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The Slow Start of Mario Chalmers

Love hurts

NBA: Preseason-Houston Rockets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The new pop hit “Lemon” by N.E.R.D. featuring Rihanna starts like this, a truth that we often miss, from Pharrell Williams:

“The truth will set you free. But first, it’ll piss you off.”

Keep that in mind as you continue reading.

I’ll admit, after looking vigorously at the stat breakdowns and film of Mario Chalmers, I was a little aggressive. I was wrong: he is not as big of a liability for the Grizzlies as I assumed he is.

With that said, there are some huge red flags of concern for the beloved Chalmers that do need to be addressed. These concerns are noticeable through advanced statistic comparison and watching film of Mario specifically, but in the overall scheme of Grizzlies basketball, they aren’t that obvious.

Keep in mind also that Memphis is playing good basketball right now - regardless of how weak some of the links are (it’s still early, and obviously more than just Rio), the chain is holding firm. I can whine about Chalmers until I’m blue in the face, but at the end of the day, the Grizzlies are winning basketball games, and that’s really all I need to see.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The two main areas of concern for Chalmers are his fouling and poor shooting. Let me also say that I understand that Chalmers was completely out of professional basketball for an entire year. If you have ever taken even a couple of months off between pickup games, you can see a noticeable difference in your playing ability.

The concern here lies in the amount of minutes Chalmers receives, and the context of when his minutes are played. I have no problem practicing patience with Rio, allowing him time to get back in to live game mode, learning a new system, and testing his body once again. But there are times for that, and there are times to replace him on the floor with someone more productive.

The combination of the two areas of concern (defense and offense) I listed above can be viewed together through the lens of Mario Chalmers’ Net Rating.

Net Rating is calculated by subtracting a player’s Defensive Rating from their Offensive Rating. Dean Oliver, the creator of both ratings says, “Individual offensive rating is the number of points produced by a player per 100 total individual possessions.” Vice versa, defensive rating is how many points the player allows per 100 possessions.

So in Chalmer’s case: ORtg (88) – DRtg (101) = (-13) NRtg

Based on this stat, he is scoring 13 points less than he is giving up. That number, which should be taken with a grain of salt for several reasons (injuries on the roster, small sample size, Rio’s own return from injury, etc.) is a combination of poor shooting and sloppy defense.

Mario Chalmers has been a solid defender throughout his time in the NBA. He has a career average of two steals per game and has shown that he can defend the best in the game. But he is coming off an Achilles injury, and that Achilles tendon plays an important part in quick lateral movement and bounce. It is obvious Chalmers is a step slower and playing defense with his hands (instead of his feet) more frequently. (See below)

He ranks seventh in the NBA for fouls committed, the only guard in the top 10. He leads the Grizzlies in fouls committed per 100 possessions. And he has three games with five fouls, logging under 23 minutes in each.

Throughout an NBA game, there are going to be times when players need to foul: preventing fast breaks, fouling a poor free throw shooter, or you just get beat. Those are all understandable.

But looks at these clips. These are silly fouls, early in the 2nd quarter (two within the first three minutes). Fouls like these early in the quarter put stress on the defense late and give opponents a high chance of shooting bonus free throws (aka scoring while the clock is stopped).

In the recent loss to Orlando, Chalmers checks in with 8:38 left in the 2nd quarter, the team already has three team fouls committed. By the 7:39 mark, Chalmers had committed the last foul to put the Magic in the bonus. That’s 7:39 that the Magic have an advantage of scoring with the clocked stopped. Of course, Chalmers wasn’t the only reason the Magic gained this advantage, but it shows that early quarter fouls can haunt you down the stretch.

The videos aren’t available for the Charlotte Hornets loss yet, but Chalmers fouls three times in the first four minutes of the 4th quarter. Three personal fouls were assessed at the 11:45, 11:05, and 8:22 marks. That doesn’t give the Grizzlies much wiggle room for the rest of the quarter, and gives the Hornets a chance to cut into the Memphis lead. The fifth team foul was committed with 6:16 left in this game, which the Hornets won.

Certain lineups can benefit from which players play well with each other and who they match up well against. Since the Grizzlies bench has played so well thus far, there have been a plethora of competitive lineups, the majority of them containing Mario Chalmers.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Lineups used for at least nine total minutes this year that include Mario Chalmers (5) have an average of (-6.6) net rating. Lineups used for at least nine total minutes this year that do not include Chalmers (3) have an average of (19.5) net rating. (Stats determined by stats)

If the minutes parameter is lowered, it looks a little better for Rio. Lineups used for at least five minutes that include Chalmers (11) have an average of (9.8). Lineups used for at least five minutes that do not include Chalmers (8) have an average of (14.4).

One thing that can be seen from the naked eye, and confirmed by statistics, is that the Grizzlies play with a much greater sense of urgency on offense than last season. Rio can be credited with some of this, he has been a part of nine different lineups that average 96 possessions per 48 minutes and have been used for at least five minutes. These lineups have an average net rating of 20.4. Lineups with the same parameters that do not include Chalmers (5) have a net rating of 25.94.

Despite these disparities in ratings and fouls, Memphis is fourth in the league in opponent points per games (96.3) and opponent field goal percentage (41%). As much a Chalmers could use improvement on defense, the team is covering most of that up.

There is no arguing that Chalmers has not shot the ball well to this point. He hasn’t been known to be a knock down shooter, though he isn’t Kendrick Perkins either. He has career averages of 42% from the field, 35% from three point land.

This year has not been kind to Rio.

Mario Chalmers is currently shooting 29% from the field and 27% from three. Shooting woes are common in basketball, I have no doubt that his shooting will even out. But he is attempting 3.3 three-pointers a game, on his second worst percentage of his career.

(In other sad news, 27% from three is better than Mike Conley’s current three-point percentage.)

He has the worst field goal percentage on the team with the fourth most attempts. His true shooting percentage is also the worst, a statistic that measure shooting efficiency that considers the difference in free throws and three-pointers.

There is an old saying that goes, “You miss all the shots you don’t take.” Except when there are other players on the team that are capable of making those shots. James Ennis III, Chandler Parsons, and Tyreke Evans are all shooting 47% or better. The latter two are shooting 50% and 46% from three respectively.

Again, I think Rio’s shooting will catch up to the norm, but poor shot selection is not helping him move in the right direction.

This team needs consistent scoring to maintain the lead. A huge problem for Memphis is the annoying scoring droughts they have had to overcome, many of which involve Chalmers. Putting the ball in the right hands is his number one job, he could benefit from passing to other play makers on some of his attempts.

My hot take after the Orlando Magic loss was an overreaction, and I admit that. But there is no denying that Mario Chalmers needs some significant improvement.

A common argument will be: If not Rio, then who?

In today’s NBA, the point guard position is fluid. The default answer would be Andrew Harrison, but it doesn’t have to be him. Tyreke Evans can run the point, Parsons can manage the floor, Dillon Brooks can get the ball to the right guy.

Depending on Chalmers for 20 minutes a game isn’t killing the Grizz, but the statistics show that they could benefit from other options. And those are coming soon in the form of Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden Jr. Maybe it won’t be Harrison or Jarell Martin who will be the odd men out. Maybe it will be Mario Chalmers if things don’t improve soon.

The truth hurts, but it may allow for these Grizzlies to be set free from their current funk.

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