To begin the season, the Grizzlies suffered several brutal losses at the hands of a couple of the best teams in the NBA. Not wanting to discuss the issues at hand given the tiny sample size, the losses to these elite teams were chalked up as early season woes due to several factors — i.e. players playing their way into shape, trying out a new offensive system — and then swiftly swept under the rug.
Now that the first quarter of the season has come and gone, the problem of losing to top-notch teams still persists. It might not be time to panic, but it is at least time to be concerned about the Grizzlies getting thoroughly whipped by opponents with championship aspirations. The Grizzlies are 3-8 this season against teams with a better record than them, and they were demolished in several of those contests.
So why is this happening? Why are the Grizzlies not able to keep pace with elite teams right now? It's difficult to pinpoint one primary problem, probably because it is a plethora of problems that add up to make life difficult for the Grizzlies against these elite teams.
With that said, here are the issues at hand (in no particular order).
Starters Not Scoring
In five of the eight losses the Grizzlies have suffered against teams with better records, the starters have scored less than fifty points. The Grizzlies must have better output than that on a consistent basis from the starting cast if they hope to make noise when the playoffs roll around.
Dave Joerger is admittedly still tinkering with the right starting wing combination as Tony Allen continues to see his role diminish because of his offensive limitations combined with his increasingly sporadic defensive performances. In the aforementioned eight losses against this elite tier of teams, the following were the starting wing pairings:
- Courtney Lee - Jeff Green (1 time)
- Courtney Lee - Tony Allen (3 times)
- Tony Allen - Jeff Green (4 times)
I'm not convinced that any of those pairings are the Grizzlies best option this season. Until I see more of Lee and Matt Barnes with the starting unit, I won't be convinced that the pairing doesn't bring the most balance to the Grizzlies starting unit on both ends of the floor. The Conley-Lee-Barnes-Randolph-Gasol lineup has only played twelve minutes together, and that's not nearly enough to know what you have with that group.
Age is undefeated and could certainly be playing into Zach Randolph not being where he was a couple seasons ago in terms of a guy you can isolate in the post and expect you to go get a bucket in that situation almost at will. If he's not that player anymore (he's not), then it becomes increasingly tough to maximize production out of a starting five featuring two traditional bigs when teams are becoming better every night at slowing down that look.
Maybe a solution to Randolph's natural aging is to bring him off the bench as a sixth man and stagger his and Gasol's minutes some. That way, the Grizzlies might be able to produce more lineup variations that will be able to score the ball in more ways than simply pounding the ball down low and letting your big guy work solo, which is at least partially what the starting lineup is still built to do.
Of course, the Grizzlies could get killed on the glass if they choose to go small and play guys at power forward who aren't really equipped to get down low, do the hard work, and grab rebounds. Brandan Wright coming back healthy at some point would help bolster the frontcourt rotation and allow Joerger to experiment more if he wanted to.
Regardless of the wing pairing Joerger settles on or what he chooses to do with Randolph, the starting unit has to carry more of the weight for this team as the Grizzlies don't really have a sixth man who can consistently provide the scoring volume necessary to be able to trust the bench to make up for the lack of production from guys who are supposed to be carrying the load on a nightly basis.
Brutal Perimeter Shooting
Something the Grizzlies have struggled with for years is properly spacing the floor and creating good looks on the perimeter. As teams have adhered to the defensive blueprint created and utilized most heavily by the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors, the Grizzlies have been dared to knock down outside shots, which is something they still can't do with any sort of regularity. In the eight losses against teams with better records than them, the Grizzlies shot 28/134 from beyond the arc. That's 20.9%.
Because the Grizzlies can't knock down threes, that allows teams to continue to pack the paint. This team is still built to work through Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post, so this will continue to be an issue until the Grizzlies can either prove they can hit threes at a higher rate or until Joerger does the seemingly unthinkable and brings Randolph off the bench in order do stagger the minutes of the two traditional bigs in the hope of creating a more modern offense conducive to creating better perimeter looks. It's difficult to picture either of those things happening given the current personnel, so this is an issue that's not going away soon.
Long praised for both their grit and grind, the Grizzlies are no longer out-gritting or out-grinding many elite teams. They were outrebounded in six of the eight losses to teams ahead of them in the standings, and their opponents had more second chance points in five of the eight contests.
The Grizzlies have long prided themselves on playing 'bully ball' and defeating opponents through sheer force and will, but too often against the elite teams the Grizzlies haven't executed the fundamentals which made them such a tough team to beat in the past. They are missing what should be easy rebounds because they are watching the ball carom off the rim rather than actively participating in boxing a man out and hunting for the ball, and they are falling asleep too often on defense allowing easy buckets (this isn't just a Jeff Green problem).
The biggest hustle problem of all might be the lack of fight the Grizzlies show when other teams start to pull away. Too many times, this team has fallen behind only to roll over and allow themselves to be dominated. There might be something to be said for knowing when to fold and begin conserving energy for the next game, but the fact that this has happened several times already against the best teams in the league just a quarter of the way through the season is more than a little depressing.
Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, there isn't a ton they can do to mitigate matchup issues caused by personnel, particularly against a team like the Warriors. But the fact that they are somewhat helpless when it comes to matching up with teams that play small ball exceptionally well or even teams that simply spread the floor and force poor pick-and-roll defenders like Randolph and Green to step out and stop penetration is precisely the issue.
At some point in the playoffs, the Grizzlies are likely to face the Warriors or the Spurs if they are going to make it through the Western Conference gauntlet, and both of those teams pose massive issues for this team as currently constructed. That's not to say the Grizzlies couldn't put things together and step up big time for one or two playoff series, but that's unlikely and really hard to do against two incredible teams that seem to have an answer for everything the Grizzlies throw at them.
Poor Third Quarters
This one remains a head-scratcher to me. I'm not sure exactly who to blame for this regular occurrence, but I don't think the answer is one person. For whatever reason, the players often come out flat to start the second half, but part of Joerger's job as the coach is making halftime adjustments and ensuring that they are ready to go after the break. Again, I think everybody deserves some blame here.
The Grizzlies have been outscored in the third quarter in seven of the eight losses against teams with better records than them. They can't continue to put themselves behind the eight ball like that.
If you've made it this far, take a deep breath. Most of the season still lies ahead, and a lot can change between now and the end of the season.
However, all of the problems laid out are very real and need to be fixed or mitigated in some way for the Grizzlies to stand a chance in a best of seven game series against any of the really good teams they have already lost to this season. A lot of work lies ahead for Joerger and company.
This squad — as currently constructed — might have revealed its ceiling this season as simply a tough, playoff-bound team that could be a tough out for most teams in a best-of-seven series. I'm not sure we are to that point yet. But if the brutal losses to really good teams continue to stack up, things could get bleak in a hurry on Beale Street.