, basically a wash.)

Memphis' three-point defense has not been great for a while; the defensive scheme is susceptible to three point attempts, especially on the weak side of the defense, due to the overloading and aggressive nature of Dave Joerger's defensive game plan. This is one way to explain the struggles from range for Mike, and the team at large. However, the drastic drop in defensive efficiency for Mike is not just the team and poor rotations. It is Mike not reacting properly, not running back in transition efficiently, not rotating when necessary or fighting over the top of screens when defending perimeter-based players.

Mike's defense is reflective of that of the perimeter players at large. If Mike and the Grizzlies hope to improve in this area, it must start with him, as a leader, doing his job consistently.

___________________________________________________________________

Attitude, or apathy in this case, is reflective of leadership. So goes the life of the Memphis Grizzlies. Make no mistake, Dave Joerger deserves part of the blame as the leader of the day-to-day operations of the team. The players on this roster are professionals though, and should be able to have professional pride and play hard on their own.

Leadership is lacking at the moment for Memphis, and Gasol and Conley have the power to lead Memphis both on and off the court out of this dark start.
But sports do not always work that way. Life doesn't either. It takes exceptional people, the best, to lead by example and rise to the challenges that come. The two best players for the Memphis Grizzlies, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, have not done that so far this season. Gasol is one of the highest paid players in the NBA, and Conley figures to get paid even more than Gasol next season. These two are looked upon to perform both as leaders of men and as two of the best players at their position in the NBA, and so far they have not met expectations on either level.

Thankfully, time remains to right these wrongs. Their performances in the past indicate that Gasol and Conley are too good to suffer through this sort of issue much longer. But if Gasol's neck is a larger issue than initially thought, or if Conley is still not right from his health problems of last season, or if they simply are not who we thought they were in the long-term (an unlikely but still slightly concerning potential disastrous development for the future), it will continue to trickle down and poison any hopes that Memphis may have of getting out of the abyss any time soon.

Two men have the power to get the Grizzlies back to where they want to be. It is up to them to take that power and respond to the adversity at hand.