clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Recreating the Memphis unicorn

New, comments

Let’s Moneyball this problem.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

There is a scene in the film “Moneyball” starring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane in which he unleashes his new-age analytical approach to team construction on unsuspecting baseball lifers. He is in the process of trying to “replace” star players like Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon on a minuscule budget, seemingly caught up in a vicious cycle of finding talent then losing out on them once they hit free agency because they could not spend with the likes of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.

But then he comes across the teaching of Bill James and a disciple of his, Pete Brand. And the game - quite literally - changes forever.

It’s impossible to replace a Giambi or Damon. The key is to find ways to try to, as Pitt puts it, “recreate him in the aggregate” in key statistical areas. That may take three defective players to do. But it is what must be done for the A’s to compete. And compete they do.

How does this connect to the current adversity the Memphis Grizzlies are facing?

Have you ever tried to replace a unicorn?

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s torn meniscus puts a Grizzlies team already struggling mightily further in danger of losing their current playoff position. Jaren has been the best player for Memphis in the NBA’s Orlando bubble - in three games he made 25 of 52 shot attempts (48% overall) and 10 of 28 threes (35.7% from beyond the arc) while also blocking five shots. As Grizzlies PR pointed out in their game notes for Memphis’ game against the Utah Jazz on Wednesday, if Jackson had been able to play the rest of the season he would have become the first player in NBA history to make 200+ threes and block 150+ shots in his career before the age of 21. He was four threes short.

He was the only Grizzlies player to score over 20 points in all three seeding games. He averaged 25.3 points per contest. He was their very best two-way basketballer in the bubble.

He’s irreplaceable. So should Coach Taylor Jenkins, Ja Morant, and the entire crew accept their fate and fall out of contention for the postseason?

Of course not. But to survive this unfortunate circumstance and defy the odds one more time in a season already defined by such stands, it can’t be business as usual. They must be willing to find ways to replicate what Jaren provided, especially where he was already either depended upon or elite.

Playing time. Made threes (a little more than 3 a game in the bubble). And blocked shots (about 1.5 in the bubble).

One player cannot get the job done alone. It must be a group effort.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Before we begin, let’s all agree that Ja Morant (exhausted) and Dillon Brooks (being Dillon the Villain) don’t need anymore minutes. Same goes for Anthony Tolliver, who perhaps it can be argued shouldn’t be playing as much as he is. His 10-ish minutes can stay the same, or go to Gorgui Dieng. Deal? Deal.

Jaren was averaging 36 minutes and 41 seconds on the floor for the Grizzlies in Orlando, but that number is inflated a bit due to the overtime loss Memphis suffered at the hands of the Portland Trail Blazers in their bubble opener. The number is actually closer to 34 minutes and 41 seconds...but that is still a considerable chunk of time that must be filled in by other players. And of course it’s not as simple as saying “play Jonas Valanciunas and Brandon Clarke more”. Those two are already struggling with a combination of foul trouble (Jonas) and playing more minutes than usual (Clarke). Increasing their workloads, while naturally part of the solution, isn’t it alone. For the sake of need, say each player gets 4 minutes more each on top of what they’re already averaging adding up to roughly 30 minutes per man. So 8 of Jaren’s 34 have been absorbed - only 26 to go.

For help figuring out the other 26, we start with successful lineup members alongside the new (and temporary) Big Three of Clarke, Valanciunas, and Ja Morant, and figuring out who should start. Per Cleaning the Glass, the “easy” thing to do - sliding Brandon in to the starting power forward position and moving along with Morant/Dillon Brooks/Kyle Anderson/Valanciunas - would not be the right way to begin games. In 47 possessions on the floor together - all these numbers will be with the “sample size” grain of salt given how much Jaren has played - they are a -21.2 in points scored per 100 possessions this season. They post a miserable effective field goal percentage of 38.9% and an abysmal 80.9 points per 100 possessions.

For an offense already struggling, this may be the worst thing to do.

If you really want continuity in the starting lineup but think Brandon needs to start, the next likeliest player to slide to being a reserve is Kyle Anderson. He’s already the current sort-of backup point guard a chunk of the time anyway - perhaps sliding him to the bench and replacing him with another wing could be the answer. That would mean Dillon Brooks at 6’7” being the “small forward” and more than likely one of De’Anthony Melton or even Grayson Allen starting at the 2 guard.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Believe it or not, the lineup of De’Anthony alongside Ja/Dillon/Brandon/Jonas has not occurred more than 15 possessions according to Cleaning the Glass. NBA.com/stats has them sharing the floor for 1.1 minutes per game over 5 games - so this likely is indeed accurate. The extremely small sample creates an issue in terms of understanding capabilities, but there are reasons to be optimistic involving the defensive potential especially. While they’ve played together a bit more, the Ja/Grayson/Dillon/Brandon/Jonas hasn’t played all that long either (4 games, 2.2 minutes per game). But both are net positives (+.8 for Melton, +2 for Allen) and with Allen among the other four the Grizzlies are a +50 per 100 possessions.

