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What’s Eating the Memphis Grizzlies?

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This team is 9-11 in their last 20 games. Why are the Memphis Grizzlies suddenly so below average?

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

At least it’s rarely boring in the Bluff City, right?

For the Memphis Grizzlies, uncertainty rules over these next two or so days as coaches and players alike try to figure out what he hell has gone wrong over the past five weeks. Since a wonderful Grizzlies run of success that was a six-game winning streak had Memphis sitting pretty at 17-8, the Grizz are 9-12 and look the part of a below-average basketball team. The recent stretch of poor play has forced Memphis out of the 4-5 seed conversation in the Western Conference for now, and firmly into the 6-7 seed race with the Oklahoma City Thunder. If it were a season or two ago, and the race for the eight seed involved teams with winning records (the below .500 Denver Nuggets currently hold the spot), Memphis would perhaps be in danger of missing the playoffs entirely.

So what has changed? Why have the Grizzlies gone from a team who may compete for a home playoff series to a team competing to avoid the San Antonio Spurs in the first round, at least for the time being? It’s a complicated answer, not able to be explained in one player or one coach. It’s a part of a bigger picture that goes all the way to the top of the roster.

But first, a look at the good.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

For this analysis we’ll be using the team’s 9-11 stretch over the last 20 games as compared to the entire season. This means in our “stretch of poor play” study, we’re not including the Grizzlies loss to a full strength Cleveland team the night before, but we are including their win over the underhanded Cavs the next night.

Why? Let’s call it grading on a curve. There are reasons that the Grizzlies are struggling that are actually the right call long-term for the franchise (more on that in a moment). If the Cavs loss was part of our look, this would be an even worse set of stats. But in these numbers we will start to see exactly where Memphis is performing below expectations of late compared to their overall body of work.

Before the dark clouds, here’s a silver lining-

The offense is actually getting better, thanks to non-star sources. Over these last 20 games, the Grizzlies are actually shooting the basketball better than they have been over the entire season.

Improving Shooting/Efficiency

Grizzlies Offense Overall Last 20 Games Difference
Grizzlies Offense Overall Last 20 Games Difference
Offensive Efficiency 102.5 105.8 3.3
Field Goal Percentage 42.6 43.4 0.8
Three Point Percentage 34.6 36.8 2.2

The improvement in three point percentage in particular has a lot to do with their efficiency rising. This growth is thanks in part to three players who are shooting far better these last 20 games from range than they have compared to the entire season overall. Yes, Troy Daniels is an elite shooter (43.4% shooting the last 20 games), but he hasn’t averaged over 20 minutes of playing time these last 20 games. These three guys have.

First, Vince Carter.

Vince is shooting 43.6% from three the last twenty games, an improvement of 8.5% from his overall season average of 35.1%. This is the most drastic shift. VC never lacks in confidence to launch from range, and that has paid off for Memphis lately.

The next biggest jump? JaMychal Green.

JaMychal’s 44.2% from range over the course of the past 20 contests is 6% better than his season average of 38.2%. Considering he’s played 537 minutes over the last 20 games, even though he isn’t taking many shots from beyond the arc (just 2 per game all season long), it means teams must respect his range, a memo Markieff Morris missed in the clip above. This allows for more slashing, more over-helping by opponents, and the offense at large improving.

The third largest jump among the Grizzlies from three belongs to James Ennis.

Ennis is shooting 37.7% from beyond the arc for the season overall. His 41.7% performance over the last 20 games is a 4% improvement, and Ennis remains one of the most underrated members of the Grizzlies. He can play multiple positions (basketball-reference.com estimates Ennis has played power forward 9% of the time this season and shooting guard 16% of the time, with the other 75% coming at small forward) and that versatility can help to negate some of the rotation uncertainty the Grizzlies face.

