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Finding the Grizzlies bright side

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It is never as bad as it seems.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by Jordan Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies have stumbled out of the starting block of the 2020-2021 NBA season. Losing two winnable games by double-digits in each case is far from ideal - especially considering the fact that Memphis is about to play two of the top teams in the NBA in the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics over the next few days at their home arenas. No Jaren Jackson Jr., no Justise Winslow, no De’Anthony Melton...and if you read the strangely addicting room that is Grizzlies fandom, there may not be too much hope. The team is doomed to underachieve. The Lottery is upon us. All (for this season) is lost.

(Nihilist Arby’s voice) Watch the Grizzlies.

It, of course, is not that dire. Memphis was 0-2 last season heading in to their third game of the season, against ironically the same team they face in game #3 this season - the Brooklyn Nets. During the Grit and Grind Era, Memphis lost their first two games only once (2011-2012), which of course is also the last time the NBA started their season so late (that time due to a lockout, not a pandemic). That particular season started quite poorly - 3-6, with a serious knee injury to Zach Randolph in a 40 point loss to the Chicago Bulls being the worst of the stretch. After the red-hot start to that run of success that was the 2011 playoffs, certainly the losing beginning was a disappointment.

What came next? An 8-4 period of games where the team got themselves back up on their feet, without their best player.

Of course, those Grizzlies were in a different stage of their evolution than the current model. But before you completely write off the comparison, someone named Josh Davis led Memphis in scoring in that horrible defeat to the Bulls with 10 points and the next time the Grizzlies faced Chicago - a 102-86 victory this time around with the Bulls battling the injury bug - the likes of Marreese Speights notched a double-double. No offense to Davis and Speights (especially Speights, who carved out a decent NBA career for himself) but it isn’t as if the NxtGenGrz are that far off in terms of talent when compared to those names.

So take a deep breath. Things are not as bad as you may think they are. And they can take a turn for the better relatively quickly. Here’s why.

Atlanta Hawks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant is on the team.

With all due respect to Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Marc Gasol, Morant is better at this stage, in this moment, than just about anyone that has ever worn Beale Street Blue. That isn’t hyperbole, either. Per basketball-reference.com, Ja Morant through just two games (small sample size theater, but when you are concerned after an 0-2 start the good data should matter as well) is currently first in franchise history in the following categories -

  • Win Shares Per 48 Minutes (.296, .087 better than 2016-2017 Mike Conley)
  • Player Efficiency Rating (36.5, 12.4 better than 2006-2007 Pau Gasol)
  • Assist Percentage (47.3%, 5.3% better than 2001-2002 Jason Williams)
  • Usage Rate (35.2%, 6% higher than 2016-2017 Zach Randolph)

Look at those names. Some of the very best this franchise has ever produced. And through two games, Ja Morant is blowing away their efficiency, creation, and usage rates. Two games where Memphis has been without Morant’s running mate in Jaren Jackson Jr. Two games where the Grizzlies haven’t had Justise Winslow, a key rotation piece that Memphis GM Zach Kleiman himself has said he hopes becomes a key cog of the foundation of this team moving forward. In Saturday night’s loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the Grizzlies were down De’Anthony Melton - not an elite scorer, but an important rotation wing that helps with facilitation on offense and playing sound defense.

Ja Morant has been the focal point of two different game plans. He’s been the target. Teams may be content with letting Morant get his at times, stopping the Dillon Brooks/Jonas Valanciunas types and “prioritizing” Ja in that manner. But you still need to take advantage of what the opponent is giving you...and Ja Morant is doing that at an historic clip to start the season for the Memphis Grizzlies. He has taken over stretches of the game almost single-handedly. He has shown an increased willingness to shoot (10 more attempts per game compared to last season) without sacrificing efficiency (a staggering 64.1% on two point attempts and 69.6% from 0-3 feet per basketball-reference.com, an improvement of 13% and 9% respectively). That’s not because the opposition is “letting him score”.

It’s because he’s that damn good.

It’s unlikely that these numbers hold. But considering Morant is 21 years old, and is capable of doing these things at all, means that as long as Ja is playing, the Grizzlies have a chance.

He just needs more help. And there’s good news there too.

The other guys will bounce back

Atlanta Hawks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If you want to say that Ja Morant will cool off - improvement makes sense from year one to year two, but complete and total domination is extremely rare - that’s fair. The idea of “regressing to the mean” is certainly possible. But then the opposite must also be considered - a “progression to the mean” for the likes of Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, Tyus Jones, and Brandon Clarke, who have all struggled to start the season in some specific way. The issues go beyond just these single categories, but when it comes to “bounce back” potential they really shine through.

