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Starting with Dillon Brooks

The answer to “who starts?” starts with him

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2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

By now you have likely heard that Justise Winslow recently joined a long but distinguished list of Memphis Grizzlies wings with a seemingly higher probability of injury than most. Of course it isn’t fair to put Justice among the ranks of Chandler Parsons just yet - Chandler’s knees were a long-term issue, while Justise’s issues are seemingly not intertwined. But Justise has a history of health concerns, which is why his deal is so team-friendly (and why Miami was willing to nab three veterans that they knew would be available in exchange for at least two - Winslow and Dion Waiters - that likely wouldn’t be, plus James Johnson).

Losing Justise hurts the Grizzlies in the short-term because of the positional flexibilityhe provided. Now if something happens to Tyus Jones, for example, the Grizzlies have less good answers for who runs the second unit. If Kyle Anderson goes down, a front court facilitation hole gets that much larger. Long-term it stings as well, as Memphis had a unique chance to see what Winslow would be able to do alongside Ja Morant and company after a training camp with the whole roster healthy. That wasn’t going to occur until the fall (or now winter), so a silver lining in the Covid-19 dark cloud was that opportunity.

Taylor Jenkins has no time to feel sorry for himself. The Grizzlies have a date with the 76ers in a scrimmage this week, and all eyes are on the July 31st return to action with the Portland Trail Blazers. Justise had been running with the second unit for much of the highlights shown on social media by the Grizzlies, but many assumed that Winslow would have been at worst a 6th man playing a ton of minutes with the starters and likely would have become a starter at some point.

The good news? Justise has never played with the Grizzlies, so it’s simply a return to the way things were before the suspension of the season. So how should Jenkins approach this development? Should he go for more of the same? Stick with the status quo, start Kyle Anderson and have Josh Jackson come off the bench alongside De’Anthony Melton?

Maybe...but perhaps the answer goes beyond a simple slide in and out. Maybe, with Winslow’s depature, the time has come to acknowledge a larger issue within Memphis’ window for success in the bubble.

Dillon Brooks, who has started every game for the Grizzlies so far this season, is quite good in wins and struggles mightily in losses. He was really bad in the 16 games before the season was suspended. Given the absence of wing scoring beyond Brooks, he must be a threat for Memphis to have a chance. The player who starts net to Dillon and plays alongside him most must amplify his strengths and cover his weaknesses.

So who fits that bill best? Let’s find out.

Kyle Anderson - -2.8 net rating alongside Dillon Brooks (580 minutes played)

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The front runner for the starting spot simply because of familiarity, Kyle Anderson provides stability for a Grizzlies squad that could desperately use it at times. Anderson is what he is - you know what you are going to get. That steady hand has its pros and cons - and unfortunately, when it comes to Dillon those cons seem to get the better of Brooks.

What Kyle has going for him has been discussed here at GBB consistently - he is a versatile defender who can flow freely from the perimeter to the rim on that end of the floor. Kyle, per Cleaning the Glass, is first among NBA forwards that have played at least 1,000 minutes in impacting opponents effective field goal percentage while on the floor and in the 87th percentile overall. He can defend around the basket (83rd percentile, 4th among forwards) and beyond the arc (70th percentile and 11th among forwards, while 91st percentile and 2nd overall on corner threes).

He is a very good facilitator of offense from the forward position ranking in the 93rd percentile, 4th in the NBA among forwards that have played at least 1,000 minutes this season in assists per usage rate according to Cleaning the Glass. He’s 11th among that group in assist percentage overall (a career best 15.1%), which is impressive considering his shooting limitations. Opponents know he isn’t a threat to shoot - especially from range - and yet he can still create effectively off the dribble and in quick passes for his teammates. But even with that caveat, he is posting the highest three point attempt rate of his career according to So while that’s not “his game”, he needs to be respected there more than ever before. A bit is more than none, after all.

