So far, the Memphis Grizzlies offseason can best be described as both exciting and expected. Many of the moves Memphis has made were both anticipated but also highly logical, both in terms of the new talent they added through the draft and the familiar names they resigned. In general, to support their established core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Brandon Clarke, the Grizzlies have added talented and versatile depth.
The Grizzlies have also addressed areas of need. Two specific areas were secondary playmaking and shooting. While Memphis has not added a proven difference-maker to directly resolve either issue, both shooting and playmaking stand out as strengths of the Grizzlies 2020 draft class.
Beyond adding talent and addressing needs, another influence for the continued evolution of the Grizzlies roster is becoming quite clear. It seems the preferred path to achieve sustainable success for Head Coach Taylor Jenkins in Memphis is by simply following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Mike Budenholzer. Effective shooting and playmaking strategies have led to highly successful results for the Atlanta Hawks and Milwaukee Bucks under Budenholzer. As a result, it seems Jenkins’s commitment to developing those same characteristics in Memphis is a sound philosophy.
Three areas where Budenholzer’s teams have consistently ranked among the best in the league are shooting frequency, effective passing, and smart shot selection. Only a year into their rebuild, it is understandable that Memphis is not on that same level yet. However, the Grizzlies are already showing signs of significant success in each of these areas.
Perhaps the most drastic are of improvement is simply producing shots.
This past season, the Memphis Grizzlies not only experienced a major roster turnover, they experienced a complete philosophical shift from the style of play that had generated unprecedented success for the franchise for more than a decade. Across the board , the Grizzlies established new single-season per game franchise highs in numerous offensive categories during the 2019-2020 season. This is the result of a young and athletic roster that has allowed Jenkins to implement a fast style of play.
The Grizzlies quickly formed the ability to attempt a significant amount of shots per game. However, the types of shots being attempted is just as important. For instance, eight of the 15 teams that attempted the most field goals per game last year in the NBA made the playoffs. Also, seven of the ten teams with the most three point attempts per game were in the postseason. Making these shots is what is most important (a point that will be covered in the near future.) However, having the ability to consistently find looks from beyond the arc is a very productive trait that many of the best teams in the NBA share.
Last year, Memphis set a franchise single-season high for 3PA per game. They still were below average compared to the rest of the NBA though, ranking 24th overall. A big reason for that was due to the fact the Grizzlies roster simply did not feature a significant amount of individual shot creation. For instance, Jaren Jackson Jr. led Memphis with 6.5 3PA per game last season. Twenty two other teams had a player who attempted more three pointers per game, with many teams having multiple players averaging more attempts than Jackson Jr. Though the Grizzlies increased emphasis on shooting the three was evident, it was far from being a consistent advantage.
One team who did not have a player who averaged more 3PA per game than Jackson Jr. was the Milwaukee Bucks. Khris Middleton led the Bucks with 5.7 attempts per game. However, the Bucks were second in the NBA in 3PA per game as a team. Unlike many teams, the source of their success was not in one or two players shooting half of the entire team’s attempts. It was having a full roster of players who could confidently shoot the three.
The Bucks featured eleven players who averaged two or more three point attempts per game (min. 50 games). They easily led the league for most players who met that statistical threshold (the Grizzlies had four). This team trait also seemed to be a pretty good indicator of potential playoff success, as only four total teams featured eight or more players who met this status: New Orleans, Milwaukee, Miami, and Denver.
In his seven years as a head coach, Mike Budenholzer has never had a player who averaged as many 3PA per game as Jackson Jr. did this past season. However, besides the 2016-2017 season, Budenholzer’s teams has had seven or more players who averaged two or more 3PA per game. In other words, Budenholzer has placed a clear emphasis on having an abundance of shooters on the court at all times, no matter if they were a starter, reserve, or what position they played.
Logically, teams want their best shooters taking the majority of the shots from distance. Typically, this means the starting backcourts and wings. However, featuring reserves and bigs who can also confidently shoot from distance puts pressure on the defense to respect the shooting ability from all five positions on the court at all times during the game. This gives the offense an extra advantage to implement schemes and strategies that will result in a consistently productive offense.
Budenholzer’s benches and bigs have consistently been at the top of the league among their respective units in 3PA per game. In five of the past seven years, Budenholzer’s reserves have ranked among the top seven of NBA benches in 3PA per game, including being in the top six in each of the last three years, and first in 2019-2020. Among center groups in the NBA over that same stretch of time, Budenholzer’s bigs have ranked in the top seven of the NBA six times, including three times in the top three. Though Budenholzer’s best guards and forwards still have attempted the majority of his teams’ threes, the abilities of his depth from distance made each of his lineups dangerous from beyond the arc.
Two major reasons that Budenholzer’s bigs have been among the league’s most frequent shooters from distance are Al Horford and Brook Lopez. Horford played for Budenholzer for three seasons in Atlanta, while Lopez has been with him for both of his seasons in Milwaukee. Since the 2013-2014 season, among centers in the NBA, Lopez and Horford have ranked first and fifth in total three points attempted, respectively. Though their natural skill was a big contributor to their ability to create a trustworthy three-point shot, the peak of their specific shooting abilities occurred under Budenholzer. Beyond Lopez and Horford, Budenholzer has also developed depth among his other bigs to contribute beyond the arc as well.
Numbers suggest Jenkins has found both quick and significant success implementing this strategy in Memphis. Though Budenholzer has certainly utilized Horford and Lopez effectively as shooting bigs, Jenkins could have an option with even more upside than either of them in Jackson Jr. In terms of his height (6’11”), Jackson Jr. is the only player in NBA history to average 6.5 or more 3PA per game in a season (min. 50 games) and only the second player to attempt 350 or more career threes before the age of 21. Along with Jackson Jr., both Jonas Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng attempted threes at or near career high rates under Jenkins. The end result was Memphis ranking fourth in the NBA in three point attempts from the center position last season, placing them ahead of Budenholzer’s Bucks.
While Jenkins may be on the level of his predecessor when it comes the ability of his bigs to shoot from three, the Grizzlies bench is still a work in progress. Memphis’s reserves were 21st in the league in 3PA per game last season overall. However, before the season was suspended on March 11th, the Grizzlies bench averaged 11.4 3PA per game. In the bubble, their efforts increased to 13 3PA per game.
Furthermore, the shooting talent on the Grizzlies’ bench is certainly improving. The emergence of Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen from beyond the arc last year should allow for them to get more looks in time. Memphis also added Desmond Bane and Killian Tillie on draft night and made a multi-year commitment to Jontay Porter. Bane could emerge as the Grizzlies’ biggest three-point threat in time. Both Porter and Tillie provide reliable shooting touches that give Jenkins even more options to trust off the bench and in the front court.
From his words and coaching preferences since he was hired, Jenkins’s ideal goal for the Grizzlies is quite clear: no matter the time of game, he wants to feature lineups that can shoot from any position. It is a strategy that has allowed Budenholzer to achieve plenty of success in the recent past. Jenkins appears to be implementing similar traits and strategies for his roster that could allow Memphis to experience significant success in time. Though the Grizzlies may not be considered one of the most talented shooting teams in the league over the next year or two, they have taken significant steps toward featuring reliable shooting at all times on the court.