  • Dillon Brooks - 28.6% from three point range. Save the Dillon slander. Brooks’ career three point percentage is 35.7%. It is extremely unlikely this 28.6% holds. Dillon certainly needs to play within himself more and prioritize his creative process for others as he did before the Hawks loss (8-23 shooting? Bad Dillon!) but we have 173 games and 715 three point attempts telling us that Brooks is going to shoot better.
  • Jonas Valanciunas - 46.2% on two point shot attempts. Valanciunas continues to search for his touch. Jonas for his career is a 57.2% converter within the three point arc, so he is currently 11% below that mark (and 14.5% under what he did for the Grizzlies just last season). Jonas continues to rebound at a high level (19.5 rebounds per 100 possessions is 1.8 more than his career average) and while he is having defensive issues on switches and in drop coverages, that isn’t what you count on Jonas to give you. You depend on his glass eating, as well as his touch inside the three point line and around the basket (60% currently between 0-3 feet, 7.6% below his career average and a staggering 13.5% worse than his 2019-2020 production). He has lost that...for now.
  • Tyus Jones - 16.8% assist percentage. If this number were to be maintained (spoiler alert - it won’t) it would be a career worst by 4.4% and would be a dramatic departure from his career best number of 32% that he posted with Memphis in the 2019-2020 campaign. Jones was brought in to do just what he did last season - create offense for others, and protect the basketball (his 10.8% turnover percentage in his first season with the Grizzlies was quite impressive considering his career high usage rate of 17.2%). But his current 16.8% turnover rate is exactly the same as the low assist percentage. It seems unlikely that a player with a career 27.1% assist percentage and 12.2% turnover percentage stays where he currently is.
  • Brandon Clarke - 3.8 PER. This one is the easiest to feel better about. If you believe one of the most efficient college basketball players in history, who posted one of the most efficient rookie seasons in NBA history, is going to stick around the 3.8 mark when it comes to PER I have a landline phone and an America Online account to sell you. Clarke is coming off of a groin injury that surely has impacted his timing and thrown off his ability to play at the level we have become accustomed to seeing. The jumper looks rough. The touch in the midrange shot is especially bad (20%, 34.9% worse than last season, from 10-16 feet). But given the fact he missed a week or so of preseason play, give it a week or so of regular season play before developing a take one way or the other.

These are just some of the reasons to remain optimistic. Another would include the very true statement that through two games (yes, super small sample size, but again some are freaking out about being 0-2, so fair is fair) Kyle Anderson is the franchise leader in defensive rebounding percentage (35.8%, better than Jonas so far) and appears as healthy and locked in as a two-way player as he has ever been for Memphis. Yet another would speak to the true shooting percentage of Desmond Bane (85.7%), who has made it clear that his elite three point stroke from TCU could absolutely translate to the NBA and that should mean at the very least more playing time and shot attempts, if not a starting role alongside Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks.

But even the guy he’d theoretically replace - Grayson Allen, in particular due to his defensive deficiencies and 3-11 start from three (although that 27.3% number will also likely improve, be it as a starter or reserve, since his career average is 36.7%) - is showing growth in his offensive game. He has no turnovers yet this season on a career high 15.2% assist percentage while boasting an impressive 84.6% of his shots coming from three and the remaining 15.4% coming between 0-3 feet. Those efficient shot attempt numbers seem to be in like with what Taylor Jenkins wants his “standard” to be.

The Spurs game fell apart because of one particularly bad 2nd quarter. The Atlanta game was lost because of, again, one really bad period of basketball - the final frame. Memphis has yet to put together a complete 48 minute game, and lessons can be learned from the failures in those quarters. Staggering starters with reserves due to the three key pieces being out. Defensive rotations and communication, better attention to detail with regard to fouling. From the coaches to the players, the issues that currently haunt Memphis are entirely within their control to fix.

Maybe the team simply isn’t that good and will compete at the bottom of the play-in mix or worse. If only that could have been predicted...but it is far too soon to assume a drastic fall from postseason competition. And with a star like Ja Morant leading the way, sooner rather than later this struggle of a start will likely be a thing of the past. We will probably reflect on it a chapter of growth in the story of this generation of Grizzlies, as the team won’t fail at that drastic of a level unless something unforeseen happens to Morant. One way or another it will take more than two games to make a determination on how much has been learned, or lost, regardless of the direction they’re heading.

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