One does not simply replace a unicorn.
Yet that is the task facing the Memphis Grizzlies as they stare down the reality of a future without their resident mythical creature come alive in basketball form, Jaren Jackson Jr.
After Jaren suffered the injury - later revealed to be a knee sprain - this past Friday night in Los Angeles against the Lakers, Memphis leaned on the likes of Brandon Clarke and Josh Jackson to fill some of the void...and eat some of the minutes. That trend will likely continue - Clarke has had a remarkable season to this point, and it’s a chance for the rookie out of Gonzaga to show what he can do in an even larger role. For Jackson, it’s a moment of clarity in an otherwise cloudy existence so for as a member of the Grizzlies. He is needed - at least for now - to provide depth and bench scoring, especially depending on what coach Taylor Jenkins and his staff plans on doing with the now large vacancy at the starting four position.
So what are some ways to fill the now vacant 28 minutes per game and a starting position that will not be filled by Jaren, at least for the next couple weeks, while holding on to the 8th seed in the Western Conference...a spot that everyone assumes you’re going to drop out of now?
Let’s explore that dark place together. Spoiler alert - more Marko Guduric is not the answer.
The easiest thing - Clarke, Jackson, and Bell
It’s as simple as a slide and addition. Making Brandon Clarke the starting power forward alongside Jonas Valanciunas in the Grizzlies front court, while increasing the work load of Josh Jackson (averaging 18 minutes per game in his limited nine appearances with Memphis), worked pretty well for stretches Friday night against the Lakers. Jackson can defend multiple positions and score in bunches, replacing some of the pop that you would lose from Clarke becoming a starter. From there, you add a few minutes in spots to guys who can theoretically play the four position - more on those types later - and you’ve almost completed the cycle of consuming minutes.
But there’s still a rotation spot available...and as previously stated, no, it shouldn’t be for Marko Guduric. It should, however, belong to Jordan Bell, as long as he is healthy enough to take it. He has the frame and athleticism to switch on the perimeter and can rebound/rim run well enough to not negatively impact Memphis too much in limited run - say, 10-12 minutes per game. It would also serve as an effective tryout of sorts, to see if Bell could be a long-term fit for the Grizzlies.
Why simply abide by Occam’s Razor and do the most likely thing? For starters, it helps that Clarke and Valanciunas have played really well together. According to basketball-reference.com Brandon and Jonas together make Memphis much more effective offensively - the team’s effective field goal percentage when the two of them are on the floor is 8.4% better than that of their opponents during the same time period. The Grizzlies also make 10 more field goals than the opposition and are a +14 in terms of net rating according to nba.com/stats, making them the second-most effective tandem in Memphis that has played together for at least 200 minutes this season (Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton are first at 15.8 in 381 minutes alongside one another). There’s experience there, and with that comes familiarity and an understanding of playing style.
It also - in theory - provides similar spacing (Clarke is shooting over 40% from beyond the arc this season, albeit in a far smaller sample of 1.1 attempts per game, than Jaren) and defensive ability (what he lacks in stats he makes up for in perhaps even more perimeter switchability than even Jaren) to Jackson Jr. Why be concerned, then? Because Clarke has put up the monster numbers he has against reserves mostly, and being a starter is a whole new world for him. He also leads a bench unit that has become one of the better ones in the NBA - the Grizzlies are 3rd in the NBA in net rating for their bench unit in the month of February. Clarke has been the biggest piece of that puzzle most nights...removing him from the equation could disrupt that flow long-term for the short-term absence of Jaren.
Not as bullish on Brandon in the lineup? Want to keep cohesion as much as possible?
Let’s get weird.
Trust in...Josh Jackson?
No no, wait...don’t leave. Just give me a minute.
Yes, Josh Jackson has been a member of the Memphis Hustle longer than he has been part of the Memphis Grizzlies. And yes, his game still has some flaws - he could certainly be a better rebounder, and he could definitely facilitate more considering what made the Grizzlies successful offensively during their peak earlier this season.
But if you want to maintain bench cohesion while throwing a different look at opponents...you can do worse than this option. A Ja Morant/Dillon Brooks/Josh Jackson/Kyle Anderson/Jonas Valanciunas lineup accomplishes a few different things. It forces teams to adapt to the unknown - how would Memphis move and potentially switch defensively with three players (Brooks/Jackson/Anderson) all between the heights of 6’7” and 6’9”? This is the type of “positionless basketball” that could make even the biggest blog boy swoon, at least compared to what Memphis has been in the past. You’d have a true point (Ja) and a true big (Jonas), but inbetween? Versatility, and you’re maintaining the core of your tremendous reserve unit. Just add Jordan Bell, and you’re all set there.
