These are dark times indeed for the Memphis Grizzlies.
A five-game losing streak, three of which came at home in FedExForum. A record of 2-8 in their last 10 contests. A hapless defense, a stumbling offense, a roster which has rarely, if ever, been healthy all season long, and a fan base asking whatever happened to their Grizzlies, who started the season so well at 5-1.
If you listen to some media and fans, the end times are coming.
But those calls are premature. With Thanksgiving approaching, it’s time to remind those whose fandom is at its darkest point that there is a dawn on the horizon in the grind that is the NBA season. There are things to be thankful for with these Grizzlies, and let’s start with the most fundamental truth of them all:
The Memphis Grizzlies are not, and have not, been healthy.
For the sake of argument, let’s say that the presumed starting lineup for the Memphis Grizzlies this season was to be Mike Conley, Ben McLemore, Chandler Parsons, JaMychal Green, and Marc Gasol.
Due to the injuries to JaMychal Green, Ben McLemore, and Mike Conley, plus the gradual process that has been getting Chandler Parsons up to speed, this lineup has played no minutes together all season long. None. Zero. In 16 games, no time on the court between those five at the same time.
Conley and McLemore? 11 minutes total together. Parsons and Green, with Chandler as the 3 and Green as the 4? 43 total minutes, with a +6.7 rating. Dillon Brooks (more on him later) has played the second most minutes on the team at 469 minutes. That is more than Conley by almost 100 minutes (373). That is more than Ben McLemore (85), and Wayne Selden Jr. (19) combined four times over.
There simply hasn’t been enough time with the “key” Grizzlies on the court together in the roles they were meant to be in when the season began to really make a judgment on what this team is. Mario Chalmers isn’t a starting point guard at this stage of his career. Dillon Brooks shouldn’t have to be a starter. But yet here we are, with those two realities, and no real idea of what this team is yet. It’s hard to bury such a squad.
The good news? There are signs of life.
Ben McLemore is possibly coming
There is no denying McLemore has had real issues early in his return to Memphis. His shooting percentage leaves something to be desired (35.2% overall, 14.3% from three), but that’s to be expected at this stage of the season from a young man who missed a whole training camp due to injury. His shot, or at least his confidence in it, seems to be coming along slowly but surely, and he appears to be getting comfortable overall. In his last three games, McLemore is shooting almost 10 shots per game. He is not converting the shots at his career average (41.6% overall, 34.9% from three).
His three point shooting especially should rise over the coming days and weeks. We aren’t dealing with a player outside of his prime- at 24, he should find his stroke and be at worst a decent contributor off the bench for Memphis. At best? Another reclamation story as a starter in a land where those seem to flourish.
Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons are back
Chandler Parsons is finally finding his way. He is already over 41% toward his total minutes played last season, and if he stays on this pace of roughly 25 minutes played over the next 55 games (assuming that he sits out several back to backs on the horizon), he will be close to the amount of minutes he played in Dallas in his last year there. Surely his sky-high shooting numbers won’t stick (51.8% overall, 51.1% from three), but his level of movement and ability to facilitate should be able to stick around, meaning he can play more on the wing and perhaps have a 50/50 split as a 3 and a stretch 4.
Even with the improvements, Parsons may never be that true third-best when all are healthy player for the Grizzlies. Right now, that honor belongs to Tyreke Evans, who has been a revelation in his own right. But Chandler’s defensive skills are shining (108 defensive rating, the best since his rookie year) and showcase his true improvement in terms of his lateral quickness and explosiveness.
Speaking of Evans, he has cooled off a bit the past three games (40% overall from the field, 25% from beyond the arc). That doesn’t lessen the impact he has had, which has been discussed at length here, there, and everywhere. In a city where second chances are welcome, Tyreke has made the most of his. Whether Evans is able to stay in Memphis long-term or not is irrelevant- whatever turnaround is able to occur these coming weeks and months will be squarely on his back.
More pleasant surprises
Dillon Brooks was not supposed to be this good.
He wasn’t supposed to be shooting 45.9% from the field. He wasn’t supposed to be trying to defend James Harden and the like, much less having success against them and have the fifth best defensive rating on the team. He was supposed to barely see the floor, much less be second on the team in minutes. He makes rookie mistakes, and his -10 net rating leaves a bit to be desired, largely because of his struggles from three (25% for the season). But he was a 2nd round draft pick. He is not supposed to be starting as a rookie. Once he is able to be in a rotation bench player role, he will only improve.
The same can be said for James Ennis III, who has been better than the eye test tells you. A +17 net rating (127 offensive rating, 110 defensive rating), a .125 win shares per 48 minutes number, a career low turnover percentage, and the best and longest stretch of true shooting percentage on 63.4% of his career all suggest that Ennis is worthy of minutes, whether it be as a starter or as a reserve, and as GBB alum Matt Hrdlicka suggested recently more shot attempts in games. His size and length allows for him to play the 2, 3, or 4 positions, and that versatility will be best utilized when the roster is up to speed.
That is where the faith comes in to play. The Grizzlies two best players, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, are underperforming. Marc’s current win shares per 48 minutes (.100, average at best), assist percentage (19.3%, down 5.5% from last season), and net rating (-1, 102 offensive and 103 defensive, which is down from +5 last season) are all leaving much to be desired...but he is being asked to do more than he is capable of because of the loss of Mike Conley and the other injuries around him.
Conley, meanwhile, is having his worst season since the 2009-2010 campaign. A net rating of -3 (he hasn’t been in the negatives since that 2009-2010 season) is evidence of that, as is his win shares per 48 minutes number of .092, again, the worst in eight campaigns. He is also on pace for the worst true shooting percentage since his rookie season, as well as the lowest assist percentage of his career overall. But your eyes can tell you he isn’t right- he lacks explosion, and never seemed comfortable on the floor. He is settling for contested jumpers and doesn’t have the lateral movement necessary to defend at the level we are accustomed to seeing him play at over all these years.
That Mike Conley is not the norm.
Take heart, Grizzlies fans- Gasol and Conley will not be this bad the entire season. Conley is being sat out to get right. And as Conley, and McLemore, and Evans, and Gasol, and all of these key Grizzlies are able to slide back in to the roles they were designed to play over the next few weeks they will get back closer to that 5-1 teams that feels like was with us so long ago now. They aren’t that good- that was an anomaly. But they aren’t this bad, either.
Allow for them to heal. Hope for them to keep their heads above water. Look for the bright side in losses like Portland, which even in defeat there were positives (better rotations and execution) but also the very obvious sight that they simply do not have the fire power to compete at the highest level with Mike Conley on the bench with injury.
This season is a marathon. Mike will be back, and these players will settle in. And the run will come. And that dawn will be so much nicer than the current darkness of losing streaks and longing for yesterday. But we must be patient.
Keep faith in the process, and in those who we have seen time and again rise to the occasion being able to do it once more, when the time is right.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats