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New decade, new Grizzlies

After a decade of dominant defense, the present version of the Memphis Grizzlies are taking their culture in a completely new direction.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Across the sports world, numerous sources are providing end of the decade perspectives as the 2010’s come to a close. In many ways, it is hard to believe some iconic moments were only ten or less years away; in the case of others, it feels like they were just yesterday. Many of our favorite moments have made best of the decade, worst of the decade, and highlights of the decade lists. Overall, it has been a very memorable ten year stretch, as nearly every sport as a whole has significantly evolved over the past ten years.

The Memphis Grizzlies franchise has certainly experienced quite the ride this past decade. The Grizzlies and their fans have experienced many memorable peaks, especially in the first half of the decade. Recently, both the franchise and its fan base have experienced a long journey through some valleys. Though it may be hard to believe after the past few years, Memphis will actually finish this decade tied for 13th in the NBA with 401 wins. While the Grizzlies are certainly not where they were less than three years ago, there are encouraging signs this season that they are headed in the right direction to once again be a winner. However, the philosophies and methods the Grizzlies are utilizing now are completely different from what brought success in the past.

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

If you have been a Grizzlies fan for this entire decade or beyond, you know that the Grizzlies success came through a commitment to playing effective defense. In fact, both their efforts and effectiveness allowed the Grizzlies to establish one of the most well-known timelines in the NBA this decade, known as the Grit N ‘Grind Era. This culture was not created through clever marketing or because people spoke it into existence. It was created through a style of play that made Memphis a team no one wanted to play for several years, and led to production that, while contrasting to the rest of league, made the Grizzlies competitive against anyone.

Highlights and opinions certainly were a part of the equation that made many recognize and respect the Grizzlies, However, it was their defensive production that truly made Memphis different and successful. For the decade, the Grizzlies allowed the fewest field goals, field goal attempts, two point field goals, two point field goal attempts, third fewest assists and third fewest points among NBA teams. The 2012-2013 Grizzlies, who achieved a franchise record 56 wins, produced the lowest single season opponent PPG mark (89.3) of the decade in the NBA (min. 82 games).

The numbers above are supported both in terms of the quantity and quality of the Grizzlies play. In terms of quantity, a big reason why the Grizzlies allowed the fewest field goals and were near the top of the league in least amount of assists and points allowed for the decade is due to their pace. The Grizzlies were last in the NBA in both pace of play (92.3 possessions per game) and three pointers attempted per game (19.3). For reference, the Grizzlies averaged nearly two less threes per game than the next closest team. The Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors led the league in those categories per game for the decade, producing marks of 97.5 possessions and 33.0 threes per game. Less stats occurred during Grizzlies games because opponents had fewer opportunities to produce them.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at New York Knicks Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

While the pace of play was an important factor in the Grizzlies defensive numbers for the decade, it does not tell the entire story. The quality of the Grizzlies defense also played a major role in their success. For the decade, the Grizzlies were 7th in defensive rating and 10th in FG% allowed. Memphis truly was one of the best at limiting the looks of its opponents. However, where Memphis truly stood out as a defensive unit was forcing turnovers.

The Grizzlies forced the most turnovers, produced the most steals and the highest opponent turnover percentage in the NBA this decade. This is arguably the biggest reason why the Grizzlies were so successful. In an environment where individual possessions were of the highest value due to their being fewer of them during Grizzlies games, Memphis still ended more possessions in their opponents committing turnovers than anyone else. This is a big reason why the Grizzlies on the court product was so special this past decade, in addition to how awesome the connection between the franchise and fan base has been off the court.

The Grizzlies success on and off the court, culture, and Grit ‘N Grind brand were all alive and well because of their tough, defensive style of play. It was a way for the Grizzlies to overcome the inability to acquire star level talents, and always be competitive no matter the situation. Furthermore, it was an astute approach in maximizing the main talents on the Grizzlies’ roster. That aspect allowed the Grizzles to maintain their success, which resulted in seven straight playoff appearances.

However, with a strategy entirely dependent on a few players skill sets, this approach logically had a limited shelf life. Once the Core Four aged and the league as a whole put an increasing priority on pace and shooting, the Grizzlies identity quickly became outdated and extinct. Unfortunately, Memphis’s previous front office tried to hold on to what worked in the past well beyond its expiration date. Thankfully, that regime was removed for new leadership earlier this year. Furthermore, the new front office, led by Jason Wexler and Zach Kleiman, knew a fresh start was needed. That not only meant a complete overhaul of the staff and roster, but creating a new identity from a clean slate as well.

Through the hire of Taylor Jenkins, and the additions to the roster through the draft and trades, the Grizzlies made it clear as to the new style of play and and identity they wanted to create. They wanted to play a more modern and offensively-oriented style of basketball, one predicated on efficiency and facilitation. As this season was coming in to focus, it was clear that the Grizzlies were going to focus on increasing their possessions per game and their offensive creativity. However, it likely still came as a surprise just how different this Grizzlies team was compared to previous versions of of the Grizzlies.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Across the board, the 2019-2020 Grizzlies are on pace to have the most productive offensive year in the history of the franchise in terms of counting stats. A big reason for that is a direct result of quantity, just as as the Grizzlies defense benefited from for most of this decade. The Grizzlies are currently operating at a pace of 103.1 possessions per game. That is nearly seven possessions more than last year’s mark of 96.3, the current franchise high. While the Grizzlies are now trying to imitate league trends instead of creating a counter culture, it is being done out of necessity and logic. Furthermore, it has been an eye opening change in style to witness.

As a result of their historically fast pace. Memphis is also on pace to average franchise single season records in points per game (110.9, seven full points higher per game than any season in franchise history), field goals made and attempted per game, three pointers made and attempted per game, and rebounds and assists per game. While each of these marks may simply be a result of an increase in possessions, it does not take anything away from how impressive this transformation has been for the Grizzlies.

A big reason why this transformation has been so eye-opening is because its quality stands out as well. This year, the Grizzlies are on pace to average their best effective field goal percentage, fourth best offensive rating, and fifth best field goal percentage in franchise history. They also could potentially produce one of their five best shooting seasons from beyond the arc. The Grizzlies are shooting 35.7% from three on 32.2 threes per game this year. That is their best three point field goal percentage in more than a decade, and with the significant increase in attempts, the three point shot is a much bigger asset in their overall offensive game than it has been in the past. As a result, this version of the Grizzlies offensive may be deeper and more resourceful than it has even been before.

The emphatic evolution of the Grizzlies offense has not made them a contender just yet. While this year’s team is setting historic highs across the board on offense, they also are setting historic lows across the board on defense (for example, delivering arguably the worst defensive performance in franchise history last Monday against the Spurs.) These extremes are to be expected from a young roster and staff in their first season together. A successful defense that maximizes the talented skill set on this roster will form in time, just as it did in the past.

The Grizzlies are ending this decade with a completely different strategy for success than it began this decade with. Like many things in life, no matter how much things may change, the more they remain the same. Memphis’s goal is to regain its stature as one of the most successful teams and identifiable brands in the NBA. While the two philosophies could not be more different, they do share one critical trait: though they can be described by their quantity, they are defined by their quality.

The fact that many across the NBA have been able to see the clear quality in the Grizzlies’ metamorphosis so quickly is a testament to the entire franchise. The front office, coaching staff, and roster are all on the same page, because for the first time in what seems forever, each level feels it is in their best interest to be in harmony with each other.

Due to the cohesiveness of the franchise and their ability to execute a style of play that has proven successful in the modern NBA, the ultimate goal for this version of the Grizzlies is to set an entirely new standard by becoming a true title contender.

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