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Defense doesn’t always win championships

No matter how great your defense is, you still have to score to win.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Here we are, 31 games into the season and the Memphis Grizzlies still have a winning record. To many, let’s say, most, that is a welcome surprise. And as a full disclosure, I am shocked more than anyone of this team’s early season success. To further the point, I wrote an article a few weeks ago about how a few of these losses were actually avoidable, the Grizzlies have become notorious for blowing large leads against good and bad teams.

But alas, while we bask in the early success and prepare for the holidays, it’s a time to reflect on what Memphis is doing well, and whether or not it is sustainable for an entire season.

I put together this chart to show some of the significant stats this team has garnered from both sides of the ball. Take a long look and consider where you see this biggest discrepancy. These stats are accurate as of last night’s 99-92 defeat at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers-

Memphis Grizzlies Stats

Stat Type Stat Result NBA Rank
Stat Type Stat Result NBA Rank
Defensive Rating 105 6
Opponent FG% 44.7 7
Opponent PPG 102.3 2
Steals 9 5
Blocks 6.2 3
Points per game 101.9 29
PACE 95.92 30
3-pointers made 9.5 26
Rebounds 39.4 30
Offensive Rating 105 26
FG% 45.5 18
3-point FG% 34.7 18
Stats provided by

Hopefully you noticed that these stats show there is a significant gap between offense and defense. And that is where there is a huge problem for this team.

The Grit-N-Grind era has…grinded its way back into consciousness, head coach J.B. Bickerstaff’s stubbornness to let it go has worked well this season. The defensive numbers almost don’t make sense: top seven in every major defensive category? Yes please. In 16 out of 30 games this season, Memphis has held the opponent at or under 100 points in regulation, that’s actually mind blowing.

But look at the other side. In 18 out of 30, the Grizzlies have scored at or under 101 points. That’s equally as mind blowing, and inexcusable in today’s NBA. The point is, no matter how good this Memphis defense is, even if its sustainable for 82 games, if the offense continues to be this bad, it won’t matter.

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

Marc Gasol started the season as an early favorite for Defensive Player of the Year, Jaren Jackson Jr. was holding his own as well, he is still 11th in the league at 1.8 blocks per game. The team is built defensively and is living up to that standard. But based on my understanding of the game of basketball, you have to outscore your opponent to win the game. And that’s where this team struggles mightily.

Mike Conley is hovering around a career best in scoring, taking and making the most shots per game of his career, and has been undoubtedly the go-to guy in close games. But he is not a superstar-type that is capable of carrying this team night in and night out. Gasol does his best to be an anchor on both ends, but he needs help too, its obvious. I love both of these guys, they have put Memphis on the NBA map consistently, yet its clear they need help on the offensive end. And its getting worse by the night.

Memphis is 1-6 in their last seven games, they have yet to score 100 points in any of those. Of those games, the Grizzlies scored 16 points or less in a quarter in six frames, even tallying an 11 point quarter against Houston. You will not beat teams in this league with those scoring numbers.

The decision was made as an organization to stick to what has worked in the last handful of seasons: defense. As Grizzlies fans, we are accustomed to watching that style of basketball, and sometimes even enjoy the mess it creates. But the way this team is constructed, the scoring options are limited, so much so that they can’t outscore opponents on that team’s worst scoring night.

NBA: Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

So, after all of this shocking analysis, what’s the solution? Unfortunately, I don’t see one on this roster. The front office chose to go deeper into defense by signing Joakim Noah with the open roster spot. Mike and Marc will continue to get their ~20 points a game while the rest of the team stands around the perimeter waiting for a kickout. That’s just the way this team is being coached to play and the way its constructed. Bickerstaff hasn’t proven to be creative on the offense end, and as we all know, definitely hasn’t found solid rotations to trot on the floor. Defensively, keep it up Grizz. Offensive, give us something to look forward to.

The reality is that this team played exceptional basketball to start the season, and now the rest of the league has found a groove that runs right through Memphis. Without serious changes on offense, that winning record will be lost in the history of the 2018-19 season. No matter how good a defense is, the truth about winning will never change: the team with the most points at the end of the game always wins.

Follow @sbngrizzlies