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Healthy hopes for the return of Grit and Grind

Offseason additions and a clean bill of health can lead the Grizzlies back to the defensive promise land.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Milwaukee Bucks
The Grizzlies will look to regain their defensive prowess with a healthy team and several key offseason additions.
Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Grit and Grind is back!

Well, sort of.

While the Grizzlies will never return to the heyday of the Grit and Grind era, the 2018-19 roster is shaping up in a way that should excite Grizzlies fans looking for a return to the defensive-minded style of play that brought the team recent success. From the draft selections of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jevon Carter to the offseason addition of Kyle Anderson, Memphis is slated to have a much-improved defense in the upcoming campaign, assuming that key cogs Mike Conley and Marc Gasol stay healthy for the majority of the season.

During the tumultuous 2017-18 season, the Grizzlies fell to 24th defensively, a far cry from the seventh-ranked defense they boasted during the previous year. As a result of Mike Conley playing just 12 games, Marc Gasol declining some on that end of the floor, and the reliance on more offensive-minded players (Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden Jr. come to mind, among others), the Grizzlies effort and execution on defense suffered.

However, with a revamped coaching staff, a (hopefully) clean bill of health, and contributions from the aforementioned offseason additions, the Grizzlies can jump back into the top ten on the defensive end of the floor.

Let’s take a closer look at both how and why that can happen in the upcoming campaign, despite an aging core and reliance on relatively injury-prone players.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Washington Wizards
The addition of Kyle Anderson brings the Grizzlies another quality defender, one that can hold things down on the wing.
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Anderson effect

Memphis added several quality defenders in the offseason, headlined by Jaren Jackson Jr., a future candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. However, as we have seen countless times from rookies (especially those as raw and young as Jackson), it is hard to truly rely on them for consistent contributions in their debut campaigns. As a result, Kyle Anderson enters as the most impactful defensive addition this summer, despite his play style.

It’s easy for those that haven’t watched much of Anderson in recent seasons to doubt this claim. The dude’s nickname is “Slowmo” after all, and he’s embraced that enough to make it his Twitter name. However, what Anderson lacks in traditional athleticism he makes up for with an incredibly long wingspan (7’3”) and excellent defensive awareness and instincts.

As a result, Anderson posted elite block and steal numbers (2.1 steals and 1.1 blocks per-36 minutes) for a wing, and can handle a variety of defensive match-ups, from guards on the perimeter to big men in the post. As you can see in the below video, Anderson can provide rim protection, strip quick guards on the perimeter, and recover on shooters to use that wingspan to block and/or alter shots. His defensive versatility will be extremely valuable for a Grizzlies team that can really use a good wing defender to support Conley and Marc Gasol at the center of attack (or defense, in this case).

While defensive metrics can be noisy at times, they show nothing but love for Anderson, and have throughout his entire career. Anderson ranked second in the league in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at +3.20, and posted an elite 4.3 Defensive Box Plus-Minus, good for third in the league. Anderson has consistently been good on the defensive end, as he has never posted lower than a +2.4 DBPM, and has worked to improve on that end of the floor as his role has increased in recent seasons, posting career highs in steal and block percentage last season. In fact, Anderson had a tremendous positive impact on the Spurs’ defense last season, as it was four points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor.

This begs the question: where does Anderson fit into the lineup and defense?

Rounding out an elite defense

The easy answer is to pencil Anderson in as the starting small forward. In order to maximize the defense in the starting lineup, surrounding the 24-year-old with Conley, Dillon Brooks, Jackson and Gasol would be the way to go. We know that when healthy and engage Conley and Gasol can still provide above average defense, while Jackson has elite potential on that end of the floor (which should translate quicker than his offensive skill set).

The wildcard in that lineup is Brooks. The second-year wing showed some defensive potential last season, including some impressive performances guarding league MVP James Harden in several match-ups. Brooks may never be a true lockdown defender, but a combination of Anderson and Brooks on the perimeter will certainly make opposing offenses uncomfortable. While Brooks graded out as a slightly below defender according to Real Plus-Minus (-0.18), he had a profound effect on the team’s defense, as it was 6.4 points per 100 possessions better when he was on the floor. Brooks has quick enough hands and footwork to more than hold his own on the perimeter, and is able to recover if initially beaten, as he does here to block a Harden stepback jumper:

It must also be pointed out that Brooks shouldered a relatively high usage percentage of 18.5, one that will certainly decrease with Conley returning and the addition of Anderson, an extremely capable playmaker on the wing. With a decrease in his offensive role and the addition of quality defenders around him, look for Brooks to take another step on the defensive end, cementing himself as a potential “3 & D” wing for years to come in Memphis.

Of course, a return to the top ten on the defensive end is reliant upon both Conley and Gasol staying healthy for the majority of the season, something that can’t simply be penciled in. If Conley returns to full health, he can provide his usual pesky defense at the point of attack, supported by quality wing defenders in Brooks and Anderson. And while Gasol is nowhere near his peak on defense (as expected from a 33-year-old), he can still provide quality rim protection on a somewhat regular basis, highlight by his ability to use his big frame to deter guards at the rim:

While Gasol had a down season due to a variety of factors, he still graded out as a positive defender according to DBPM (+1.6) and DRPM (+1.70). Of course, it’s very possible that he suffers a steep decline in the upcoming season as he continues to age and shoulder a large offensive workload, but that can partially be mitigated with improved defense on the wing and the addition of Jackson Jr., who will thrive at the center position when his time comes.

Jackson Jr.’s ability to defend the rim and switch on the perimeter could unlock more options for the Grizzlies defense, especially when he is on the floor with the 6’6” Brooks and 6’9” Anderson. While it can be tough for a team to simply switch from deploying a traditional defensive scheme and then suddenly switching everything for stretches of games, Memphis has at least began building the necessary blocks for such a defensive scheme, a scheme that teams are using with a lot of success (all four teams in the Conference Finals used switching to some degree, headlined by the Rockets “switch everything” scheme, which brought them to within a game of the NBA Finals).

Headlined by the addition of Kyle Anderson, the Grizzlies can have a strong bounce back season on the defensive end of the floor as they upgraded their defense on the wings to support Conley and Gasol. With a potential starting lineup that includes Brooks, Anderson and Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies have a ton of length and wingspan on the perimeter and in the frontcourt, which will only serve to benefit Gasol and Conley as they continue to age and lose a step athletically.

We haven’t even discussed the addition of Jevon Carter, a tough-minded, physical defender at point guard that can be inserted into any lineup and provide some of that grit and grind that Grizzlies fans have missed in recent seasons.

It’s safe to say that the Memphis Grizzlies have doubled down on what they know and love, and with the recent offseason additions, it’s likely that will pay off with a much improved defensive season.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference, NBA.com/stats, ESPN and Cleaning The Glass.

Video courtesy of 3ball.io.