There are other good things happening, believe it or not. The following players are outperforming their overall on court net ratings during the recent run of mediocre play-

  • Zach Randolph- +10.4 net rating the last 20 games, +1 net rating overall. The Grizzlies have a -8.5 overall net rating compared to their overall rating during the last 20 games when Zach is not on the floor. Zach continues to have success as a bench big, but despite these numbers he should not be moved back to being a starter. Teams still try to abuse him in the pick and roll and with threes, and they are successful more often with starters than bench players. Z-Bo is in the right spot.
  • Troy Daniels- +9 net rating the last 20 games, +5.4 overall. Memphis is -2.8 worse in net rating without Troy.
  • Andrew Harrison- +5.1 net rating the last 20 games, +.1 overall. Memphis is -1.2 when Andrew is not playing.
  • Vince Carter- +4.8 net rating the last 20 games, +3.5 overall. The Grizzlies are -2.2 with Vince not playing.

In fact, factoring in games played (39) and minutes played (927), Vince Carter is having one of the better seasons among all of the Grizzlies and is easily playing the best basketball of his time in Memphis. His overall defensive rating of 102.4 is lower than Tony Allen’s (102.6, so not by much), and his offensive rating of 105.9 is better than Marc Gasol’s (105, so again not a massive leap).

Vince Carter, safe to say, has not been the problem. Nor has Zach Randolph. In fact, the players outlined above have all outperformed their season averages in terms of net rating.

So if those guys are playing well...

There must be some guys playing pretty badly.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Unfortunately, it’s the guys that the Grizzlies count on the most. And as per usual, while scapegoats are fun to point the finger at (cough Chandler Parsons cough), the issues permeating the Memphis Grizzlies start at the top.

Gasol & Conley’s Struggles

The Last 20 Games Marc Gasol Mike Conley
The Last 20 Games Marc Gasol Mike Conley
Offensive Efficiency 106 108.4
Defensive Efficiency 110.8 113
Net Rating -4.8 -4.6
Shooting % 46.1 43.5
Three Point Shooting % 32.3 35
Grizzlies Net Rating Without 15.3 8.3

On the season overall, Gasol and Conley are playing much better than their current stretch of 20 games.

Gasol & Conley Overall

Season Overall Marc Gasol Mike Conley
Season Overall Marc Gasol Mike Conley
Offensive Rating 105 106.2
Defensive Rating 103.6 105.2
Net Rating 1.4 1
Shooting % 46 43.8
Three Point Shooting % 38.8 40.4
Net Rating When Off Court -2.3 -0.6

Now, a lot more is expected from Gasol and Conley. Marc’s 26.8% and Mike’s 25.9% usage rates are 2nd and 3rd highest on the team (surprisingly, 1st is Zach Randolph at 29.7%, which would be the 2nd highest of his career if it continues). But with great ability (and massive contracts) comes great responsibility. Chandler Parsons is learning that first hand. Even while returning from injury, approximately 22% of fans according to a recent GBB poll are growing tired of Parsons only 46 games into his Grizzlies career, of which he has played 19 and has played fully healthy in 0.

More on Chandler in a moment.

But Marc and Mike must find ways to make sure that, even when their shot may not fall, they’re able to impact the game in other ways. The rise in defensive rating is concerning in particular, especially in Gasol’s case. Marc is supposed to be the anchor of scheme, the guy who corrects defensive mistakes on the perimeter through his ability to help and make shots difficult.

The Grizzlies defensive rating the last 20 games is 17.3 points better WITHOUT Gasol on the floor, and 16.7 points better WITHOUT Conley. That is a massive difference. And it’s because of plays like this, where Gasol is run into his own player, making for an easy lay-up attempt for Doug McDermott.

Or plays like this, where Steven Adams, an improving player, but not to the supposed level of Gasol, simply abuses Marc in the post.

Or these kinds of plays, where Mike Conley simply cannot keep up with guards off of picks and screens.

These are just three examples of two players Memphis needs to excel to succeed on both ends of the court in order for the team to have success. JaMychal Green, while shooting better overall, is also struggling at the moment - Memphis is +7.4 in terms of net rating without him on the floor the last 20 games, -4.3 with him. Tony Allen’s defensive rating over these past 20 games is 104.9, which is worse than those of Troy Daniels (100.4) and Andrew Harrison (101.2).

