On November 21st, 2018, the Memphis Grizzlies earned an overtime victory in San Antonio against the Spurs. To the surprise of many, the Grizzlies were in sole possession of first place in the NBA’s Western Conference. Through 17 games, the Grizzlies were 12-5, and head coach J.B Bickerstaff was leading a veteran core that had gelled quicker than anyone expected.
Fast forward nearly a year later to November 11th, 2019, when the Grizzlies again edged the Spurs in a hard fought game in San Antonio. It was first road win of new head coach Taylor Jenkins career. Through 10 games, the Grizzlies were just 3-7, with plenty of proof that they were the lottery team many had expected. However, Jenkins was starting to develop chemistry with his young Grizzlies’ roster, and they were beginning to become more competitive as a result.
At this time last year, the Grizzlies had a 14-9 record and were still squarely within the playoff picture. This year, the Grizzlies are currently 6-15. Naturally, one would think that the 2018 victory versus San Antonio would have much higher significance than the win in 2019. However, last year’s victory would be the peak of the Grizzlies season, as they would go 21-44 over their last 65 games. While Memphis played wonderfully to begin the the 2018-2019 season, they experienced a significant decline in production. That regression shed clear light on the fact that head coach J.B. Bickerstaff struggled to keep his team competitive once they were playing at their true talent level.
This year’s version of the Memphis Grizzlies is a different story, despite having a significantly worse record this far into the season. While last year’s highlighted victory against San Antonio was the peak of the season for a team that was overachieving in the early going, this year’s victory could be seen as a turning point for a young roster that became competitive earlier than expected. Furthermore, it also could prove to be the first true indication that the Grizzlies have found something in Taylor Jenkins that the franchise has needed over the past few years: a head coach who can add value.
There are obvious ways Jenkins’s preferred style of play has instantly made the Grizzlies product better. The faster pace of play that Jenkins has implemented naturally just makes games more entertaining. The immediate success of Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke, perhaps even exceeding the projections of their biggest supporters, has been a welcome development, and direct result of Jenkins’s teachings. The fast starts and lack of lengthy offensive droughts also has been a needed and positive byproduct of Jenkins’s efforts.
While these characteristics of the 2019-2020 Grizzlies do carry value, that value primarily comes from this version of the Memphis Grizzlies being a significant contrast from previous Grizzlies teams over the past decade. Beyond the players, many in Memphis were hoping to see that not only would this Grizzlies product be different, but one that could evolve and improve much more effectively than the past few years. Though there were times of frustrations and struggles to begin the year, the past few weeks have shown proof that Jenkins is making adjustments. As a result, his team is becoming more competitive.
Before the San Antonio game earlier this month, the Grizzlies were 2-7. Since that night, the Grizzlies are 4-8. However, the Grizzlies team that has played twelve games since leaving San Antonio is significantly better and more competitive than the one that arrived. Here are a few significant reasons why:
Before the Spurs game, the Grizzlies ranked 28th in Offensive Rating (101.2), 30th in Net Rating (-10.2), 25th in EFG% (49.8% effective field goal percentage), and 26th in TS% (53.4% true shooting percentage). Since their win that night, the Grizzlies have ranked 16th in Offensive Rating (109.1), 23rd in Net Rating (-4.2), 7th in eFG% (54.4%), and 11th in TS% (56.9%). The end result has been an improvement from 108.7 PPG to 111.1 PPG. Memphis also lowered its turnovers per game from 17.9 before the Spurs game to 15.9 TOPG since then (numbers through 11/28).
Their overall improvement across the board in their scoring ability has resulted in the Grizzlies being much more competitive in games despite their level of competition increasing significantly (examples include their win against the Jazz and last second losses to Lakers and Clippers.) While the defense is a weakness and will continue to be a work in progress, the Grizzlies offense as a whole is starting to become an above average unit compared to the rest of the league. With a lot of offensive talent to work with, Coach Jenkins and his staff are showing extremely positive early indicators that he and his staff have the ability to maximize it.