He doesn’t take threes the way Taylor Jenkins would like him to, and often Kyle gets the blame for when the Grizzlies offense struggles early in games when he starts. But Dillon Brooks was miserable in five March showings (36.1% from the field overall) which isn’t Kyle’s fault - or at least it shouldn’t be. He does so many other things well and has a game that can mix and match alongside the other Grizzlies in such a way that slotting Anderson as the starter without Winslow in the mix probably makes the most sense. And theoretically Anderson’s strengths - passing, defensive versatility, rebounding - should make Brooks better.

But they don’t. Again, Dillon Brooks is very good as a wing scorer in Memphis wins - 19.1 points per game while shooting 45% from the floor in 32 Grizzlies wins this season. In 33 losses? A poor-for-his-role 12.3 points per game on 34.6% shooting. Sadly this is especially relevant considering the fact that Memphis, as Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian points out, the Grizzlies are 18-5 against the 10 worst teams in the NBA and 14-28 against the 20 best. That brings to light the concern that Dillon feasts on poor competition, 80% of which are not in the bubble and the other two (Phoenix and Washington) are not on the restart schedule for the Grizzlies.

And unfortunately, Kyle started all but one game alongside Dillon in February (where Brooks was somehow even worse than March - 34.3% from the floor and an ice cold 25.4% from three) and March during Brooks’ ice cold stretch. Kyle may be guilty by association. The absence of Jaren Jackson Jr. for a large chunk of these games looms large, and surely impacted the entire roster. But Dillon is the focus here, and given the evidence Anderson probably should not be the starter (although he likely still will be).

De’Anthony Melton: +9.2 net rating alongside Dillon Brooks (316 minutes played)

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

De’Anthony Melton is en vogue among both Grizzlies and NBA writers. He has length and anticipatory skills that make him lethal defensively-

  • 97th percentile in steal percentage per Cleaning the Glass, 2nd in the NBA among combo guards and 11th overall among players with at least 900 minutes played.
  • 83rd percentile in block percentage, ties for 8th among combo guards.

He also is an above average rebounder (87th and 86th percentile in defensive and offensive rebounding, respectfully) that helps negate the weaknesses of players like Jaren Jackson Jr. and, truth be told, Dillon Brooks (16th percentile in defensive rebounding). Come to think of it, Brooks hasn’t really thrived as a defender this season either. He fouls entirely too much (5.1% of the time, 4th worst in the NBA among players that have logged at least 900 minutes) and while he is effective defending the three (opponents shoot 3.1% worse from range when Dillon is on the floor) Brooks is mediocre at best in terms of overall defensive impact.

Melton isn’t much better when it comes to opponent’s effective field goal percentage impacts according to Cleaning the Glass (68th percentile in opponents effective field goal percentage compared to 62nd percentile for Dillon) but this is a good example of one number not telling the whole story. Between his help defense, his anticipation skill in passing lanes, and his overall ability to impact team offensive schemes Melton is a superior defender at this stage to Dillon. This is surprising, given how well Brooks did at times defensively during his rookie campaign when having to take on demanding offensive assignments night after night.

Having Melton start in the backcourt alongside Ja Morant, moving Dillon to the traditional “small forward” position, could allow for Brooks to defend the lesser and/or larger (and slower) athlete on the perimeter from opposing teams while De’Anthony takes on the better scorer. Melton’s rebounding and defensive prowess enables Dillon to focus on the offensive end of the floor more - which, of course, is where he wants to pay the most attention.

Unfortunately, once again, the actual playing time Melton has alongside Brooks as a starter was during the poor play of Dillon in February and March. But as previously stated, Jaren was out for a stretch of these struggles. While Melton is essentially a more athletic version of Kyle Anderson in terms of what he does well, and thus better suited to play with pace in the schemes of Taylor Jenkins, the fact he could enable the slower-footed Brooks to take on a bigger (and more often than not less fleet of foot) wing may make all the difference. Kyle is a combo forward - Melton is a combo guard. It’s all in the matchups.

Melton makes the most sense as a starter next to Dillon in terms of ratings and possible long-term fits, but it would shift the dynamics of a very successful bench unit. Would it be worth it to Coach Jenkins to make such a disruption in an already volatile situation?

