Let’s get one thing straight from the jump...the Memphis Grizzlies aren’t tanking (at least purposely) just yet.
The firing of David Fizdale was not done with the goal of tossing this season to the side. J.B. Bickerstaff has been handed the reins of this fractured and injury-weakened roster to try to save a season, not sink it. The end game may change a month or two from now, and a large piece of that will come down to the physical health of Mike Conley and the mental state of a Grizzlies locker room that is clearly reeling.
But that is not where we are today. Today, we are starring down the barrel of a losing streak that could easily be at 11 games by the end of the weekend. And no matter what changes or adjustments Bickerstaff makes, he may just not have the horses to stop that.
But other Western Conference playoff hopefuls are dealing with injuries, and Memphis is only three games out of the final playoff spot in the west as of this writing. This is not the place for debating whether fighting for that is a worthwhile cause - that is a separate conversation for another time. As stated above, for the time being the organization hopes to get back in that mix.
How can they do it, outside of getting Mike Conley back? While Bickerstaff is fighting quite the uphill battle on this front, it can be done.
Here is how.
Go super small with James Ennis III more often
When perusing some of the Grizzlies best five-man lineups so far this season, something that jumps out is that several of them include James Ennis III in what would be traditionally considered the “power forward” role. Some examples-
Mario Chalmers/Dillon Brooks/Tyreke Evans/James Ennis III/Brandan Wright- +5.5 net rating
Mario Chalmers/Andrew Harrison/Dillon Brooks/James Ennis III/Marc Gasol- +22.5 net rating
Mario Chalmers/Ben McLemore/Tyreke Evans/James Ennis III/Deyonta Davis- +43.6 net rating
Now all of those lineups played a total of 24 minutes together all season long, so obviously small sample size theater is very much in play here. But the logic is sound- you get another athlete on the floor with Ennis in this role, and he has shown when given opportunity that he can thrive. His +12 net rating (121 offensive, 109 defensive) leads the Grizzlies among players who have played at least 300 minutes so far this season, and he is already playing roughly 25% of his minutes in this spot as it is according to basketball-reference.com.
And you have the bigs to do it! Want to switch everything? JaMychal Green can do that. Brandan Wright and Marc Gasol are known commodities in that center spot, and limited Deyonta Davis minutes have been promising. Depending on how you deploy lineups, you could have five shooters on the floor with multiple facilitators to get them the ball, even without Mike Conley, plus increased athleticism if Ennis is your 4.
And it doesn’t have to mean that other wings play less. Assuming Chandler Parsons returns soon, having these two on the floor together to “switch” in this role would also create issues for opposing teams. The facilitation of Parsons, the athleticism of Ennis...and both could switch in and out of that 4 spot within any given possession depending on assignment. The health of Chandler is paramount here, but when he has been playing he has been able to defend perimeter players as well as stretch 4’s.
And the net rating of that Parsons/Ennis pairing? +19.2, one of the highest for Ennis with any other player. Positions be damned. Let Ennis eat.
Keep certain players far away from each other
Part of this will take care of itself with health. For example, when Brandan Wright gets right and returns in the next week, surely Jarell Martin will drop back to the end of the bench. Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green, Wright, and Deyonta Davis all should see minutes in the front court before him, plus we just argued for seeing James Ennis III more in that 4 spot. So Martin won’t be there much longer.
But in the immediate future, with Martin still in the mix for minutes, he cannot play with Ben McLemore. Martin is barely an NBA player right now, much less an NBA player on a team trying to get back in the playoff mix, and Ben McLemore is coming back from a foot injury that forced him to miss training camp. To say “bench McLemore” is not realistic long-term, considering the investment in him and the need for what he theoretically brings. So keep giving him opportunity...
Just not with Martin next to him. Or Andrew Harrison, who has a positive net rating when playing more than 10 minutes together with one person on the roster...Deyonta Davis. Harrison as a whole has been a disappointment so far this season, but so has Mario Chalmers. Our own Brandon Conner did a good job explaining just how dire this point guard situation has been (as it has been for a while, as Grizzlies fans know), but at least Harrison has youth and size on his side. There is upside to him still...potentially...but you can’t just throw him out with other struggling players and expect things to go well.
Bickerstaff must be aware of who is on the floor at all times. As silly as that sounds, it’s true. It is hard to do that with Conley AND Wright AND Parsons out, but if Chandler and Brandan are back within the next week, at most Bickerstaff can only have one of those struggling types (Harrison, Martin, McLemore) on the floor at one time if he hopes to simply hold a lead, much less build one.
Keep starting Tyreke Evans, and move Dillon Brooks to the bench
Tyreke was inserted in to the starting lineup against the Spurs on Wednesday night out of necessity, almost. Mario Chalmers was out, and Andrew Harrison would have only compounded the struggles of that starting unit. But once Chalmers returns, Evans must remain with that starting group. He is too good at getting to the basket, too explosive on offense, and too able to help relieve some of the pressure on Marc Gasol to not have him there from the outset.
Who goes to the bench? You certainly can make an argument for Mario Chalmers, who is having an awful shooting performance so far this season and seems to have lost a step or three after his injury. But until Mike Conley returns it should be Dillon Brooks. Brooks has been a promising prospect for Memphis, and a reserve role does not mean you don’t play him. But among the five Grizzlies who have played at least 400 minutes so far this season (Gasol/Brooks/Evans/Ennis/Chalmers, in that order for most minutes on the team) he has the worst net rating at -12 and the second worst offensive rating at 96.
The worst among the crew? Mario Chalmers, at 95, so he could be a target for a reserve relegation as well. But Chalmers has a higher PER (10.8) and win shares per 48 minutes (.039, still really bad) than Brooks (8.5 and .034, respectfully) and also is far better at getting to the free throw line than Brooks (.347 free throw rate for Chalmers to .195 for Brooks), so that would increase free throw attempts throughout the course of the game if Memphis draws more fouls early.
Chalmers has also started almost 400 games in his NBA, so he could be a steadying presence with that starting lineup. He would also allow for Tyreke to play off the ball some and create in different ways than as a primary ball handler. Rio could be your first guy who comes out with Brooks replacing him, and vice versa, but for the long-term development of Brooks it would be wise to allow for him to build some confidence against bench players and also still play key minutes later in games.
Brooks has been thrown to the deep end of the pool. It’s time to try to bring him back to more shallow water so he can find his footing.
There is no superhero walking through the door to save Memphis. The Grizzlies are in a tough spot, and will be without at worst their second best player for at least the next two weeks, maybe longer.
But there are things that can be done to maximize what Memphis and J.B. Bickerstaff do have to work with. And if these tweaks are applied, it will allow for the Grizzlies to be the aggressors more often and force their opponents to adapt and adjust. In those possessions where little gains are made, over time they will add up to better basketball, and eventually wins.
It isn’t perfect. But in these tough times, it could be a start.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com and nba.com/stats