Defense was the name of the game at the beginning of the year, even before the year started back in the summer. The front office and the players were chanting the mindset of defense first.
We heard the coaching staff say it in press conferences when they introduced the new players over the summer, the players said it during media days, and then we saw it come to life in the first part of the season. It was the best defense the Grizzlies have played all year long, those 17 games were something to behold. They were able to clamp down on opponents like nothing we had really ever seen before. It was ‘Grit and Grind’ reimagined. The defense was exhausting, it was making even some of the best teams in the league uncomfortable. It was elite.
Fast forward to the start of a new year and the Grizzlies arestill good, but it is not longer elite. After starting 12-5 in the beginning of the season that have gone 6-15 over the last twenty one games. During that hot start the Grizzlies were only allowing 94 points per game to opposing teams and the defensive rating was 103.3, but over the last 21 games, that has changed to 99.5 points per game and a defensive rating of 107.4, which does not sound like a big change but it has dropped them from first or second in the league to sixth or seventh.
For a team that hangs it hat on defense and has one of the worst offense’s in the league, that’s not good.
Marc Gasol also had one of the best starts to the year that he has ever had in his career. He was shooting the ball well, making great decisions with the ball in his hands, and still playing some of the best defense that he has ever played. Even better than they year that he won Defensive Player of the Year.
He then rolled his ankle in November and instead of sitting and resting for a few games he continued to play injured. Whether you think that is good or bad is a different conversation altogether, but numbers do not lie. Marc’s defensive rating to start the year during that 17 game span was 98.2 and over the 21 games since, it has dropped to 109.1, thats an incredible jump of over ten points.
Marc’s ability to anchor the defense was something that the Grizzlies could rely on every single night even when he wasn’t shooting the ball well. This whole team’s defense was something that they could rely on even on nights when they were not everyone on the team was scoring the ball well. That was the difference early in the season - the defense was elite and your two star players were playing like stars.
The defense is still good by NBA standards - most teams would take this defense in a heartbeat, but there a gaping hole when it comes to rotating and over helping, or just not stepping out to the three point line allowing for open threes.
On this play Marc Gasol does not even play out to his man when he goes to set the screen, once Joe Harris is around the screen he has a wide open look at a three pointer because Marc Gasol has not bothered to play higher on the court or step out to contest the three.
This is pretty much a replication of the play above, with Marc Gasol playing 4-5 feet away from his man. Ed Davis is able to set a side pick and roll, there is no high help from Marc Gasol and once De’Angelo Russell turns the corner, he has a clean look at a three pointer. Marc Gasol has to play higher on these screens especially when his teammate is being screened out of the play and their guard is a good three point shooter.
Kyle Anderson is helping inside the lane on this play is where he needs to be, usually on the weak side help you want to your players to be right on the edge of the paint for help defense on the screen from the other side in case a player gets loose into the lane or to be able to help back to the shooter. Kyle sees the pass really before it starts to happen and knows exactly where he should be going as soon as the pass is happening. He gets back to DeMarre Carroll to get a great contest for three and Caroll misses.
On this play, again it is pretty much a replication of the last play were Anderson is ready to help on the drive from the weak side, however Casspi sinks too far into the lane instead of playing higher. He is only about 2-3 feet away from where Kyle Anderson is standing on the above play, but his momentum is already taking him backwards and he can’t get back to the shooter to contest the three like he should be able to, it leads to an open three for DeMarre Carroll.
Some of these problems are the players that are in the game, but these are the same players that were in the game earlier in the year when the Grizzlies were playing elite level defense. Allowing open three pointers has been a problem for the Grizzlies for as long as I can remember, but this is a level where it directly impacting wis and losses.
Being able to be in position to help on the drive is something that you have to do as a NBA player. That being said, you have to be in the right position, as you can see with Kyle Anderson and Omri Casspi, it is virtually the same play, but Anderson was higher on the court almost to the elbow and Casspi was about 3 feet lower, you couple this with the fact that Casspi doesn’t read the court as well as Anderson and you have open three pointers. The bigs on the Grizzlies also have to play higher on the screens, not allowing those guards to turn the corner and have a wide open look at the basket.
If they fix the problem of closing out shooters, playing higher on the court, or playing higher in the screens, will they start automatically winning? Probably not, but it will go a long way to getting their defense back to the place it was to start the year. If Justin Holiday can come to this team and make a few more three pointers than they are making now, they just might get back to their winning ways.