Josh Jackson: +11.5 net rating alongside Dillon Brooks (131 minutes played)

2020 NBA Restart - All Access Practice Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Josh could be the best of both worlds, and has the most to gain in Justise’s absence with unrestricted free agency approaching. Josh has the size (6’8” with a 6’10” wingspan) and athleticism to compete with those tougher defensive assignments and wreak havoc on opposing offenses (93rd percentile in steal percentage). Offensively, of all the options to play with Brooks Josh has the greatest potential to slash and score at a high clip (90th percentile per Cleaning the Glass shooting at the rim at 70%). Their games - slicing and spacing - should mesh well together. Jackson can also run and gun with the best of them, excelling in transition-

  • 99th percentile (1st among forwards and 2nd overall among players that have played at least 300 minutes according to Cleaning the Glass) in points added per 100 possessions
  • 99th percentile (1st among all players that have played at least 300 minutes) in percentage of steals leading to transition opportunities.

The list goes on and on - in all but two categories where Cleaning the Glass measures transition opportunities, Josh is at worst in the 86th percentile in terms of playing with pace. Jackson in a small sample size has shown a capacity to thrive in up tempo basket to basket play, which is where young and athletic teams usually find their most success. With this in mind, given all that Jackson could potentially bring to the table across the court, could Jackson be the answer? If so, the question then becomes just how much did Jaren (and Brandon Clarke) being absent impact Dillon? Brooks played poorly when Josh was finding his stride, so that partnership didn’t matter as much without those two in the mix when it came to getting the most out of Brooks.

Jackson has motivation to thrive in this scenario, and the chip on his shoulder will benefit Memphis one way or another. Chances are Coach Jenkins sees Josh as a 2nd unit catalyst and scorer - starting both Josh and Dillon would create an offensive imbalance in the rotation, and they need to give a scoring punch to the reserves. But make no mistake, the biggest “winner” in a post-Winslow world is Jackson. He will get his shot to run with Dillon one way or another.

Disappointed John Konchar wasn’t listed here? Did you hope that Grayson Allen would find his way in to the rotation in response to Winslow’s departure? Those additions are possible - both players showed flashes of success this season. Given the depth of the Grizzlies and the nature of the bubble, chances are even if it only comes in the scrimmages they will get their shots to squeeze out minutes when the games start to count. But they’re both not as talented as the three names discussed at length here - it’s their opportunity to lose.

But after all the stats and statements above, when it comes to who starts with Dillon Brooks everything starts with Brooks himself. Melton, Anderson, Jackson...the answer really is irrelevant if Dillon is not able to control his own game and be more impactful offensively. Perhaps he really is that dependent on Jaren Jackson Jr. and to a lesser extent Brandon Clarke - but considering the fact that Jaren and Dillon have a net rating of -1.8 together in over 1,000 minutes played per, that probably isn’t the case.

Because of the absence of consistent shooting in the three main wings for Memphis (25.3% from three for Kyle Anderson, 31.9% for Josh Jackson, 31.6% for De’Anthony Melton) moving Dillon to a reserve role - which perhaps is best for him and the Grizzlies in the future - currently isn’t an option for the sake of spacing. Brooks must find his shot as a starter. He must stay on the floor and not foul. He must allow for those around him to get their looks when they come and not force offense. Dillon has to let Josh and De’Anthony run and set up in the corner for drive and kick opportunities, he must feed of of Kyle’s facilitation. He must not have a -31 net rating at any point, as he has had in Grizzlies losses so far this season.

His confidence is why he is where he is as an NBA player, why he had the success he did at Oregon. But the irrational-at- times chucking has led to some bad habits. This isn’t the PAC-12, or a feel-good rookie story during a failed season. This will be the most meaningful basketball Brooks has played in years, and perhaps ever.

Regardless of who is by his side, when it comes to being what Memphis needs him to be the answer to who Dillon Brooks should start with is himself.

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