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Disjointed Grizzlies Need Gut-Check As They Stumble Across the Finish Line

Just seven games remain for the wounded Memphis Grizzlies before the 2015 NBA Playoffs begin. The team's in rough shape currently, but it might not be so different from past seasons...

Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Are the Grizzlies in trouble as they head into the postseason this year? I mean, really in trouble? As in, not just being cute and lackadaisically turning in some let’s just say "off" performances? Until a verifiable fortune teller migrates from New Orleans and sets up shop on Beale Street, no one can say for certain. On the other hand, the narrator in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Survivor says, "There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns…If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself." I’m inclined to agree, so while we don’t have a working crystal ball right now, we’ve got plenty of team history and performances to look back upon. Even still, old-school basketball minds probably see advanced stats as black magic and let’s just say I’m about to don my black robe and start stirring this cauldron full of toil, trouble, and bubbles, all night long.

Since only the most masochistic of Grizzlies fans have any interest in the pre-2010 years, that’s where we’ll begin this little journey down memory lane. And because this year’s team started their struggles right at the very beginning of March with 24 games remaining, I’ve recorded the statistics in years past for that same time frame (final 24 games of the schedule). That is, with the exception of the 2011-2012 lockout season for which I instead used the last 19 games. For that shortened season, 19 is the equivalent of an average year's 24 games. On with the fun!

The Memphis Mix and Match

First up is a fun little guessing game that might highlight some key points in the process, so grab your pencils and paper. What follows are the most relevant statistics from the last five Grizzlies’ seasons, in no particular order. Each season has been randomly assigned a corresponding letter and it’s up to you, the interested reader, to figure out which season goes with which letter. A refresher on how far Memphis took their talents in postseasons past:

‘10-‘11 : Game 7 Conference Semifinals vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

‘11-‘12 : Game 7 Opening Round vs. Los Angeles Clippers

‘12-‘13 : Game 4 Conference Finals vs. San Antonio Spurs

‘13-‘14 : Game 7 Opening Round vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

‘14-‘15 : NBA Champions TBD

And your choices:

FGA/ FG%

3PA / 3P%

Assists

TO Ratio

ORTG

DRTG

NetRTG

eFG%

Pace

A

79.8 / 45.1

12.9 / 34.2

20.2

13.6

103.8

98

5.7

47.9

89.71

B

81.7 / 47.8

13.3 / 35.8

22.3

15.3

105

101.2

3.8

50.7

92.47

C

80.4 / 45.4

15 / 37.6

21.1

15

100.5

100.4

0.1

48.9

91.16

D

81.5 / 44.1

15.2 / 31.8

18.1

14.8

103.3

98.6

4.7

47.1

91.49

E

82.2 / 48.6

11.1 / 32.6

22.3

14.1

107.9

102.2

5.7

50.8

93.51

FGA / FG% - Average Field Goals Attempted / Average Field Goal %

3PA / 3P% - Average 3-Point Attempts / Average 3pt %

TO Ratio - Number of turnovers per 100 possessions

ORTG - Offensive Rating; Number of points per 100 possessions

DRTG - Defensive Rating; Number of points allowed per 100 possessions

NetRTG - Net Rating; (Offensive Rating - Defensive Rating)

eFG% - Effective Field Goal Percentage

Pace - Number of possessions per 48 minutes

...

...

...

Okay class, pencils down! How’d you do?

Season

FGA/ FG%

3PA / 3P%

Assists

TO Ratio

ORTG

DRTG

NetRTG

eFG%

Pace

A

’12-‘13

79.8 / 45.1

12.9 / 34.2

20.2

13.6

103.8

98

5.7

47.9

89.71

B

’13-‘14

81.7 / 47.8

13.3 / 35.8

22.3

15.3

105

101.2

3.8

50.7

92.47

C

’14-‘15

80.4 / 45.4

15 / 37.6

21.1

15

100.5

100.4

0.1

48.9

91.16

D

’11-‘12

81.5 / 44.1

15.2 / 31.8

18.1

14.8

103.3

98.6

4.7

47.1

91.49

E

’10-‘11

82.2 / 48.6

11.1 / 32.6

22.3

14.1

107.9

102.2

5.7

50.8

93.51

A) 12-13 Game 4 Conference Finals vs. San Antonio Spurs

B) 13-14 Game 7 Opening Round vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

C) 14-15 TBD

D) 11-12 Game 7 Opening Round vs. Los Angeles Clippers

E) 10-11 Game 7 Conference Semifinals vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Making Sense of the Madness

There’s a lot of data there to sort through and I’m sure some of you have already started looking for patterns after finding out which row corresponds to the team’s more successful playoff runs. Those two years are the 2010-2011 and 2012-2013 seasons. Looking at how Memphis played over their last 24 games in those years, we can see a few possible patterns when comparing the more successful postseasons to the forgettable ones.

1)      We’ve made the playoffs five straight years! That’s something worth celebrating for a franchise that experienced the dog days that Memphis went through. We should of course strive for improvements but that fact is still pretty sweet as a longtime fan.

2)      Granted it’s a small sample size, but there aren’t a whole lot of conclusions to draw from the team’s previous playoff pushes. The shooting percentages and shot selection in the ’10-’11 season are really different than those in the ’12-’13 season. In 2011 the team had their best field goal percentage by far, and then a couple of years later it was back down to below average. Similarly, the Grizzlies shot poorly from beyond the arc during the ’10-’11 postseason push but then had an above average performance going into the 2013 playoffs. In regards to shooting at least, there’s no rhyme or reason for the Grizzlies’ success in the playoffs. It’s true even for pace!

