The start to this NBA season has not been an easy one for the Memphis Grizzlies, for a variety of reasons. They have had multiple players miss games due to injury that they were counting on, such as Brandan Wright and Tony Allen. They had played one of the most difficult schedules in the NBA through 30 games (tied for fifth with Utah heading in to last night's games). They are currently going through changes in terms of roles and style of play, and they have experienced numerous blowout losses that have affected their standing among the league's best. They have struggled so mightily, in fact, that they are a 16-15 team at Christmas, but their expected win-loss according to ESPN.com was 11-19 as the start of Wednesday's games.
The Bears of Beale Street most certainly seem in line to have a blue Christmas. But there is reason to feel somewhat optimistic; the recent change to a small ball starting lineup of Mike Conley/Courtney Lee/Matt Barnes/Jeff Green/Marc Gasol has shown flashes of positivity, and outside of last night's game against the Washington Wizards the defense has been improved. The schedule lightens considerably moving forward, and despite all of the issues and concerns the Grizzlies are still solidly in the Western Conference playoff picture. The negative of the slow start can be negated by a run of success that is possible if the team can find themselves, or perhaps a trade to help move the needle in the right direction.
A tough start? Absolutely. But the war of attrition that has been the 2015-2016 season for the Memphis Grizzlies is far from over, and where the team goes from here is still very much up in the air, for better or worse.
New Starting Lineup: Naughty or Nice?
Kevin Lipe of the Memphis Flyer said at the outset of this season that this team is in transition, possibly still cotending for a playoff birth but pseudo-rebuilding. He looks the part of a prophet as Christmas is upon us; Head Coach Dave Joerger has officially begun that transition as Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have gone to the bench and the smaller lineup mentioned above has been deployed the past seven games. There is evidence to suggest that this lineup has potential, despite the 3-4 record in the first four games of the small-ball era.
In Memphis' first 24 games before the switch, the team was struggling in a variety of areas.
|Points Per Game||96.0|
|Three Point Shooting %||30.5|
|Rebounds Per Game||41.3|
|True Shooting %||51.3|
The numbers of a truly struggling squad. However, since the change in the starting lineup December 13th (and the lightening of the schedule's difficulty) the team has performed better.
|Points Per Game||96.1|
|Three Point Shooting %||33.9|
|Rebounds Per Game||38.4|
|True Shooting %||54.2|
Points per game are the same essentially, but the points are being scored more efficiently and it is reflected in the improved offensive numbers. The major change in the team at this point since the change has been defensively- even in their four losses (103.7) the team has had a better defensive efficiency than their overall number from before the starting lineup change.
The one place where the team has struggled has been in rebounding, and that especially hurt against the Wizards as Washington got extra opportunity after extra opportunity to run clock and score when Memphis was trying to cut in to their lead. However, the team was in the bottom third in the NBA in rebounding with Zach Randolph in the starting lineup as it was, and the versatility that was gained with the placement of Jeff Green as the starting "4" seems to be worth losing some rebounding to Coach Joerger.
The starting lineup switch seems to be a worthwhile endeavor so far, as long as Joerger is committed to making it work. A quick trigger on the change due to record would be a mistake at this point- remember, Memphis is solidly in the playoff picture. They are one game away from the four seed, and three games in front of the team that would replace them in the playoffs at this point. If Joerger truly feels that this is the way to go, he must stay the course. Jeff Green and Matt Barnes may not be the guys that other Grizzlies' fans would go all-in with, but they appear to be enough for Joerger to make a move. As the sample size grows, we will find out whether Joerger was right.
Anyone But Jeff Green: The Gift That Will Continue to Give
Jeff Green remains a prominent figure among Grizzlies fans for a variety of reasons. He is seen as the root of issues and the reason that Memphis has been competitive in some games. The fact is, however, that since the starting lineup switch Jeff is performing better than he was before the move.
|JEFF GREEN||Before Lineup Switch (24 Games)||After Lineup Switch (7 Games)|
|Points Per Game||10.0||13.1|
|Rebounds Per Game||4.0||5.3|
|Three Point Shooting %||28.9||17.6|
Jeff's minutes have also increased, going from 27 per game the first 24 contests of the season to 34.8 the past seven. A drastic improvement offensively and defensively in terms of rating, and while his three-point shooting is still a struggle his overall performance is better. His shot charts bear that out- here is his chart from the first 24 games.
