Currently at 5-9, the Memphis Grizzlies have actually exceeded expectations as a whole. At the very beginning of the season, it looked as if the Grizzlies would not only be a lock for the lottery, but would also be a good bet to obtain the top-6 pick they need to have a first rounder in 2020. However, over the past few weeks, Memphis has improved, including recent three game win streak. While wins versus San Antonio and Utah may offer glimpses of the potential this roster has, losses such as the one Tuesday night against Golden State prove that frustrating bouts of inconsistency will remain.
The presence of these struggles and lengthy stretches of bad play are to be expected when a franchise has experienced the amount of change and turnover that Memphis has. Many new faces are among the different lineups the Grizzlies feature, and new schemes and strategies have been implemented by head coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff.
Positive results have certainly emerged, such as the immediate impact of Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies transitioning to a faster pace of play, and a more exciting and resourceful offense than over the past few years. This is still a team that will likely continue to experience more struggles than successes, though. This reality is simply due to some clear weaknesses that many expected the Grizzlies to encounter, many of which will take time to correct.
One of the biggest weaknesses regarding the roster is the Grizzlies’ perimeter defense. A simple look at the Grizzlies roster would suggest that Memphis’s defensive potential is much more concentrated in the post than on the perimeter, especially with the defensive ceilings of Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. The defensive efforts of Jae Crowder and Kyle Anderson, among others, certainly can help at times on the perimeter against opposing wings. With the bulk of the back court minutes beings shared between Morant, Dillon Brooks, and Tyus Jones, Memphis has still experienced its share of struggles stopping opposing guards from scoring.
One obvious point that must be understood is that each of these players theoretically have higher ceilings offensively than defensively. The scoring ability of Morant and Brooks and efficient play of Tyus Jones have been critical in the Grizzlies victories so far this season. However, their individual defensive efforts negates their offensive production. Not only does it impact their individual production has a whole, it significantly impacts the Grizzlies’ ability to win.
For the 2019-2020 season, Morant, Jones, and Brooks have played at least 250 minutes and currently have a 114 Defensive rating or higher (that is not good!). The Memphis trio is part of a group of 33 NBA guards that currently meet that threshold. Nine NBA teams, including Memphis, currently have more than one member on this group. Each of these nine teams currently has a losing record, and only one of them, the Sacramento Kings, is currently above 10th place in their respective conference.
In terms of the ability to play together, different combinations of Morant, Jones, and Brooks have not proven to give Memphis a huge advantage on the court. The Grizzlies have had 20 different three-man lineup variations that have played at least 75 minutes. Among that group of 20 options, five have contained two of Morant, Jones, and Brooks. Of those five, only two combinations have a positive net rating, which sit at +1.0 and +0.7. While Memphis as a whole has not produced many lineups that have been overwhelmingly successful, the net ratings when two of Morant, Jones, and Brooks are on the court together proves that their defense almost completely negates the positive value added from their offense.
The takeaway from this is simple. If a team’s back court has multiple players who are struggling to defend the perimeter, it is going to be hard to win. As a whole, the Grizzlies back court has especially struggled in regards to threes. Currently, Memphis is in the bottom third of the league in three pointers allowed per game and three point FG% allowed. Though this may have been expected of the Grizzlies this year, the significance of this struggle is that very few projected playoff teams rank at or below the Grizzlies in these categories.
Overall, Memphis is allowing 12.6 threes per game while making 10.4 per game. Similar in their struggles preventing three pointers, the Grizzlies are currently in the bottom third of the league in attempts beyond the arc per game and in 3PFG%. Logically, if you are below average in how may threes you attempt, how many threes you make, and how many threes you prevent the other team from making, chances are you will likely lose more games than you win.
As mentioned above, these numbers should not come as a surprise. And with 80% of the season remaining, the hope is that over time, Morant, Jones, and Brooks will improve their overall effectiveness within the team’s defensive concepts. Though it is a small sample size, the Grizzlies front office and coaching staff is beginning to have valid proof that one of the main areas in which they must improve to take steps toward contending in the near future is defending the perimeter. Furthermore, while natural improvement may occur, Memphis knows that it needs a true defensive difference maker as part of its back court rotation. It also knows that difference maker is likely not currently on the Grizzlies.
It was widely known that shooting guard was a huge area of need that the Grizzlies’ would eventually have to address. However, now Memphis knows what type of skill set and strengths that shooting guard likely needs to possess to effectively compliment their young core. With clear struggles shooting and defending the three, the Grizzlies must target a talent, or talents, that can provide production on the perimeter, both shooting and defending the three.
This is in no way meant to be a knock or negative response to the development and improvement that Dillon Brooks has shown this year. However, the ideal fit for Brooks in the future has become pretty clear. As Joe Mullinax thoroughly explained, Brooks should be a priority for future Memphis rosters, but his role should as a reliable rotation piece, perhaps as a reserve scoring option, instead of a featured performer.
In fact, the Grizzlies theoretically already have a good young back court in place that can support a winning franchise. With Morant as an elite scoring threat, Jones has the steady hand to elevate the overall production of the second unit, and Brooks as the instant offense off the bench, the Grizzlies have a promising back court that can grow and become an above average unit in the NBA in time.
As a result, the key for the Grizzlies continued roster evolution should focus on how to maximize the strengths and minimize the weaknesses of Morant, Jones, and Brooks. Those roster additions are ideally player(s) who can create havoc on the perimeter on defense and excel as catch and shoot passing options on offense. Rather, these new faces will come through free agency, trades, or the draft that will be determined in time.
Just as they are letting their current back court fight through growing pains to improve their games individually and as a unit, the Grizzlies decision makers should prioritize patience and pro-activeness in adding pieces to this unit to make it become one of the best backcourts in the NBA. The potential is certainly there; hopefully, the final pieces to make that potential transform into consistent production will arrive in the near future.