While the Grizzlies’ version of fast is a snail’s pace to a team like Phoenix, they have succeeded at both ends of their own range. They went to Game 7 of the Conference Semifinals playing their fastest and then to the Conference Finals playing at their slowest. That’s the biggest takeaway from this entire journey- it’s possible to have success playing so many different styles. However…

3)      Two areas that DO stand out as predictors of playoff success are a) Turnover Ratio and b) NetRTG. The latter makes since at a very basic level- you win the game by scoring more than your opponent. How that’s accomplished, again, can vary. In the lightning quick year of 2010-2011 the Grizzlies threw caution to the wind and gave up points in pursuit of scoring an absurd 108 points per game. On the other end of spectrum, the team played some true lockdown defense in the 2012-2013 season, giving up just 98 points per game. Now for the most important takeaway of this analysis- turnovers.

4)      In both of their most successful years, Memphis did a fantastic job of handling the rock. Those two years contain the two lowest turnover ratios of the five years we’re considering. It’s not in the chart but the team got even better in that area once the postseason arrived (in ’12-’13 they dropped to just 11.5 turnovers per 100 possessions!!). So if you want to harp on any specific area of gameplay, make it turnovers- if you want to make it far in the playoffs.

In the Opposing Corner

You're probably saying, "Well fine they're doing worse but we just had to play Golden State, Cleveland, AND the Spurs!". I hear ya, a crucial element to the team’s performances is definitely whom they played. After all, the stats from a year of mostly sub-.500 matchups would be inherently better than a year of nothing but Cleveland, San Antonio, Golden State, etc. Here’s what the Grizzlies through the years had to face going into the postseason:

Season

Result

W-L (Win%)

+/-

PIE

Opponent PIE

2010-2011

G7 Semifinals

15-9 (62.5%)

4.7

54.7

49.85

2011-2012

G7 Opening Round

15-4 (78.9%)

3.8

51.8

48.87

2012-2013

G4 Conference Finals

17-7 (70.8%)

4.5

54.5

49.9

2013-2014

G7 Opening Round

17-7 (70.8%)

4.4

53.2

49.67

2014-2015

???

9-8 (52.9%)

-0.5

49.8

50.81*

+/-  Plus/Minus; How much the team is winning or losing by, on average

PIE - Player Impact Estimate; How much a team dominates the game (what % of pts., assists, rebounds, etc. of the game total they accumulate)

* Average of last 17 games so far; using current PIE extrapolated to the remaining schedule= a final average of 51.5

Here’s where the trouble starts to rear its ugly head: There’s no denying the fact that Memphis is playing at a new low going into these final games. They’re performing worse than past years by every single measurement. Advanced stats aside, they’re just not winning. Yes there are still seven games to play before it’s playoff and gut-check time, but really- it’s gut-check time. Unless Memphis goes 6-1 or better they’re going to end up with their worst finish to a season over these past five years. That type of spectacular finale wouldn’t be out of character considering they’ve made similar finishes three straight years. But those previous years had the Grizzlies taking on the Lakers, Philly, and Charlotte- never the insane stretch they’re coming up on this year. That stretch includes: OKC, Washington, New Orleans, and Indiana at home, and a lovely road trip against Utah, the Clippers, and Golden State for good measure.

The discussion could just end there as many fans will argue that elite teams find a way to win, simple as that. They can be ugly but a win’s a win and Memphis has found those harder to come by lately. Basic win-loss record is important…for the regular season. Playoffs? We’re talking ‘bout playoffs! And come playoff time how you win is exponentially more important than it is in November or February. Just look at the numbers- when Memphis had its best +/- years they also had their deepest playoff runs. Golden State is terrifying for a number of reasons this season but at the heart of it is the fact that they’re OBLITERATING their opponents. Their average margin of victory (+10.9) is going to be one for the record books and if we’re buying into the whole "history repeats itself" notion, then they’re going to win the title.

PIE is the official NBA stat for measuring domination by the numbers (not just margin of victory as we’ve discussed). The higher your team’s PIE, the more positives your team accomplishes on a game-by-game basis, compared to the opponent. It’s no coincidence that Memphis' two great playoff runs included not only the Grizzlies’ best +/-‘s but also their highest PIEs. More PIE is good no matter how you slice it, but this year’s team is currently on a strict, bikini body diet. They’re at another five-year low for this statistic and blaming it on the tough schedule isn’t helpful as it’s only getting tougher for the next seven games.

If you’ve made it this far you’ve probably come to your own conclusion on whether or not an extra box of tissues and few more tubs of Ben and Jerry’s are needed for the playoffs. For the less studious readers…

The Prognosis

Memphis is in trouble. It’s not evident from effective field goal percentage, pace of play, points, or any other basic statistic. Those are all ephemeral measures that fluctuate like the temperature, and the team has succeeded during both the highs and lows. It is evident in the team’s chemistry, or lack thereof. It’s evident in the ragtag lineups that coach Dave Joerger has been forced to toy with by nagging injuries and inconsistent individual performances. You can almost see the Grizzlies’ title hopes getting crushed every time Marc spikes the basketball. There’s certainly substantial evidence to back up the pessimist’s outlook, but the eye test alone is probably enough. The eye test is quantified in PIE and Plus/Minus- both of which are at record lows for the new-era Grizzlies, and blaming it on the schedule is a tough sell. All in all the Grizzlies are now at the breaking point and really need to kick on the afterburners if they have any desire to play some basketball in May.