Now compare that with Green's shooting the last seven games-
The major thing that sticks out is the fact that in the first 24 games Green shot 65.8% of his shots in the four zones at the rim/around the paint. In the last seven games, that number is 64.6%, so not too much of a difference in terms of distribution. The major difference is in efficiency- Green shot 46.4% in those zones in the first 24 games of the season, but since he has become that "starting four" he is shooting 58.8%. This is a welcome sign from Jeff, and his ability to defend multiple positions and showcase that "versatility" you hear so much about has value in the small ball scheme of things.
Then, you look at the guy he replaced, and realize while he is doing somewhat well in his new role the past seven games, Zach Randolph's flaws are still shining on that second unit.
|Points Per Game||10.4|
|Rebounds Per Game||6.3|
|Minutes Per Game||24|
That defensive efficiency is painful, and his issues as a defender have been well documented. His shooting at/around the rim and paint, however? Between that and current rebounding issues, likely good enough to cause folks to question the move to Green.
60.8% shooting in those four zones we were referencing earlier. While this is not much better than Jeff, it is enough for people to continue to question Green's role starting in front of Zach. While we're at it, Tony Allen is healthy again and looked better at times the past two games (sporting a 101.1 defensive efficiency over that stretch.) Rebounding be damned, why not slide Barnes to the "4" and let TA play on the wing with Courtney Lee?
Jeff Green isn't the issue. He is imperfect, but he has been better since the change in role. As long as beloved Grizzlies ride the pine so that he can get 34+ minutes a night and he shows flashes of poor awareness/decision making, however, he will continue to be a focus of criticism, warranted or not.
Trade Possibilities: Tis' the Season
Jeff Green will also remain at the forefront of potential trade discussions, something that Memphis has done around this time of year the past few seasons. With the team currently piddling in mediocrity, fans more and more are looking for the player who will move the needle, who will make Memphis that title contender that many had hoped they would be this season.
Sadly, such a deal may not exist. As our own Matt Hrdlicka articulated here, blowing up the team makes little to no sense because the returns are not that great and Memphis has limited assets as it is. Green may well be that peak asset to move, but expiring contracts do not carry the value that they once did and the rest of the NBA is very aware of his shortcomings. Courtney Lee could also be tagged on to a Jeff deal, but what do those two players together, or separately, net you that makes Memphis that much better now or in the future?
Do you get a first round draft pick back from, say, Cleveland, in exchange for the services of a Jeff or Lee? Maybe, if Cleveland feels like using their trade exception and paying even more tax, but that may hurt Memphis in the here and now. Does a move of another potential asset, Zach Randolph, to New Orleans for Ryan Anderson move the needle enough to get the Grizzlies' back on track? Or a Jeff Green for Markieff Morris from Phoenix swap, who has a great contract and theoretical skill set but has underachieved this season and shown to be a potential locker room/coach issue? What do these moves accomplish? The numbers don't necessarily clear that up.
|Season Stats||Jeff Green||Zach Randolph||Markieff Morris||Ryan Anderson|
|True Shooting %||50.3||50.6||44.1||56.2|
|Rebounds Per Game||4.3||8.2||5.0||6.4|
|Points Per Game||10.7||13.1||11.0||17.5|
Ryan Anderson is quite possibly the worst defender of the bunch. Morris is having a miserable offensive season. Has Morris shown to be a good-to-great player in the past? Absolutely. Could Anderson possibly improve defensively in Memphis? Potentially.
It is all uncertain, however. These Grizzlies are flawed, perhaps fatally so, and without moving a Mike Conley or Marc Gasol (the supposed two cornerstones of the future) you are not likely getting anything back that changes your immediate or long-term plans much. History points to the Grizzlies making some sort of move, and no one outside of the aforementioned Conley and Gasol should be off the table The Memphis Grizzlies' Front Office must be weary measuring the change of culture/team chemistry against whoever is brought in, however. Memphis is on edge as it is; another lost trade may send more folks beyond the brink and in to the abyss.
Opportunity cost is the name of the game here. How much do you lose in exchange for the next best choice? These names, and others, will surely continue to be floated in and around Memphis as the trade deadline approaches.
The Grizzlies have dug a bit of a hole for themselves. But all is not lost- a run of easier competition could (in theory) help kick start a season that is a few games from being on the brink. Could a trade be what is needed to get the team going? Will the change in the starting lineup pay dividends that will help to keep this roster in tact? Will the Memphis Grizzlies find a way to salvage what is left of Grit and Grind, remodel it and head in to the playoff race with momentum?
Only time will tell. Battles have been won and lost so far this 2015-2016 campaign, but the war for the future of the Memphis Grizzlies has just begun.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and NBA.com/stats