The Memphis Grizzlies have completely outperformed their expectations early on in this 2018-2019 NBA season. Last week, they were leading the Western Confernce at one point and even after a few slip ups, the team is still in good position going forward. The Grizzlies have a 12-7 record and have defeated some impressive competition in the process. This unexpected start to the season stems from one thing: Defense.
While most of the league is zigging, the Grizzlies are zagging. They are bringing a defense-first mentality to the modern NBA which most front offices do not believe in anymore. Everyone is focused on sprinting up and down the court getting as many shots as they can in one game, but the Grizzlies are focused on slowing the pace down (slowest in the league) and battling through the four quarters on their terms.
The Grizzlies are only giving up 100.9 points per game this season which leads the league. For context, the 16th and 17th teams in this category (Hornets and Pistons) give up 110.9 points per game. In addition, they have the third-best defensive rating in the league at 103.6. While the snail pace of Memphis plays a part in this, this defense is the real deal.
Outside of just one player, it is the overall team defense which sets Memphis apart from other NBA teams in this new age of basketball. It is a next man up mindset that resonates throughout this team. The Grizzlies also rank fifth in opponents’ turnovers at 16.6 turnovers per game and third in steals at 8.9 steals per game. All of these statistics are not a coincidence. Let’s check out some specific aspects of the defense that have stood out this far.
One of the most impactful parts of this team defense have come from the length in the paint provided by Jaren Jackson Jr. and Marc Gasol. These guys take up so much room down low that offensive players have no options when they try to finish around the rim. Time and time again, guards get wide-eyed cutting to the basket thinking they are going to easily score until Jackson and/or Gasol rotate over to impact the shot.
The Grizzlies are third in league in points in the paint allowed at 42.8 points per game. This all stems from these two impacting anything that they can come close to.
In this first clip, De’Aaron Fox gets a step on Mike Conley thinking he will be able to finish around the rim. JJJ instinctively sags back and helps not give any room to Fox for a layup. Because of that pressure, Fox throws it away with Kyle Anderson being positioned right for the steal.
Similarly, in this clip, Jeff Teague gets a bit sloppy after attacking Gasol in the paint. Teague goes too quick on transition thinking he can score at the basket. Gasol makes him redirect to a pass which again KA is sitting in wait for. These two clips show how Gasol and Jackson can impact the paint on their own.
In addition to this duo down low, it is a team effort all the way around in terms of interior defense. When the ball enters the paint, the defense collapses down and makes it near impossible for the offensive player to make the next move. Just think about the wingspans of this starting five. Mike Conley- 6’6”, Garrett Temple- long arms measuring in at 6’6”, Kyle Anderson- 7’3”, Jaren Jackson Jr.- 7’4”, Marc Gasol- 7’5”. That is an absurd amount of length on the court at once.
Here DeMar DeRozan comes into the paint and has nowhere to go as the defense collapse down on him. He flies in looking for a foul call but the Grizzlies have hands up on both sides of him not giving him any angle to shoot or pass.
Here, Conley and Green help on a mismatch that the Timberwolves were trying to exploit with Karl Anthony Towns posting up Garrett Temple on the switch. Their collapsing defense made KAT have troubling receiving the pass that was a tad off target. It is these types of group efforts which make a huge difference overall for this defense.
Finally, the other piece to this defense is excellent on-ball defending. This is the ability to pick the pocket of the offensive player defending them straight up usually on a one-on-one. It is this confidence that players such as Kyle Anderson has to be expected to guard the best player on the other team. While schemes and group defense are important, defensive instincts are the most valuable in the Grizzlies system.
Speaking of Kyle Anderson…
Now, as we can see from these clips, his nickname is Slow-Mo for a reason. But, in addition to his “explosion” to the rim, he has the quick hands to pick pocket defenders consistently. This is why Anderson’s contribution to this team goes further than what you can see in the box score. He may not score many points, but his value on the defensive end is where he gets his money.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t show this incredible all-around play by Jaren Jackson from the Dallas game. He had to go out to the three-point line to guard Luka Doncic. Doncic then fakes the three and looks to drive, however, JJJ makes an incredible play to stand his ground and go for the steal creating a turnover. Not to mention, he makes an incredible drive down the court with a spin move bucket for two. This kid is special, and his defense and length are two things you don’t need to teach.
With this new era of NBA, defense is almost a second thought for some teams as the average points per game has skyrocketed this year compared to other years. That is why having a quality team defense is so important. Whether it is on the pick-and-roll, collapsing in the paint, or on-ball defending, the Grizzlies defense is shining on all levels and is the main factor of this impressive start to the season. If Memphis wants to continue this success, it will begin and end on the defense. Slow down the game, take your time on your possessions, and play Memphis style basketball. This Grizzlies team is the real deal, and the league better start taking note.