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Defending the Three is Key

The Grizzlies want to be more successful from beyond the arc this year and beyond. That success must include both ends of the court.

Charlotte Hornets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The NBA is requiring it.

Taylor Jenkins and his staff, on multiple occasions, have stated they will be featuring it.

The Grizzlies’ young roster is embracing it.

It is going to take patience and persistence to see significant success come from it.

No, by ‘it,” I am not referring to any evil clowns from the mind of Stephen King. However, the concept I am referring to could be just as strange to the Grizzlies and their fans as Pennywise himself would be walking down Beale. The idea is, threes being attempted during Grizzlies games at the same or a higher level than the rest of the NBA, and the philosophy seems to be here to stay.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Just like any perspective regarding the Grizzlies roster this year, the success that will come from the Grizzlies implementing this strategy will likely not be known for a few years. The current roster lacks experience and lacks shooting, two needed ingredients for a team to have to consistently shoot threes. However, those two needs will come with time. Until then, the only way for Jenkins to make his team more able to reach his desired goal through this strategy is to fully embrace the concept from the beginning.

That is exactly what the Grizzlies have done through the first few games of this preseason. For any team, it is very unlikely you can gain much insight as to what might happen in the regular season based off the preseason. However, general concepts can start to be formed based off trends. The Grizzlies’ utilization of the three-point shot is one such concept. The Grizzlies have taken 31, 27, and 32 three point attempts in each of their first three preseason games. While Memphis has only faced one true NBA opponent, it still is clear Jenkins is staying true to his word by committing to letting it fly from three.

Memphis Grizzlies v Milwaukee Bucks Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

The emphasis on three-pointing shooting should come as no surprise from a coach who comes from the coaching tree of Mike Budenholzer. In Jenkins’s six seasons as an assistant (five in Atlanta, one in Milwaukee), his team has finished in the top ten of three point attempts five times. This reliance on shooting from beyond the arc is just as much a product of the NBA as a whole than on Budenholzer’s philosophy itself. In Jenkins’s first year as an assistant in Atlanta in 2013-2014, they attempted the second-most threes per game in the league with a 25.8 mark. In his first year in Milwaukee in 2018-2019, the Bucks also finished second in the league in threes attempted per game with a 38.2 mark. The Los Angeles Clippers averaged 25.8 threes per game last year, the same number as the Hawks did five years previously — that number ranked 28th in the league in 2018-2019, compared to second in the league in 2013-2014.

It has long been understood logic that the Grizzlies style of play needed to catch up with the rest of the NBA for sustainable success to occur. The commitment to implementing and sticking with those modern concepts is here with Jenkins, and on the offensive side of the ball, the execution of these strategies will improve with time as the Grizzlies gain experience and add more talent to their young core. However, while success shooting the three will be critical going forward, defending the three will be just as important to the Grizzlies’ overall success in the future. Furthermore, history suggests finding that success will be just as much work for Jenkins and his staff as much as it will be for his roster.

While the three-point shot has been the focus of Jenkins’s teams on offense, that same strategy has been utilized by the opponents of his teams over the past six years. Over the past six seasons, four of the six teams Jenkins has coached have been in the top five of most opponent three point shots allowed per game — that includes finishing 30th, 26th, and 29th in opponent’s three-point attempts allowed over the past three seasons. In fact, in two of the six seasons Jenkins has coached, his team allowed the most opponent three-point attempts in the league.

As can be seen, it is logical to expect many threes to be attempted on both ends of the court in Grizzlies’ games this year and beyond. However, another key takeaway from Jenkins’s coaching history is the success opponents had from shooting the three. In four of Jenkins’s six seasons, his teams have finished in the bottom half of the league in opponents three point shooting percentage allowed, including 28th and 22nd over the past two seasons. Finishing in the bottom third of the league in opponent three-point percentage allowed does not correlate positive for teams with playoff hopes. Over the past six seasons, only 13 of the 60 teams that have finished in the bottom ten of that category made the playoffs. In fact, the Bucks were just the third team over the past six seasons to finish with a playoff seed higher than sixth while finishing in the bottom third of the league in opponent’s three-point field goal percentage allowed.

New Zealand Breakers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Donald Page/Getty Images

It certainly can be inferred that based off the performances of his teams in the past, defending the three could be an obvious weakness of Jenkins’s beginning in Memphis. This is especially true when you look at the Grizzlies’ current roster. Anyone can immediately tell you that the Memphis front court has significantly more defensive potential than the Grizzlies’ guards. Therefore, teams will likely focus on finding good looks from the perimeter as a way to minimize the impact of the players such as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke in the post.

The best way for the Grizzlies to combat this approach is to rely on communication and discipline. Intelligent rotations and closeouts rely on communication between defenders as to where the ball is going and who will pick up an offensive player on switches and based off ball movement. Just as important is the discipline each defender will need to stay in their zone or on their man so that no one is out of position or is leaving a part of the arc open. Furthermore, the players will need to exhibit good body control in order to prevent fouls or succumbing to fakes in order to contest shots.

While both of these traits will likely only improve with time as players gain experience playing in different lineups together, the Grizzlies do have plenty of natural ability to work with. The length and athleticism that is available up and down Memphis’s roster is intriguing. While players such as Ja Morant, Tyus Jones, and Grayson Allen may be undersized, they have the athleticism to stay with their man and make it hard for opposing guards to create their shots. Kyle Anderson, Jae Crowder, and Bruno Caboclo can use their long arms to contest shots, while also making it difficult for opposing players to get open for shots away from the ball.

Maccabi Haifa v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies biggest asset to feature and utilize to limit their opponent’s production from the perimeter remains in the post. While Jackson Jr. and Clarke may not directly impact the perimeter, they can indirectly make life a lot easier for their teammates by effectively guarding the paint. With Clarke and Jackson Jr.’s athleticism and shot blocking abilities, they can cover a lot of ground quickly. That will allow the Grizzlies perimeter defenders to have a smaller area to defend, which makes it harder for shooters to get open looks. Furthermore, if they can cover the lane, other defenders will be able to rotate and switch easier, and thus will need less time to close out on shooters around the arc, especially in the corner.

Eventually, as the Grizzlies use Jackson Jr. and Clarke in lineups together, one could be used in the post while the other can help on the perimeter or in the corners. Theoretically, that should allow the court to become smaller for the rest of the defense. If the Grizzlies’ guards and wings know that other areas of the court are protected, there will be less need for them to collapse, and they will have more confidence in knowing their assignments. The end result should be an effective team defense that will be easy to implement and maintain.

A simple truth needs to be accepted and embraced by Grizzlies fans. There are likely to be many more nights in the near future that mimic the Grizzlies game versus the Hornets Sunday night. It happens to all teams that are beginning a rebuild, and unfortunately happens often. The key for Taylor Jenkins and his staff is too simply ensure his players are continuing to get better so that it happens less often over time.

The Grizzlies have the talent to turn these traits that are developing into clear advantages that will help them win. This happens through giving consistent effort and experiencing success, along with a constant push from Jenkins and his staff that effort must displayed on both ends of the court. Jenkins has stated he wants to win through defense. With the needed tools at his disposal, that defense needs to focused on the perimeter for the Grizzlies to once again become a legitimate contender in the NBA.

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Stats found on nba.com/stats.