The Memphis Grizzlies and their fans are inching closer and closer to the start of an exciting new era for the Franchise that now is less than five weeks away. Every area of the organization, from the front office to the roster, has experienced a significant overhaul. While there has been plenty of change, the desired goal is nothing new. Memphis wants to become a sustainable winner and establish an identity that can consistently adapt to the landscape of the NBA. Fortunately, one avenue to achieve that for Memphis is through utilizing the fast break.
From casual to die-hard fans, nearly anyone associated with the NBA knows that the fastbreak typically leads to some of the most exciting plays around the league each season. With players moving at faster speeds and and facing less defenders, offenses can become more creative and emphatic with their scoring opportunities. While how a fast-break is finished is usually where everyone’s focus lies, how a fastbreak gets started is just as important.
Typically, a fastbreak gets started due to a team’s defense creating turnovers, especially steals. If a team can consistently create pressure that leads to bad passes and/or interceptions, it should also create more open looks at the basket. This particular skill has arguably been Memphis’s biggest strength as a team over the past decade. Since the 2009-2010 season, no team has produced more steals or caused more turnovers than the Grizzlies.
This should not come as a surprise. Seven consecutive playoff appearances and the “Grit ‘N’ Grind” brand was created through a focus on winning through defense. Furthermore, over the past decade, Memphis has ranked in the top half of the league in creating points off of turnovers, including being in the Top 10 seven times. This created a consistent and significant advantage for Memphis due to extra possessions gained. These extra possessions carried significantly more value in Grizzlies’ games due to the fact that Memphis’s notoriously slow pace of play resulted in lower field goal attempts in their games.
Since the Grizzlies were so good at creating turnovers, and thus potential fastbreak opportunities, it would be assumed that they also would among the NBA’s best in fastbreak scoring. However, that has not been the case recently. While the Grizzlies were consistently in the top five of turnovers created and fastbreak scoring between 2009 and 2012, they have finished no higher than 11th in fastbreak scoring over the past seven years, including only two finishes in the top 15.
One logical reason why the Grizzlies were not highly effective on the fastbreak despite their success through turnovers was their personnel. Memphis’s roster consistently was built to feature paint production and physicality. The goal was to slow the pace of the game down to contend with more talented teams. As a result, a heavy emphasis was placed on half-court offensive efforts instead of scoring on the run. While Memphis was creating extra opportunities through turnovers, the significant skill sets on the Grizzlies roster did not allow for them to fully take advantage of the fastbreak opportunities that were available.
Obviously, the Grizzlies franchise, from the front office to the roster, looks completely different now. However, as head coach Taylor Jenkins has mentioned multiple times, he feels that sustainable winning begins with playing effective defense, reminiscent of best Grizzlies teams in the past. It also seems logical that he will implement schemes and strategies that will fit the strengths of his young core. Fortunately, one scheme that fits very well with this new roster is the fast break.
If success through the fastbreak begins through a disruptive defense, the Grizzlies are setup quite well. With the length, athleticism, and intelligence of players such as Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, Jae Crowder, Bruno Caboclo, and Josh Jackson, Memphis will have multiple players on the court who can create havoc in the post and on the perimeter at all times. The ability of these players to block shots, get in passing lanes for deflections and steals, and corral long rebounds will be critical to the Grizzlies getting out on the run. This will allow the Grizzlies to get the extra possessions they need to stay in games early and often.
For the fastbreak to work, gaining possession of the ball is obviously the first step in the process. However, an even more important step will be how the Grizzlies will move the ball down the court once they have in their hands. Thankfully, Memphis has Ja Morant and Tyus Jones to rely on to ensure that part of the process is as effective as it can be.
For Morant, the fastbreak is the one basketball scenario that can feature all of his strengths as a player more than any other. His vision, athleticism, creativity, and finishing ability are all at his disposal once he is at full speed in the open court. Specifically, his ability to finish is the one skill that could make the Grizzlies’ fastbreak one the best in the league. The best fastbreaks typically occur with little ball movement as possible, usually due to a singular driving the length of the court for a basket. If Morant can do that consistently, he could be the main reason the the fastbreak could be a significant strength for Memphis for years to come.
In regards to Jones, his decision-making and passing ability can allow the Grizzlies to execute the fastbreak successfully even if their starters are not on the court. While Jones may not have the ability to finish like Morant, he can still get into the lane for floaters or short jump shots. His intelligence will also allow for him to know where to distribute the ball for his teammates to get high percentages shots on the run.
While Memphis may have plenty of personnel options to create turnovers and move the ball quickly down to the court for fastbreak opportunities, the success rate of those opportunities is ultimately determined by how often they result in points. Fortunately, finishing the fastbreak is the one area where the Grizzlies have a plethora of options to utilize in multiple ways. Jackson Jr., Clarke, Anderson, Crowder, Caboclo and Jones all can run the court and finish at the rim with authority on a pass from Morant or Jones. Several of these players also could spread out for a high percentage look for three if the lane is crowded. While Jonas Valanciunas may not be able to get down the court as fast as others, he has shown the ability to good source of three-pointers as a trailing big man if the defense drops to the rim.
The Grizzlies have placed a priority on length and athleticism when constructing its current roster. These abilities are critical to finding consistent success with the fastbreak in today’s NBA. Furthermore, finding success through the fastbreak can be an avenue for a franchise to significantly improving its ability to win faster than most might expect.
A good example of this is the Sacramento Kings. A popular pro comparison for Ja Morant during this year’s draft process was D’Aaron Fox. While Morant may not have the speed of fox, their ability to get to the rim and effectiveness on the run and in open court situations are quite similar. As the Kings acquired players such as Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, and others before last season, they placed a priority on featuring athleticism and defense to win games. The result was a team that finished 24th in points off turnovers and 20th in fastbreak points in 2017-2018 improving to first in both categories in 2018-2019. That improvement helped Sacramento experience a 12 win improvement between the two seasons, and achieve their highest win total (39) in 14 years.
Comparing the Grizzlies to the Kings may not encourage a lot of confidence, but it proves the concept of utilizing the fastbreak to maximize the strengths of this roster can be immensely and immediately successful. No one expects this team to win 35 to 40 games this season, but after a year of playing together, finding consistent success on the run can help this team quickly win at higher levels than most might expect.
In the present, this style of play certainly will be valuable in creating headlines and highlights and will make Memphis fun to watch. However, for the future, featuring the fastbreak as a staple of the Grizzlies’ identity could be a critical component to the franchise becoming a consistent winner.