Officially six weeks removed from the 2019 NBA trade deadline, it certainly seems the moves the Memphis Grizzlies made were a success. Memphis made these acquisitions to become more competitive in order to convey their 2019 first rounder to the Boston Celtics. Judging by the offensive improvements and their current odds to convey the pick, it seems Memphis has put itself in position to achieve that goal.
However, the extent to which the offense has improved for the Grizzlies has surprised many. The addition of Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright, Avery Bradley, C.J. Miles, and Tyler Dorsey has provided both depth and quality to the roster. Individually, each player has proven their worth in an expanded role. Collectively, they have transformed the Grizzlies from arguably the worst offense in the league to a team that can outscore almost anyone on a given night.
A good measure of the impact these players have made can be seen before and after the All-Star Break. Before the Break, the Grizzlies ranked 29th in offensive rating, 30th in pace of play, 30th in points per game, 30th in field goal attempts, and 25th in 3-point attempts. After acquiring the aforementioned players, the Grizzlies since the All-Star Break are 19th in offensive rating, 17th in pace of play, 18th in points, 21st in field goal attempts, and 19th in three point attempts.
A significant reason for the offensive numbers before the trade deadline was a by product of the team philosophy to win through a slow, half court style of play where the Grizzlies won with elite defense. The front office intended to make the team better by improving the offense while keeping the effective team defense intact. As the numbers above show, they certainly accomplished the offensive part of their intentions.
The Grizzlies envisioned the new players would form a strong supporting cast around Mike Conley, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson. While it was expected the new pieces may not be as effective on defense as the players Memphis traded away, the Grizzlies rightfully assumed Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson would keep the defensive unit strong as a whole.
However, unexpected injuries have kept both Anderson and Jaren Jackson Jr. out of the lineup. In fact, with each passing game, it is becoming more likely both could be out for the season. As a result of Anderson and Jackson Jr. not being able to play, the team’s defense has struggled.
Before the All-Star Break, Memphis was 2nd in points allowed and 7th in defensive rating. Since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies are now 12th in points allowed and 14th in defensive rating. Just like the offense has improved from one of the league’s worst to middle of the pack, the defense has declined from one of the league’s best to middle of the pack.
While defensive statistics show the Grizzlies as basically being league average since the All-Star break, the defensive struggles have been historically bad in terms of the franchise. For instance, in the four-game stretch versus the Magic, Hawks, Wizards, and Rockets, the Grizzlies gave up more than 120 points in each game. That is the longest streak in franchise history. Furthermore, Memphis gave up 3 of the 15 highest individual game opponents scoring totals in franchise history during that stretch.
In a nutshell, the Grizzlies overall net rating has increased from -.3.0 before the All-Star Break to a -.3 rating since the All-Star Break. As a result, their winning percentage has improved from .389 to .438. There is no denying that the new roster has certainly made the Grizzlies’ offense more competitive, and obviously more fun.
However, in terms of the franchise, the current roster is arguably one of the worst defensive units since the team has been in Memphis. And for that reason, besides the excitement and enjoyment the offense may bring, defense should remain the focus of the team moving forward. The main reason is because, in terms of the players that Memphis has focused on building around, prioritizing defense plays to the strengths of the franchise’s future core.
Individually, both Anderson and Jackson Jr. have made a significant defensive impact this season. In 2018-2019, Kyle Anderson is one of only six players to average at least 7.5 defensive rebounds, 1 block, 2 steals, and a defensive rating of 107 or better per 100 possessions. The other five are Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Andre Drummond, Paul Millsap, and Draymond Green. All five of these players are either current or past All-Stars, and four of the five have been All-NBA defensive team selections in their careers.
Jaren Jackson Jr. is currently second among NBA rookies in defensive win shares with 2.2. He has achieved that number in only 58 games this year. Jackson Jr. is one of five rookies in NBA history to produce 2.2 defensive win shares and a block percentage above 5% and a steal percentage above 1.5% in at least 1500 minutes played. The other four players are David Robinson, Anthony Davis, Andrei Kirilenko and Marcus Camby. All four of these players either made multiple All-NBA defensive teams or won NBA Defensive Player of the Year in their careers.
Beyond their individual impact on defense, the duo of Anderson and Jackson Jr. truly has given the Grizzlies the best chance to win. Of any two-man combination of players that have played 700 or more minutes together this season, Anderson and Jackson Jr.’s 5.9 NET rating is the best on the team. Furthermore, when they play together, the Grizzlies defensive rating stands at 95.1. That is the best team defensive rating that any duo that has played more than 700 minutes together has produced in the NBA this season.
For the Grizzlies to rebuild correctly, they should focus on acquiring controllable talent that can impact both offense and defense effectively. However, despite the fun and joy high scoring games may bring, the Grizzlies truly have one of the best defensive duos to build around in the NBA. While picking up the pace and efficiency on offense certainly will be a key to future success, building a defense around Jaren Jackson Jr. and Kyle Anderson should be the primary goal.
That is not in an effort to continue building the Grizzlies’ brand. It is simply following a blueprint of common sense to maximize the skill sets of the franchise’s best talents going forward. For a franchise notorious for not developing young players, the application of common sense will begin a new tradition the Grizzlies need to establish a winning culture for the future.
Stats provided by basketball-reference.com