Somewhat quietly, the Memphis Grizzlies just completed a December to remember. While an 8-8 record may not seem impressive, it is an obvious improvement for a team that entered the month with a 5-13 record. Furthermore, considering it was only the second full month that this roster had played together and that several key players missed multiple games, the Grizzlies truly exceeded expectations with their play over the holidays.
While there are several reasons for the improvement in Memphis, the most significant source for their newly found success was the almost overnight transformation the team experienced regarding its play during the third quarter. For the first six weeks of the season, it seemed like multiple games each week followed the same script: Memphis would start off quite well and go into halftime with the lead or in a very close game, only to see the lead completely evaporate in the third quarter. There were quite a few instances where the Grizzlies saw a double-digit lead slip away in mere minutes. While this certainly was to be expected from a young team, the frequent second half struggles were frustrating to witness.
Though this Grizzlies roster in many ways has been significantly different from Memphis teams in recent years, third quarter tragedies unfortunately remained a shared characteristic. In fact, since the 2015-2016 season, the Grizzlies have finished 19th or lower in the NBA in Offensive Rating and 22nd or lower in Net Rating during the third quarter. It is true that the Grizzlies were more of a defensive oriented team in the past, and they have been among the worst teams in the NBA over the past few. However, the consistent flaw of ineffective play out of halftime was a big reason the Grizzlies lost much more than they won during the latter part of last decade.
The third quarter struggles reached new lows to begin this year, as the Grizzlies were the worst third quarter team in the league from the start of the season through the end of November. A 99.8 Offensive Rating and 123.8 Defensive Rating ranked 29th and last in the NBA, respectively. These numbers resulted in a -24.0 NET Rating, which also ranked last in the NBA. For reference, the worst third quarter team NET Rating for a season in the NBA over the past ten years was -16.2.
Through November, the Grizzlies were 25th in the NBA in third quarter scoring. Furthermore, they were 26th in turnovers committed and 28th in personal fouls committed. Not only were the Grizzlies among the worst teams in the NBA in scoring, they also were among the the NBA’s worst in allowing their opposition extra chances to score during the third quarter. Memphis simply was not giving itself any chance to succeed due to ineffective play on both ends of the court.
The inexperience of the roster was certainly a reason for the poor play. However, another contributing factor was the inexperience of the coaching staff. As more experienced staffs across the league made halftime adjustments to limit the Grizzlies’ second half production, Taylor Jenkins and his assistant coaches struggled to find answers. While the Grizzlies would eventually find their groove, it was often too late to regain the lead.
Another issue for the Grizzlies struggles was the production of their starting lineup. Few teams relied on their starting up more than the the Grizzlies did out of halftime. In fact, the lineup of Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jae Crowder, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Jonas Valanciunas was one of only four five-man lineups across the NBA to play 75 minutes or more during the third quarter through November 30th.
This lineup shot 41.5% from the field and 36.2% from three during those 75 minutes of play. This resulted in an Offensive Rating of 100.6, while this lineup also produced a 118.5 Defensive Rating. Among the 21 five-man lineups in the NBA that played 40 or more minutes together during the third quarter through November, the Grizzlies had the third worst Offensive Rating and third worst Defensive Rating. The end result was a NET rating of -17.9, which was worst among that group.
After Thanksgiving, injuries to Ja Morant, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and Jonas Valanciunas forced Taylor Jenkins to adjust his rotations and lineups. Other players, such as Grayson Allen and De’Anthony Melton, were looked upon to take on bigger roles. In most cases, the transition to less talented options likely would have resulted in a regression in production. However, in the case of the Grizzlies, it actually was the needed boost for the third quarter transformation this franchise had been seeking for years.
The increased roles for Allen and Melton, along with the long awaited improvement of Tyus Jones, allowed for the Grizzlies to remain productive as Morant, Clarke, Anderson, and Valanciunas returned to health. This was especially true in the case of Jones and Melton. The Grizzlies had 23 different three-man lineup combinations that played 20 or more minutes together during the third quarter in December. Of those 23 lineups, 14 had a NET Rating of 10 or higher. One of Jones or Melton were apart of seven of those lineups, and allowed the Grizzlies to see immediate improvement after halftime despite a limited roster.
As December progressed, the Grizzlies roster eventually returned to full health. Though the rest of his roster had provided effective support, Jenkins again relied upon his starters once everyone was available. Fortunately, the time off proved valuable. In 46 minutes of play during the third quarter in December, the Grizzlies starters made 56% of their shots, including 43% from beyond the arc. This resulted in an Offensive Rating of 129.7. While the Defensive Rating slightly improved to a 115.1 mark, the overall NET Rating for this lineup improved to 14.6. In other words, the Grizzlies starters had changed from an enormous liability into a clear asset.
Basically overnight, the obvious adjustments by the coaching staff and improved play and health for the entire roster transformed the Grizzlies from the worst third quarter team in the NBA into one of the best. For the month of December, the Grizzlies led the NBA in third quarter scoring, and were second in both FG% and 3PFG%. Not only were the Grizzlies far more effective with their scoring, they were much more efficient overall. The Grizzlies were 8th in the NBA in fewest third quarter turnovers committed per game, and fourth in the league in fewest third quarter fouls committed per game. This stunning improvement resulted in a 124.5 Offensive Rating and 8.2 NET Rating, which were tied for first and eighth in the league, respectively.
The significance of this progress should not go understated. It proves that the majority of the roster, both individually and collectively, is showing positive development, regardless of role. Additionally, it further validates the immense potential of Jenkins, his staff, and the Memphis front office. Together, they have put together a philosophy and roster that has proven to be more resourceful than the Grizzlies have seen in years. Though turning third quarter strife into success may seem minimal, it highlights the fact that several weaknesses of previous Memphis teams (offense, coaching adjustments, rotations) now have the ability to be strengths.
As a result, this offers hope that, as we head into a new decade, this new version of the Memphis Grizzlies has the potential to be the best yet.
Stats provided by nba.com