What this idea doesn’t do, however, is add shooting (Josh is currently converting 25% of his three point shots with the Grizzlies) or rim protection (.2 blocks per game) to try to make up in the aggregate the loss of Jaren Jackson Jr. That element of the unknown is a gift and a curse, though - Jackson, for obvious reason, has not played with the starters a ton this season. Where are his favorite spots to score? How does he react to certain switches defensively, or fit within team rebounding concepts with a force of nature like Jonas Valanciunas down low. That’s not to say there aren’t answers to these questions - there may well be. We just don’t know them...and during a key eight-game stretch in the season may not be the best time to find out.
So maybe Josh staying a reserve is best for now, all things considered. But say you’re still not sold on making Clarke “the man” since he’s been so effective off the bench as a pseudo-sixth man. Who could make a good fit in a tough spot?
Mr. Do Something, that’s who.
De’Anthony Melton’s moment
Instead of adding another “forward”, add another “guard”. It makes you smaller than the Jackson option, but a starting unit of Ja Morant/De’Anthony Melton/Dillon Brooks/Kyle Anderson/Jonas Valanciunas makes some sense. Sure, it doesn’t really solve the three point shooting issue (Melton is currently converting 29.8% of his threes on two attempts per game), but there really isn’t an ideal solution to replacing Jaren’s three point shot in the lineup.
Gorgui Dieng instead of Jonas Valanciunas helps in theory, as Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian tweeted out Sunday, but that creates another layer of lineup/rotation disruption that is both unnecessary and - once again - unlikely to solve the issue. Dieng is a 38.4% shooter from beyond the arc, but that production isn’t at a high volume (2.6 per game) and what you lose from Valanciunas to Dieng in all-around game and experience in the Grizzlies scheme is too big of a gap to overcome just by shooting.
Meanwhile, Melton - who is arguably just as important to the bench unit’s success as Clarke - has been with Memphis all season long and seems to fit with...well, just about everyone. According to nba.com/stats, of the top-10 two-man lineups for the Grizzlies this season that have played at least 200 minutes together, Melton is featured in six of them. The next closest Grizzly is Clarke at four. While Melton doesn’t thrive in any particular area, he is a jack of all trades with a game that is malleable to those around him. His insertion with the starters is less disruptive because Brandon’s game is very specific and grounded in what he is elite at. Melton isn’t elite at anything - but he’s above average at just about everything.
He can defend all three perimeter-specific positions (best defensive rating on the team and highest defensive win shares among perimeter players) and thrives as a secondary facilitator, which would allow for Ja Morant to take on a larger brunt of the scoring with Jaren sidelined. That’s going to have to happen if Memphis hopes to stay afloat, and the player currently at the disposal of the Grizzlies coaching staff that is best equipped to help with that is De’Anthony Melton.
It’s not a perfect fit. You’d much rather have a guy who can both space and slash offensively. But Melton is not dependent on others to help him score beyond his own facilitation abilities. Only 51.5% of his made shots are assisted on, third lowest on the team beyond Ja Morant (28.5%) and Tyus Jones (40.3%). Meanwhile, Gorgui Dieng has had 72.4% of his baskets assisted on over the span of his career, meaning he is far more dependent on others to help him score than a Melton is. He can get a step off the dribble on defenders and has the ability to find open shooters - please, Dillon Brooks, wake up - and he can also flow and find bigs off the pick and roll. In the absence of a knockdown shooter, you want to be able to rely on someone that can at least create for themselves, as well as for others (3rd best assist percentage on the team, once again behind Morant and Jones).
The fact he can pass and make shots for himself and his teammates isn’t surprising. He is a pseudo point guard after all. But many saw Melton as a better wing than point, and that has come to fruition. Tyus Jones is a true back-up point. Melton is not. Melton is also up for restricted free agency this summer, and this is an opportunity for both he and the team to see what he is truly made of. Is he as good as many believe he is? What will he do in a larger role? Will he sink with the weight of added pressure, or rise up to the challenge?
While he’s not a crystal clean choice, he makes the most sense to start if Taylor Jenkins opts for a non-traditional approach to the next two or so weeks. Memphis is 19th in the NBA in three point shooting percentage, and yet they’re still first in points in the paint. Finding ways to maximize that - and not just focus on who can shoot - should be the priority.
The rotation and starters can’t add shooting at this stage, beyond signing someone once Dusty Hannah’s 10-day contract expires. They can, however, add to their creativity and movement on and off the ball.
The release from the Grizzlies stated that Jaren Jackson Jr. would be re-evaluated in two weeks...not that he would for sure return at that point. For the sake of the playoff push in Memphis, fans surely hope to see him back on the floor by then. It’s impossible for the Grizzlies to replace him - he is a unicorn, after all. But they have the opportunity, through some outside the box thinking, to stay afloat in the postseason hunt and tread water while waiting for their 6’11” Klay Thompson with a splash of Kevin Garnett to come back.
It will just take some adjusting...and some faith in the young core already put in place.