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The Other Side of Grit and Grind

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Can a Grizzlies’ offense with limited shooting keep up in the modern NBA?

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies
Chandler Parsons was signed to provide more shooting and playmaking on the wing. In this Grizzlies’ offense, those two skills are in heavy demand.
Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies have long been known as a defensive team, using their grit and grind style to win physical, slow paced games. Ever since the core of Mike Conley, Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen formed and developed together, Memphis was consistently lauded for their play on the defensive end, and always intimidated opponents with their style of play.

While the old adage is that defense wins championships, the importance of implementing a modern offense can not be ignored in today’s NBA, especially in the regular season. The Grizzlies have certainly struggled on that end of the floor in recent seasons, finishing 27th in the league this past season, 19th in the 2016-17 campaign and 22nd in 2015-16. It’s clear that Memphis has been focused on the defensive end in recent seasons, relying on their bread-and-butter recipe to win games.

Chandler Parsons was supposed to be the signing that added an entirely new dynamic to the Grizzlies offense, as he is a wing that can handle the ball, create for others, and space the floor around Conley and Gasol. As we all know, that hasn’t turned out to be the case, and Chandler continues to miss games and play at a much lower level than expected due to various knee injuries.

Had the Grizzlies received a healthy Parsons, one that averaged 16.6 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4 assists per game while hitting 37 percent of his 3-pointers during the 2013-14 season, we may not be having this discussion about the Grizzlies’ offensive struggles and limited shooting.

However, as Memphis enters the upcoming season, it is unreasonable to rely on Parsons to provide anywhere close to that level of play, which will limit his playing time and impact on the team’s offense. In a season in which the Grizzlies appear focused on returning to the playoffs, how will their offense hold up during the regular season? Will they have enough shooting to support an offense that is at least close to league average? With how tough the Western Conference is looking, it is extremely unlikely that Memphis will be able to sneak in the postseason with 42-43 wins on the back of an elite defense.

Replacing a key contributor

When talking about the Grizzlies’ offense, it is important to note that the team suffered a significant loss in the offseason with Tyreke Evans leaving to join the Indiana Pacers. Evans had a remarkable turnaround season in Memphis, averaging 19.4 points and 5.2 assists per game, hitting 40 percent of his 3-pointers. While Evans only appeared in 52 games, he was one of, if not the most important player for the team’s offense, as he handled the ball to create for others while also being able to play off-ball due to his improved shooting.

Evans led the Grizzlies in Offensive Box Plus-Minus at +4.4 (not counting MarShon Brooks, who appeared in just seven games), and his loss will be felt offensively. However, his absence can be mitigated through a combination of several developments.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Houston Rockets
Mike Conley can have a tremendous impact on the Grizzlies’ offense if he can remain healthy
Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

A steady presence at point guard

The first of those developments is Mike Conely remaining healthy for the majority of a season, as that will be crucial. A healthy Conley is Memphis’ best offensive player, as evident by his 2016-17 campaign in which he averaged 20.5 points and 6.3 assists per game on a 60.4 true shooting percentage. Conley easily led the 2016-17 Grizzlies in OBPM (+6.5) and offensive win shares (7.5), highlighting his importance to the team’s offense, especially with the departure of Evans.

Conley also has the ability to be remarkably consistent from all areas of the floor, making him more difficult to guard. During his 2016-17 season, Conley shot 60.7 percent within three feet of the rim, 47.1 percent from within 3-10 feet, 40.5 percent on mid-range jumpers from 10-16 feet, 43.2 percent on “long twos” (between 16 feet of the rim and the 3-point line), and perhaps most importantly, 40.8 percent from beyond the arc.

When healthy, Conley has a quick step to get to the rim, an effective floater, and the ability to spread the floor when playing off-the-ball. Conley demonstrated his quickness and footwork against the Portland Trail Blazers, freezing Jusuf Nurkic to get a layup and-one:

Later in the same game, Conley demonstrated his value to the offense when he doesn’t have the ball, spacing the floor alongside Evans and Gasol, eventually ending with an open three:

It’s easy to imagine a similar play in the upcoming season, only with Kyle Anderson in Evans’ place initiating the offense. For a team that lacks knockdown shooters and natural floor spacers, Conley’s presence is paramount for the Grizzlies if they hope on improving their bottom-five offense.

Tinkering with floor-spacing lineups

After Conley, you will be hard-pressed to find other high quality shooters that will receive consistent minutes in the rotation. MarShon Brooks should carve out minutes just for his scoring and shooting ability alone, but it’s hard to rely on him on a regular basis due to his limited defensive impact. Ben McLemore may find himself out of the rotation entirely and has struggled in recent seasons to live up to his reputation as a shooter and floor-spacer. Finally, offseason addition Kyle Anderson brings little-to-no shooting, and is best with the ball in his hands.

However, J.B. Bickerstaff still has options when it comes to maximizing the potential floor-spacing at given times. A projected starting lineup of Conley, Dillon Brooks, Anderson, Jaren Jackson Jr./JaMychal Green and Marc Gasol has enough spacing to keep defenses honest and open up driving lanes, but may struggle for stretches. Teams won’t guard Anderson off-ball, Brooks shot just league-average from beyond the arc last season, and it remains to be seen if Jackson Jr. can translate his elite shooting from college and summer league (if he earns the starting role).

In order to improve the Grizzlies’ shooting and spacing, players such as Parsons, Green, Jevon Carter, MarShon Brooks and Wayne Selden Jr. should get plenty of opportunities to earn consistent playing time. Despite being limited to just 36 games last season, Parsons did hit 42.1 percent of his 3-pointers, and usually isn’t afraid to let it fly. Brooks is a natural scorer and shooter, hitting nearly 60 percent of his 3-pointers in his brief time with the team last season. Carter was a willing and capable shooter throughout his college career, as he shot over 37 percent in his two final seasons. Lastly, Green has show the ability to space the floor at power forward, while Selden has a knack for scoring, hitting 40.2 percent of his 3-pointers last season.

Memphis was 24th in the league in 3-pointers attempted per game last season (26.2), which can limit a team’s offensive potential. While it is certainly possible to have an elite offense without elite shooting (both in terms of percentage and volume), it is certainly more difficult for a Grizzlies team that lacks elite scorers and isolation players to do so.

A perfect example of a team using improved and increased shooting to improve their offense is the Toronto Raptors, who attempted 8.7 more 3-pointers per game during the 2017-18 season than they did in the previous campaign. If Memphis increases their volume from beyond the arc, they will have a better chance of improving offensively, especially if Conley remains healthy and several of their best shooters consistently see the floor.

A Conley, Brooks/Selden Jr., Dillon Brooks, Parsons/Green and Gasol/Jackson Jr. grouping would provide the team with enough floor spacing for their go-to scorers to operate freely. Gasol will have more room to execute out of the post, Conley will have better driving lanes to the rim, and the team’s ball movement will lead to open shots for their best shooters. While such lineups won’t hold up as well defensively, Memphis should focus on establishing more of a balance at times, especially as they go up against a tough Western Conference foe on a near-nightly basis.

The Grizzlies won’t jump up into the upper echelon of NBA offenses this season. It is more likely that they hover around the late-teens to low 20s on offense and focus on using a potential top ten defense to win games.

However, an increased focus on floor-spacing and the implementation of more modern offensive lineups can’t hurt a team looking for any way to sneak back into the playoffs. Grit and grind is the Grizzlies’ bread and butter, but it doesn’t have to be the only way to fill their stomach and win games.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and NBA.com/stats.

Video courtesy of 3ball.io.