The word itself could be one of the most versatile in the English language. In terms of business, it can be a positive sign of efficient inventory management, or a disturbing signal of employees not staying long because of a negative work environment. The word itself essentially means change, and is a powerful measure of how effectively or negatively an entity is operating. In terms of the NBA, the word turnover could have a big impact on a team’s success in a variety of ways.
Over the past decade, no team in the NBA has been impacted more by this term, on and off the court, than the Memphis Grizzlies.
When one looks back at the era of Grit and Grind, the personalities, playoff battles, connection with the city, and physical defense are popular themes that come to mind. While all of those are logical ways to define the era, another theme of the decade has been ironic success, something others have referred to as a counterculture.
It is ironic that the Grizzlies found sustained success for nearly a decade without a true superstar.
It is ironic the Grizzlies’ slow paced, physical, defensive approach made them an annual contender in a league that each year trended more toward a fast paced, offensive game.
It is ironic that despite all of the misses the Grizzlies experienced through the draft and free agency, they were able to maintain one of the league’s most successful cores.
It is ironic that despite complete overhauls in both the front office and the coaching staff, the Grizzlies won at a level that few other franchises achieved.
The common thread in all these examples of irony is the fact that the players committed to a common goal of working as a team to play smart, winning basketball. One of the biggest reasons for that success may be the greatest irony of all, that despite all the turnover that occurred off the court, the Grizzlies continued to win by creating as many turnovers as possible on it.
While the success on the court in the first half of this decade made cheering for the Grizzlies a smooth ride most of the time, the second part has been a complete roller coaster. Over the past three years, fans have experienced the supposed end of the Grit ‘N Grit era, the attempt at modernization through David Fizdale, the departure of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, the worst losing stretch of the past decade, and the current “rebirth” of GNG.
While the process has not completely come full circle, it certainly has been a vicious one. A major contributor to the constant fluctuation has been the annual event that I like to refer to as the “Pera Purge”, a reference to the quick trigger finger our ownership and front office have when it comes to coaches. In a span of 18 months, the Grizzlies went from David Joerger to David Fizdale to JB Bickerstaff, despite two playoff appearances in 2015-2016 and 2016-2017, years in which Joerger and Fizdale garnered Coach of the Year consideration. Turmoil between Joerger and the front office and drama between Fizdale and the players led to their eventual departures, and Bickerstaff’s interim tenure was one of the worst in franchise history.
While the story of the Grizzlies’ staff has been truly baffling, it pales in comparison to the tragic comedy that has been the Grizzlies’ roster. On a personal note, I am a huge fan of sports movies, especially comedies that have memorable characters. Two of my favorites are football movies, “The Replacements”, starring Gene Hackman and Keanu Reeves, and the “The Longest Yard” remake, staring Adam Sandler and Chris Rock. I mention this because if you could imagine those two story lines coming to life on the basketball court, that would describe the Grizzlies’ roster over the past three years.
Since the start of the 2015-2016 season, the Grizzlies have played 49 different individuals, a total that could increase to 56, maybe more, once the 2018-2019 begins. Among those 56, 28 of them played for the Grizzlies in 2015-2016, setting a new NBA record for most players to play for a team in a single season. Fifteen of the 56 players were undrafted, with several making their NBA debut in a Grizzlies uniform. The list of personalities has included Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson, and Chris Andersen, with experience levels ranging from Vince Carter to Jaren Jackson Jr., who was 6 months old when Carter’s legendary dunk contest took place back in 2000. Very few teams in NBA history had endured this amount of roster fluctuation, which makes the fact the Grizzlies made the playoffs twice all the more impressive.
While the success and story lines created some fun times, the roster being in a constant state of flux eventually caught up with the Grizzlies. While injuries certainly played a valid role in depleting the roster of talent, years of failed draft picks and free agent signings exposed the Grizzlies lack of depth and quality. This led to lackluster performances on the court, especially when it came to taking care of the ball.
The success of the Grit and Grind Era was defined by team chemistry and efficiency. That was most evident in the area of turnovers, as in the five seasons between 2012 and 2017, the Grizzles had five straight top 7 finishes in fewest turnovers per game. In 2017-2018, they dropped all the way down to 24th. For a team that always seemed to struggle with scoring, having significantly less chances to score than in previous years was a nightmare scenario. This made it extremely difficult for the Grizzlies to stay in games, and was a major contributor to the long stretches of losing the team endured.
Logically, it would be assumed that the Grizzlies’ struggles on offense would also show up on the defensive end. However, the Grizzlies’ turnover production on defense was actually one of the few bright sports from last year. The Grizzlies finished 9th in turnovers forced per game, while finishing 4th in highest percentage of points coming off turnovers. In a season with very few positives, the fact that the Grizzlies continued to not only create turnovers, but actually improved in their ability to turn them into points was a very encouraging sign. Furthermore, there were indications this could be a clear advantage going into the future.
The idea that the turnover battle could be a nightly advantage for the Grizzles begins with J.B. Bickerstaff. In each of the two seasons that he has served as head coach, in 2015-2016 with Houston and last year in Memphis, his teams have finished top ten in the NBA in turnovers forced. In the case of the Grizzlies, they were able to do this despite lengthy injuries to Mike Conley and other key contributors. The front office recognized this as a strength to build around, and it helped identify a strategy when building the roster this offseason.
Along with the return of Conley, the additions of Jaron Jackson Jr. Jevon Carter, and Kyle Anderson significantly increases the overall talent of the roster, especially on defense. Furthermore, Conley, Anderson, Omri Casspi, and Garrett Temple should improve the overall decision-making and execution of the team, which should result in fewer offensive mistakes. Beyond getting more talented, versatile, and younger with these additions, the Grizzles have been able to put together a core that will be together for at least a few years.
The strength of this core is their ability to play defense, and not only in terms of shot prevention and playing as a team, but also in creating turnovers through blocks and steals. This team likely has more defensive potential than any team Bickerstaff has led before, and combined with his philosophical focus on winning the turnover battle, the Grizzlies have a good chance to once again be among the NBA’s best defensive teams.
Through their additions to the staff, the draft, and free agency this offseason, the front office seems to have a clear direction in mind. While many have debated and speculated that the Grizzles should have turned the page on the Grit and Grind era a while ago, the franchise has committed to getting on the same page to reestablishing the brand into the future. Arguably the biggest reason for the success of that brand was the team’s constant ability to create a winning edge through turnovers.
With a young core in place for multiple years and a coach with a history of helping young players reach their potential, it seems the Grizzlies have put themselves in a position to sustain success by minimizing turnover off the court and maximizing their ability to create turnovers on it. While one may identify the irony in that approach, more importantly, they certainly can identify the logic.