The start to the ‘stretch run” of the Grizzlies season in their pursuit of securing a postseason birth has been anything but ideal. Three straight losses to the Kings, Lakers, and Clippers were frustrating enough to experience. However, the biggest loss for Memphis is the news that Jaren Jackson Jr. will be sidelined for at least two weeks with a knee injury. It was well known the Grizzlies were in for a tough test after the All-Star Break with both travel and the quality of competition becoming more difficult on the schedule. Now, without arguably their second best player, winning games may have evolved from a tough to daunting task over the next few weeks.
Though three losses may not seem that significant, winning has become the expectation for the Grizzlies over the past three months, and for good reason. The Grizzlies are 23-16 since December 1st. These past three losses are only the second time the Grizzlies have experienced consecutive losses since December 18th and 20th. Factors such as good health, playing at home, and a favorable schedule have certainly aided the Grizzlies in their strong play. Nevertheless, a deep and talented roster that has developed much faster and reached a higher level than many expected has been the main reason Memphis is right in the midst of the playoff hunt.
While the Grizzlies winning ways have certainly been a constant for nearly three months, their formula for success has contained a few variables along the way. For the majority of this stretch, Memphis was working itself into the playoff picture because of its offense. Between December 1st and January 15th, the Grizzlies were 14-9 over 23 games. Over this time period, the Grizzlies were fourth in the NBA in points per game, third in field goal percentage, seventh in three point percentage, and first in assists per game. Advanced statistics supported the Grizzlies efforts, as they were seventh in offensive rating, fourth in effective field goal percentage, and second in true shooting percentage. Overall, whether in terms of quantity or quality, Memphis arguably was a top five offense in the NBA over the holiday season.
Though the duration of their offensive outburst proved Memphis had the potential to be an above average NBA offense, it was clear several players were playing above their current talent levels. In recent weeks, names such as Jae Crowder (before he was traded), Dillon Brooks, and Jaren Jackson Jr. experienced expected regression. Furthermore, injuries and trades eventually allowed players such as De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, and Josh Jackson to step into more featured roles and minutes. As a result, while the Grizzlies overall offensive production fell off a bit as they approached the All-Star break, their defense improved significantly in a short period of time.
Since January 15th, the Grizzlies are now 9-7. While there offensive production has slowed, Memphis has certainly elevated the effectiveness of its defense. The Grizzlies are fifth in opponent field goal percentage allowed and fifth in defensive rating in the NBA. It is no secret that their success has been generated from Anderson, Melton, and Jackson getting more playing time. Perhaps the one player who has meant the most to the defense is Jackson Jr., who is sixth in the NBA in blocks per game over this stretch. Beyond his rim protection, Jackson Jr. has also been highly effective with switching and help defense, minimizing the opposition’s ability to exploit favorable match-ups. He truly has been the anchor many felt he would eventually become for the Grizzlies.
With Jackson Jr. out, the Grizzlies will be missing a key piece to their overall defensive effectiveness. More minutes for Melton and Jackson, along with potential starting opportunities for Anderson and Brandon Clarke, could allow the defense to remain strong. As head coach Taylor Jenkins hinted at Monday, lineups may become more situational than routine depending on match-ups so that the Grizzlies can be at their best on the court. If that is truly the goal, lineups and rotations that are focused on defensive effectiveness and offensive efficiency may make the most sense.
When considering potential lineup combinations that make the most sense, experimenting with a starting lineup that features Anderson, Melton, and Clarke has merit. While this trio has only played together 36 minutes since January 15th, they have produced a Net Rating of 18.3 while in the same lineup over that time. Their defensive production and efficient offense can limit good looks for their opponents while also allowing for Memphis to find high percentage shots on its own.
However, it is Jackson who the Grizzlies may need to focus on specifically to utilize more often. Jackson is apart of three of the four three man lineups that have produced the best defensive and net ratings since January 15th (min. 25 minutes played together) for the Grizzlies. Jackson provides both length and athleticism that he can use in the post and the perimeter to disrupt the flow of opposing offenses. Overall, Anderson, Melton, Clarke, and Jackson give the Grizzlies multiple weapons that can be used on the court at any time. Their length and intelligence can contest shots, disrupt timing, effectively defend in switching situations, and create turnovers that will allow Memphis to take advantage of their athletic roster on the fast-break.
Logically, as the schedule has become difficult, the Grizzlies have found it a bit harder to consistently succeed. Their struggles after the All-Star break and the loss of Jackson Jr. will only make it harder to get back to being competitive against the NBA’s best. Memphis must try to avoid replicating what may have worked in the past or replacing Jackson Jr.’s production if it means asking their roster to not play to their strengths. Jenkins has proven he has the ability to not only adapt his game plan to the roster he has in place, but also has the ability to the develop the strengths of his players.
As a result, if the Grizzlies are truly going to feature the best their current roster has to offer, it is by embracing and fully committing to winning through defense. As the aforementioned numbers show, the Grizzlies currently have the best chances to win when their best defensive players are on the court together. Though these lineups may be limited offensively due to suspect outside shooting, they can still score in transition, at the basket, and through using their defense to create offense. If the Grizzlies are going to struggle to score, they need to do everything possible to make the story the same for their opponents on the other end of the court.
The Grizzlies path to the playoffs may contain less clarity and confidence than it once did. Therefore, if the Grizzlies hope to make a postseason birth a reality, they must make the most of what their current roster can provide in reality. It seems the way to do that is a devotion to defense that will hopefully allow for them to earn needed victories until their offensive success returns.
Stats through 2/22 via NBA.COM