But they’e not expected to lead. They’re not cornerstones of the franchise. Conley and Gasol are. And as they’ve done in the past, they seem to be going into a mid-season malaise at a less-than-opportune time.

If things don’t improve, it could get ugly.

NBA: Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Winning makes problems fade into the background pretty quickly. Losing puts them under a high-powered microscope.

The Grizzlies’ strategy regarding Chandler Parsons, in the long-term both this season and beyond, appears to be a sound one. Parsons has begun to look more like himself, taking players off the dribble -

- and getting more arc on his jumper as he gets his legs under him.

His performance over the last 20 games has certainly not been the best, though. He has a -6.6 net rating when he’s on the floor, and Memphis is indeed +3.2 in net rating when Parsons is off the court. But remember the difference with Gasol and Conley - Chandler is not himself, but he’s working his way back and is not nearly as big of an issue as some fans make him out to be. And Parsons, playing 217 minutes over 20 games, is not on the floor enough to impact the Grizzlies to the degree that some think he does. Gasol, for example, has played 694 minutes. His defensive woes have much more to do with the issues in Memphis than Chandler’s “process”.

Parsons is the “new guy”, though, the guy who doesn’t “fit” Memphis. It’s easier to point the finger of blame at him because he has not fought the wars that the Core Four have. Zach Randolph, as stated above, has played quite well during this below-average stretch by the Grizzlies. But Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen - players synonymous with the “Grit and Grind” era - it’s much more difficult to say it’s them who have contributed more to the recent negative stretch of play.

But they have.

And Tony Allen, in particular, is making the time period leading up to the trade deadline a bit more interesting than originally thought. As stated above, Allen is not defending as well as of late as players behind him, and is nowhere near the facilitator (Harrison) or shooter (Daniels) they are. Allen is on the last year of his contract, and his recent quotes in the media about not being prepared for Otto Porter may create tension in the locker room.

It’s possible that coaches let that slip in their game planning. But it’s also possible that Allen didn’t pay him the respect that he deserves, as he has notoriously done throughout his Grizzlies tenure. He’s admitted that his “antenna go up” when playing against the NBA’s best, but he doesn’t always deliver against players who have offensive skill but lack the headlines. You can tell by body language when he is, and isn’t, invested in the game. When he is on? He’s a force of nature. But he’s been off more often than not recently.

Allen’s antics are beloved by many, and what he’s done to help build the success of this era of Grizzlies basketball is to be commended. He’s still an elite defender, easily the best perimeter defensive player according to ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus. The most likely trade deadline scenario remains Memphis making no moves at all, as getting healthy can lead to the “acquisition” of a full-go Chandler Parsons and an athletic big in Brandan Wright.

But with an expiring contract, an elite skill that is not always on display, and an offensive game that remains limited, don’t be surprised if it’s Allen who is potentially moved at the deadline along with perhaps Brandan Wright and a 2nd round pick instead of Carter or another Grizzlies player.

And that would be seen by some fans as a mistake because of his overall body of work, his past contributions, and personality. And if Chandler Parsons doesn’t return to form this season, and Marc Gasol and Mike Conley don’t improve defensively, this season will spiral out of control in a lot of different ways.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Not all is lost, though. Over the last 20 games, Memphis played 14 contests against current playoff teams. That number drops to 6 games against playoff level competition over the next 15. While travel will be intense at times, the quality of competition will go down a bit. This will hopefully allow for Memphis to right the ship and find themselves, especially defensively.

Right in the middle of that stretch of 15 games, though, is the trade deadline. And the Grizzlies front office must make a choice if things don’t turn around sooner rather than later. Do they stay the course and ride with the “Core Four” one last time, opting for acquisitions by improved health? Or do they make a trade with a nod to the future, risking the present and moving further away from the past?

This time last season, Memphis was 25-20. Then the season took an ugly, ugly turn for a variety of reasons. This time around, the Grizzlies have to turn to their coaching staff, their veterans, and perhaps their front office, to be accountable, take a recent run of bad play, and turn things around for good.

Film/statistics from 3 Ball and NBA.com/stats.

Follow @sbngrizzlies