The 2020-2021 season is now officially here, and the Memphis Grizzlies are focused on continuing the tremendous momentum they created last year in an effort to establish themselves as a sustainable winner. Obviously, there are plenty of positives that support the Grizzlies’ mindset to make this year better than last. However, while the Grizzlies roster is fully intent on making the playoffs this year, the absence of a few key players to start the season makes the expanded production of other players more crucial than ever before.
With Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, De’Anthony Melton, and now Ja Morant unavailable due to injuries, and without knowledge as to when they may return, the Grizzlies are missing a plethora of production. Naturally, head coach Taylor Jenkins and the rest of the roster know that a “next man up” mentality is the only way to overcome these less than ideal developments early in the season. The duo of Dillon Brooks and Jonas Valanciunas will be called upon to do more than usual in an attempt to get as many wins as possible in a more than manageable early part of the schedule.
The best way for Brooks and Valanciunas to remain highly effective is to feature their strengths as much as possible. However, there will also be a bigger need for both of them to add value through secondary skills on a consistent basis. For Brooks, more frequent instances of effective playmaking and disruptive defense is crucial. Similar to Brooks, Memphis could really benefit from Valanciunas expanding his game on both ends of the court. Fortunately, we have seen early indications in the preseason and regular season that both players are capable of this task. The significance of value being added from unexpected sources is critical from everyone on the roster, however.
Specifically, these contributions start with Grayson Allen (if he returns quickly from his own injury) and Kyle Anderson, the expected duo to start along side Brooks and Valanciunas (Tyus Jones makes sense as Morant’s replacement). Like the aforementioned duo, any positive value generated from Allen and Anderson starts with consistently delivering in the areas where the strengths of their respective games reside. In terms of Anderson, his facilitation and defense are more important than ever for a team that needs as much playmaking and good defensive possessions as possible. For Allen, especially with Jackson Jr. out, his ability to shoot from distance is critical for the Grizzlies to space the floor and add depth to their offense to keep defenses honest.
Since his time in Memphis, Allen and the Grizzlies have seen good success when he features his shot successfully. Memphis is 6-3 when Allen makes three or more 3PFG. With Coach Jenkins’ preference for reliable shooters from distance, Allen’s performances in the bubble seem to have secured him a more featured role moving forward.
For Kyle Anderson, the added value from his intelligent approach to the game can significantly help when it comes to earning wins. He has displayed this on both ends of the court already in this young season. In games that Anderson has recorded at least four assists, a steal, and a block since signing in Memphis, the Grizzlies are 11-6. When Allen and Anderson have the opportunity to significantly feature their strengths, it certainly provides the Grizzlies with a needed boost to earn a win.
The growing across the board contributions from Anderson and Allen have been just as critical to the Grizzlies to begin the season. For Allen, there have been a few improvements in his production metrics outside of his shooting from distance. Allen has increased his contributions in terms of rebounds and assists while also limiting his turnovers in a much more expanded role. For example, in the first game of the season against the Spurs Allen set a career high with five assists.
With Morant and Melton unavailable, the Grizzlies will be without a duo that has routinely produced ten or more assists per game. That is a huge development for Taylor Jenkins’ offense. Over the 76 games he has coached, Memphis’s ability to generate assists has been critical. Since the start of last year, when Memphis produces 26 or more assists, they are 26-20; when they produce 25 or less assists, they are 9-21. Whether it is a starter or reserve, Allen will likely play around 25 minutes a night for the foreseeable future, and some of that could come as a point guard in short stretches if Tyus Jones becomes a starter. As a result, any improvement from Allen as a playmaker cannot be understated as a critical development for the Grizzlies to remain competitive.
While Allen has shown incremental improvements in his production, Anderson has emerged as the early season star for Memphis due to his eye opening improvements as a shooter and scorer. With the Grizzlies missing a lot of front court depth in general, his rebounding improvements have also added significant value to the Grizzlies starting lineup. So far this season, Anderson has already tied and set a new career high in points and set a new career high in rebounds in a single game. Before this season, Anderson had only nine games since he arrived in Memphis in which he grabbed 10 or more rebounds. He is now averaging 10.3 rebounds per game so far this campaign. With Memphis currently limited in terms of their front court depth, his rebounding ability is certainly a needed compliment to Valanciunas to keep the Grizzlies from being at a huge disadvantage in that aspect of the game.
Anderson’s improvement as a scorer is also a critical development for the Grizzlies to remain competitive in the near future. Anderson has scored both 20 and 28 points each over his past two games before the Boston loss. Before this season, Anderson had scored more than 15 points only six times since joining the Grizzlies. With Morant now unavailable, Memphis is missing a source that provided 25% of their scoring on a nightly basis. The Grizzlies are a team whose fortunes get better as they score more.
For instance, since the start of last season, Memphis is 24-11 when they score 115 or more points. They are 11-30 when they score less than 115 points. With Morant out, many up and down the roster will likely need to improve their scoring output. The improvements in Anderson’s game will be a critical component to that cause, and hopefully will be somewhat sustainable over time.
The initial results from the increased efforts of Valanciunas, Brooks, Allen and Anderson have been highly encouraging. The Grizzlies had gained a significant early lead in each of their first three games due to the highly productive play of their starting lineup. Though Morant has obviously been a big reason for that, these four players have also successfully played their parts. In fact, the four man lineup of JV-DB-GA-KA is one of only nine four-man lineups in the NBA so far this season that has played at least 45 minutes together and produced a Net Rating of 15 or higher. When these four have played together this season, it has certainly been advantageous for the Grizzlies.
Without a doubt, the Grizzlies overall talent level is certainly limited with the talents they are missing. Even with many players finding new ways to add value, it is going to be a hard task for Memphis to consistently win with their current roster. However, players stepping up and contributing in multiple ways on a nightly basis will at least put the Grizzlies in their best position to remain competitive and win a few in the process.
While the current situation is less than ideal, players such as Allen and Anderson continuing to expand their games will certainly be a positive development. And once the Grizzlies are back at full strength, the increased ability up and down the roster to add value across the board and on both ends of the court could allow Memphis to take another step toward being a sustainable winner as long as health cooperates.
Numbers presented are through Tuesday, December 29th.