Nick Calathes took the scenic route in returning to the rotation. His 25-game suspension, sentenced before last season's playoffs and carried over into this season, held him out until the end of November. By that time, playoff sub-star Beno Udrih had clamped down the backup point guard role and new offseason addition Vince Carter was soaking up reserve minutes at the off guard spot. It took Calathes until the new year before he started seeing regular, meaningful minutes as part of the rotation.
At the end of January (on the 29th, to be exact), Tony Allen was moved to the bench. Starting him and then-recent trade acquisition Jeff Green together was a short-lived experiment, and Courtney Lee was quickly reinserted into the starting lineup next to Green.
With Kosta Koufos remaining on the team past the trade deadline (and talk of him being moved was blown out of proportion in the first place), that's how a second unit that has bordered on dominant defensively came together. According to ESPN's real plus-minus stat, the Grizzlies' three most effective defenders now come off their bench:
(For those curious, Marc Gasol ranks a hair behind Zach Randolph and 51st league-wide at 1.86. An unlikely estimation, even if the increased offensive workload has had an adverse effect on his defense.)
We're well familiar with Allen's shutdown prowess and Koufos' similar trustworthiness as a rim protector. After showing signs of backcourt peskiness in his rookie season last year, Calathes has blossomed into a defender worthy of being mentioned in the same sentence as the last two. Being able to split difficult assignments with Allen has helped, but Calathes has proven his mettle too.
When on together, Calathes, Allen and Koufos have a defensive rating of 77.6 in 149 minutes this season. Some people might say a defense is only as good as its weakest link, but the Grizzlies' second unit has held steady even with Beno Udrih and Jon Leuer in. In 65 minutes this season (as the Grizzlies' sixth-most used unit), that all-bench Grizzly lineup has a defensive rating of 81.8. For context, the league-leading Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 97.7.
Of course, the numbers are inflated some by the fact that the second unit usually matches up against opposing second units. When Dave Joerger most often turns to his all-bench lineup is at the start of the second quarter, just like most other coaches. But more recently, lineups centered around the Calathes-Allen-Koufos trio have seen more time kicking off fourth quarters. Sometimes, they play deep into the period, mixed in with two starters, before being yanked for the starters.
In last week's 90-87 triumph over the Los Angeles Clippers (on Monday, February 23rd – the first of two games against the Clippers last week), Calathes, Allen, and Koufos stayed in together from 0:22 left in the third quarter until the 5:16 mark when Calathes and Koufos were pulled for Mike Conley and Zach Randolph. In that roughly seven-minute period, they had a +5 margin over the Clippers, holding them to 3-of-10 shooting and forcing three turnovers. Just as significant was the time to refuel for the starters down the stretch.
The play below is a masterpiece of defensive tenacity:
And to show Calathes some love too, here he is all over Chris Paul with the shot clock winding down:
Calathes, Allen, and Koufos all play off the bench for a reason, and that reason is evident in the offensive struggles that crop up whenever they check in. Even when someone like Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol joins them, the offense reverts from the much-improved norm of this season to the "we in the mud" offense of years past.
For a bench unit, that's fine. They usually outperform opponents on the strength of their defense alone, and though lineup data is shaky to compare across starting units and bench units because of the difference in quality of competition, the Grizzlies' bench has a real bid as the team's best defensive unit – period.
The Grizzlies rely on a backbone of grind-it-down defense, and that they can turn to such an airtight unit when the regulars take a breather is a real luxury. For the first time this season, the Grizzlies' much-bandied-about depth has found their claim to fame.