In general, the Memphis Grizzlies’ unexpected level of success last year was a delight for both the franchise and its fans. Furthermore, the way in which the Grizzlies achieved that success added to the excitement and enjoyment for all that watched. Though the Grizzlies were not among the best offenses teams in the league, their pace and style of play created many highlights and a much more fun style of basketball to watch than previous versions of the franchise. Though that primarily was due to their ability to score, especially at the rim, the Grizzlies’ effective passing also played a major role in their offensive improvement.
It should come as no surprise that a significant offensive improvement in Memphis under Taylor Jenkins was aided by significant success in moving the basketball. During his time as an assistant coach under Mike Budenholzer, Jenkins had plenty of proof on the impact productive ball movement could make. However, Budenholzer’s success is not a byproduct of simply passing the basketball frequently. It is a result of effective passing leading to points.
Budenholzer has certainly utilized frequent passing when it was needed to generate offensive success. During his five years in Atlanta, the Hawks finished in the top 10 of the NBA in total team passes per game each season. Over the last two years in Milwaukee, the Bucks placed in the bottom third of the league. However, the significant decline in passes should not be seen as a negative; fortunately for Budenholzer, he has had better talent when it comes to individual shot creation in Milwaukee than the had in Atlanta. Names such as Khris Middleton and Giannis Antetokounmpo certainly help in that area.
Despite the different levels of overall passing, the ball movement of Budenholzer’s teams has been highly effective. His teams have finished in the top ten in the NBA in team assists per game in each of his seven seasons as a head coach. His teams have also finished in the top 10 of the NBA in assist to pass ratio, including the Bucks finishing second the past two years. The end result of this amount of productive passing has allowed Budenholzer’s teams to feature consistent offenses, as his teams have finished in the top 10 of the NBA in assist-created points in six of the past seven seasons. This includes four times in the top five of the league as well.
Another trait that has consistently allowed Budenholzer’s teams to be among the best passing teams in the league is the balance among his roster. Of his center, forward, and guard units, several have finished in the top five of the NBA in terms of assists per game among their position groups. Budenholzer’s reserve units also have contributed significant support, as they have finished in the top 10 of the NBA in assists per game among NBA benches in five of the past seven years.
In terms of frequent passing, the Grizzlies have regularly been in the top 10 of the NBA for most team passes per game since the statistic began being tracked seven years ago. It is no secret that the Grizzlies, basically since they moved to Memphis, have lacked significant talent when it comes to individual shot creation for a long time. As a result, ball movement has generated a major portion of the Grizzlies offense over the years. In fact, they led the NBA in passes per game during the 2018-2019 season.
In his first season as a head coach, Jenkins continued the trend of the Grizzlies heavy reliance on ball movement, as they finished seventh in the league in passes per game last year. However, through style of play, roster construction, and creative offense schemes, Jenkins also produced unprecedented quality in terms of the Grizzlies’ passing during the 2019-2020 season. The Grizzlies finished second in the league in assists, their highest ranking ever in that category as a team. It was also the first time the Grizzlies finished in the top ten of assists as a team since they finished fifth during the 2003-2004 season.
Memphis finished in the top five of the NBA last season in both potential assists and assist created points per game. They also finished fourth in secondary assists in the league. Though that is an advanced metric that does not happen often during the game, it adds further validation to the understanding that the Grizzlies were among the league’s best at moving the ball last season. The Grizzlies and the Suns were the only teams that produced 25 or more assists in 50 or more games last season. Furthermore, like Budenholzer, Jenkins was also able to find successful ball movement throughout his roster, as the Grizzlies’ bench led NBA reserve units in assists per game.
When Jenkins was hired as the head coach of the Grizzlies, both he and the front office knew that they would have to get creative in order to find playmaking success on a roster that certainly did not feature much potential. As a result, the Grizzlies focused on direct sources of immense and efficient playmaking potential. In Ja Morant, the Grizzlies drafted one of the best playmaking rookies in NBA history. In Tyus Jones, the Grizzlies signed one of the most efficient passers in NBA history. The end result was one of the best point guard duos in the NBA.
Logically, due to being significantly further back on the competitive time line, Jenkins would need to make adjustments for Memphis to be an elite passing team. His process in achieving this goal came through making assessments and adjustments. His assessment of how Morant and Jones would impact the team proved to be correct. He also correctly assessed how to use them effectively in lineups. The end result was a Grizzlies backcourt that finished first in the NBA in assists per game among guard units in the league.
Jenkins also made needed adjustments as the season progressed to allow the Grizzlies to improve in their ability to capitalize off the passing from Morant and Jones. He used Morant almost exclusively with the starters and Jones almost exclusively with the reserves to fully compliment and maximize the skill sets on his roster. He trusted De’Anthony Melton with a bigger role, one that would allow Melton to finish third on the team in assists.
He also improved in terms of schematic adjustments as the season progressed. At the beginning of the season, the Grizzlies were consistently giving up half time leads due to second-half struggles. However, due to adjustments made by Jenkins, the Grizzlies led the NBA in third quarter scoring from December through the end of the season. A big reason for that success was due to Memphis averaging the most third quarter assists per game last season in the NBA.
Both the front office and Jenkins did extremely well in acquiring Morant and Jones to turn Memphis into one of the best passing teams in the NBA. However, one downside of that success so centralized is how the quality of their passing could suffer if Morant or Jones was lost for a significant time period. This was clearly evident when Jones missed the bubble due to a knee injury. As a result, the Grizzlies made sure to quickly and emphatically add quality passing talent to their roster this offseason. They re-signed Melton and Jontay Porter, and also drafted Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman. These four players offer significant passing potential in both the backcourt and frontcourt and off the bench to support the Grizzlies best talents. Though the Grizzlies have a long ways to go overall to reach the talent level that Budenholzer has enjoyed in Atlanta and Milwaukee, Jenkins certainly is constructing a roster that will feature an advantageous ability to move the ball.
If fact, while the Grizzlies and Jenkins may aspire to be on the level of Budenholzer’s teams in time, they arguably are already there when it comes to passing and ball movement. Though its likely easier to argue that Budenholzer’s Bucks are a better passing team than Jenkins’s Grizzlies, the fact that their could be a debate is significant. In time, the balanced passing ability that is a staple of success for Budenholzer’s teams will likely be achieved by Jenkins as the talent on his roster improves. However, the overall success of the Grizzlies passing is certainly comparable to the Bucks at this time. That is a major vote of confidence that Jenkins’s overall preferences and long-term plans for the Grizzlies’ offense is certainly on the right track.
The productivity from the Grizzlies’ ability to pass has already led to this roster exceeding expectations. As the talent on the roster continues to improve, the effectiveness of its ability to move the ball should as well. As a result, just like it led to immediate success for Budenholzer in the recent past, the precision of the Grizzlies’ passes could lead to significant success and sustainability as a winner in the near future.