It is no secret the Memphis Grizzlies have had a very successful off-season. Through aggressive creativity, they have significantly improved the long-term outlook of the franchise in terms of current players and future assets. Their clear focus when it comes to the roster has been prioritizing potential, mainly because they are confident Taylor Jenkins and his staff can turn that potential into production. However, it seems Memphis has had secondary areas of focus as well. Specifically, a clear priority to improve in one key area: effective ball movement.
This really should come as no surprise. The Grizzlies have been one of the worst offensive teams in the NBA over the past decade. A few reasons for that is the lack of a truly dominant offensive talent and shot creator, as well as being a team that prioritized defense to make the most of their rosters. The result has been a team that has moved the ball around a lot, but never in a consistently effective manner.
A byproduct of not having a true scoring threat and shot creator is frequent ball movement to find a favorable match up for a good shot. In fact, over the past six years, the Grizzlies have ranked in the top 11 each year in passes per game. However, the high frequency of passes has not been highly successful. The Grizzlies have not finished higher than 18th in points created off assists per game over the past six years, and have finished in the bottom third of the league in each of the past four.
Enter Taylor Jenkins.
Jenkins was an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer for five years in Atlanta and one in Milwaukee. Like Memphis, Jenkins is used to seeing a large amount of passes. The Hawks ranked in the top 10 in passes per game each year Jenkins coached. That was not the case in Milwaukee due to an upgrade in self-sufficient scoring, primarily a guy named Giannis.
While the teams Jenkins has coached and the Grizzlies have had a similar desire to move the ball, the one key difference was their effectiveness. As mentioned above, the Grizzlies have not finished higher than 18th in any of the past six seasons in points created off assists per game. Each team Jenkins has coached on has finished in the top 10. While overall roster talent does play a huge role, Jenkins obviously comes from a coaching background that has prioritized and successfully executed effective ball movement.
Effective passing has become one of the most important traits for a team to possess in the NBA. Of the 60 teams that have finished in the top 10 in the league in points created off assists per game over the last six seasons, 44 of them have made the playoffs. That is nearly a 75% success rate. Again, overall talent obviously is the biggest determining factor to winning games. However, the ability to move the ball around to find good looks without turning the ball over is a key way to maximizing whatever level of talent a roster may have.
Beyond making good passes to produce points, another key factor is avoiding bad passes to create points for the other team. As I have written about before, winning the turnover battle was a key strength of the Grizzlies during their seven year playoff run. It also was a consistent trait for the teams Jenkins has coached. In four of the past six years, the Hawks or Bucks have finished in the top ten of assist to turnover ratio.
Furthermore, a good assist to turnover ratio has been a common trait among successful teams. Of the 60 teams that finished in the top 10 in team assist to turnover ratio over the past six seasons, 42 have made the playoffs. That is a 70% rate. As can be seen, being able to pass the ball effectively gives a team a very good chance of making the playoffs.
Jenkins comes from a coaching tree that obviously prioritizes success in both of these statistical areas. It seems Jenkins wants to bring that same mentality to the Grizzlies with the addition of three new players to the roster. They are Ja Morant, Tyus Jones, and De’Anthony Melton.
In the case of Morant and Melton, it obviously is more potential than production at this point. However, passing and facilitation were considered strengths for each player as they entered the league. Morant’s passing ability has been labeled as elite through many outlets. For Melton, numbers do seem to indicate the ability to pass and facilitate effectively. For those that played 950 minutes or more in 2018-2019, Melton was the only rookie, on a per-36 minute scale, to average more than 5.5 assists and less than 3.0 turnovers.
The Grizzlies are poised to potentially add Tyus Jones to their roster, although the Wolves could yet match the Griz offer sheet.— Peter Edmiston (@peteredmiston) July 9, 2019
Why did they choose Jones over the departing Delon Wright? Jones is a better fit. I explored that for @TheAthleticMEM :https://t.co/EbhxcFbBgs pic.twitter.com/ls7BIhkUUq
The Grizzlies also significantly improved their ability to be successful in both aforementioned categories with the addition of Tyus Jones. As Peter Edmiston of the Athletic astutely observed, Tyus Jones’ passing and ball-handling were historic in the 2018-2019 season. In fact, that has been a trend over Jones’s career. For all players that have played more than 4,000 minutes in their career with a career usage rate higher than 13.5% in NBA history, Tyus Jones is the only player that has, on a per 100 possession basis, averaged greater than nine assists and two or less turnovers. Beyond their difference in age, a key reason the Grizzlies invested in Jones instead of Delon Wright was the overall impact his efficient ball-handling and passing will have on the Grizzlies as a whole.
So why have the Grizzlies invested in three point guards with similar strengths?
They simply want a facilitator on the court for every minute of every game. And an effective one at that.
As I mentioned when Jones officially signed with Memphis, having three capable point guards helps to manage minutes, lowers the risk of injury, and keeps each player fresh further into the season. It also helps the Grizzlies offense minimize the lack of a pure scoring option. Morant, Jones, and Melton can help the first and second units find good looks and help other young players develop their offensive games.
A downside of these players is that their lack of size and shooting makes it unlikely they can play together on the court for significant stretches. However, that is more of a concern for teams who are focused on winning. The key for the Grizzlies this year is developing talent and establishing a culture.
Pairing Jenkins with Morant, Jones, and Melton is a smart approach. A coach with a background that prioritizes facilitation and who is known for developing talent will get the chance to develop players whose strengths center on the ability to facilitate. Furthermore, the Grizzlies are focused on designing an offense that is centered on efficient and effective ball movement. As seen above, this approach has been very successful in the modern version of the NBA.
In the cases of both the players and the culture, tangible success may not be immediate. However, laying a foundation that has successfully worked for other teams across the league could pay huge dividends for the Grizzlies in the near future.