Three Point Production
The Grizzlies biggest improvement and most noticeable turnaround has been in their three point production. Before the season, the Grizzlies were in the bottom five of three pointers made, attempted, and in 3PFG%. Prior to the Spurs game, Memphis was 25th in 3PPG (9.2) and 27th (30.9%) in 3PFG%. After that game, Memphis has improved to 14th (12.6) in 3PPG and 2nd (41.1%) in 3PFG% through 11/28.
The amazing progress beyond the arc has been a pure team effort. Jaren Jackson Jr. has become one of the best three point shooting bigs in the league. Jae Crowder, Dillon Brooks, and Jonas Valaniunas are making more threes per game than at any point in their career. Morant and Clarke have both shown more advanced three point ability than many expected. While Memphis’s pace is a big reason for the increase in three pointers for each player, each of them is also producing at or near the best 3PFG% of his career.
The Grizzlies were correctly viewed as one of the worst rosters in the league in terms of shooting talent before the season. The fact that they have been one of the best three point producing teams over the past few weeks shows the roster has bought into Jenkins’ philosophy. As a result, Jenkins has shown he can elevate the overall games of his players, and also the overall talent level of the team.
COMMITMENT TO CORRALLING BOARDS
When the Grizzlies cut both Ivan Rabb and Miles Plumlee a few days before the season, it seemed that Memphis was prioritizing smaller lineups to accommodate the roster to a faster style of play. With one true center on the team in Jonas Valanciunas, many felt that the Grizzlies could struggle with rebounds. This had been an area of concern for past Grizzlies teams, despite having bigger front court options to utilize compared to this year’s squad.
Despite their lack of size, the Grizzlies have actually performed admirably on the boards. They have been near the top of the NBA in contested rebounding percentage, and were 11th in the NBA in defensive rebounding percentage. Overall, Memphis was 13th in total rebounds per game (through 11/28). While the quantity of shots during their games does increase the quantity of rebounds, Jenkins has had success in minimizing the advantages teams with more size may have on the boards. He has done this by emphasizing communication and discipline, which has led to effective and consistent execution.
The reason these numbers run before last Friday’s game against the Jazz (11/28) is because of the injury bug that has hit Memphis after that game. The Grizzlies have taken a bit of a step back due to losing arguably four of their five best players in Morant, Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and Valanciunas over the past week. Naturally, without that level of talent, it is hard to play at your best. However, it should not take away from how much the Grizzlies, and Jenkins, have improved when fully healthy.
It is also important to look at these observations from the right perspective. Based on pure counting stats alone, the Grizzlies offense this year will likely look significantly better across the board when compared to Memphis teams in the past. However, a big reason for that is simply due to the the faster pace at which Memphis is playing (a increase in possessions leads to an increase in statistical event occurrences.) In other words, to truly gain an understanding of how the Grizzlies are producing and improving, there is more validity in comparing this team to the rest of the NBA than to Grizzlies rosters in recent seasons.
With a young roster, I feel there is also more validity at looking at the season in segments rather than as whole to truly see how the team is evolving. The reason being is that young rosters typically are highly variable, as can been seen through the several unexpected highs as well as many disappointing lows from this roster nearly six weeks into the season. As Jenkins and his roster build chemistry and grow individually and as a team, it is important to see if they truly are improving. Especially in the case of Jenkins, finding proof that he can continue being successful by adjusting to the league as it adjusts to him is critical for the Grizzlies to truly become a winner again in the near future.
As can be seen above, though it may be in a small sample size. the Grizzlies are improving, especially offensively. For a team that many felt would struggle scoring, shooting, and rebounding, the Grizzlies have shown they were average to above average in each department against some of the better teams in the NBA. As time goes on, the rest of the NBA will continue putting even more of an effort into thwarting the Grizzlies’ ability to turn their immense potential into impactful production.
While the Grizzlies defensive effectiveness will come with time, Taylor Jenkins has shown that he is fully capable of achieving and maintaining significant offensive success through his schemes, adjustments, rotations, and decisions. This is a significantly positive development that is critical to not only the Grizzlies being competitive in the present, but also a true contender in the future.