Again, these are largely projections. The reps simply aren’t there, because without Jaren Jackson Jr. the lineups aren’t as frequently used between reserves and the combinations they can make with the starters. If you’re interested in lineups that have played together more, you’d have to look beyond Brandon as a starter and find Kyle starting at power forward - the way they lined up with most recently when they were without Justise Winslow (as they still are) in addition to Grayson, Jaren, and Brandon. That’d mean keeping Clarke in his current role as a force against reserve units in more minutes played and a potential starting lineup of Morant/Melton/Brooks/Anderson/Valanciunas (275 possessions together per Cleaning the Glass) which would be sound defensively.

  • 86th percentile in the NBA in defensive effective field goal percentage (47.7%)
  • 79th percentile in opponents point per 100 possessions (100.4)

This lineup also surprisingly shot almost 40% from three and is in the 92nd percentile in offensive rebounding, meaning more scoring opportunities for an offense that desperately needs them. This group was +2.3 per 100 possessions and provides a nice balance of defensive acumen with the ability to facilitate and create on and off the ball.

It didn’t equate to a ton of wins - this group’s starting five most recently lost games like 140-112 to the Houston Rockets and 121-96 to the Dallas Mavericks. They also, however, blew out the Atlanta Hawks twice and also beat the Brooklyn Nets and Los Angeles Lakers. They were 4-4 in 8 games starting together, and keep in mind - that was without Jaren, Brandon, and Grayson. This was also before the Kyle Anderson three point shot improvements, which would only help with spacing problems that may have existed in February and March. The fact they spent so much time together and Grayson did not get such an opportunity (2 games, 2.6 minutes per game on average) may mean Coach Jenkins sides with the group that is more familiar with one another.

Brandon Clarke has only started three games all season long. Grayson Allen has started zero. Kyle Anderson has started 23, and De’Anthony Melton has started eight (those last eight before the season was suspended). Comfort and experience wherever it can be found must be prioritized, and besides - a second unit anchored by Allen on the perimeter and Clarke down low can have some success against other benches. Anderson or Melton can be subbed out early in the rotation, leaving whoever remains in the game to be the “point guard” until the other reenters and relieves him.

Both Melton (20 minutes per game in the bubble) and Allen (26 minutes per game) will see increases in their playing time in the wake of Jackson Jr.’s injury. It also stands to reason that Kyle Anderson (who has spent 62% of his time with the Grizzlies this year at the “four” according to basketball-reference.com) will eat some of the positional time there in Jaren’s absence whether he starts or not. With Melton starting, let’s add eight minutes to his ideal run (not accounting for potential foul trouble, same with everyone else) and keep Grayson’s roughly the same given his injury issues, increasing it by only two. Kyle Anderson is averaging roughly 23 minutes per game in the bubble, but 28 or so lines up with other positions like Allen and Melton in that key starter/reserve window. So five more minutes for Kyle, eight for Melton, two for Grayson makes for 15.

15 minutes plus 8 from Clarke and Valanciunas means 23 down, 11 to go.

Memphis Grizzlies v Los Angeles Clippers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Those 11 (and likely a little more, perhaps split between Melton and Anderson given their current “backup point guard” duties) will eventually go to Tyus Jones, plus a few of Ja Morant’s current 39 minutes per game. But that doesn’t help Memphis against Utah, and given the current state of things can you confidently say that Tyus will be back for the Thunder on Friday and beyond? The contingency plan - and current best option - should be going with the remaining Grizzly on the bench who best amplifies Ja Morant and thrives in transition, where Memphis is best offensively.

That player is Josh Jackson. He has clearly fallen out of favor with Coach Jenkins and hasn’t been great in the bubble, but before the season was suspended he showed he was at least elite when on the run. He could create opportunities off turnovers and rebounds, pushing the pace and forcing defenses to struggle getting back in to sets on that end of the floor. But five minutes against the Spurs and an inexplicable Did Not Play - Coach’s Decision against NOLA do not allow Josh to get in to a rhythm. His struggles in Orlando are real, but so are the issues with Melton and Brooks, and yet they receive numerous opportunities.

They’ve earned them from previous play. But Josh did some great things prior to the world turned upside down and has the capacity to strengthen the team’s chances to get in to transition. Apply the credit he should’ve earned there towards a shot at real minutes against a Jazz team that doesn’t want to run (24th in the NBA in pace according to basketball-reference.com). The same is true of the Thunder as well (25th in pace), the Grizzlies opponent on Friday. Until Tyus returns, a 10 man rotation with 12 or so minutes for Josh alongside the likes Ja, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, and perhaps Grayson Allen could be a sufficient shock to the offensive system of Memphis.


So the minutes are divided. And in the process, we’ve come to the conclusion that the starting lineup should be Morant, Melton, Brooks, Anderson, Valanciunas. They have experience, they showed signs of success without Clarke and Allen being available off the bench, and provide Ja chances to be a scorer off the ball more with two facilitators in Melton and Anderson and can help defensively with what Jaren does so well on the perimeter. Brandon and Grayson lead the reserves, and of course just because Anderson and Melton start games doesn’t mean they have to finish them. We’ve also added to the workloads of everyone already in the rotation not named Ja, Dillon, or Anthony, and welcomed back Josh Jackson to the rotation - at least until Tyus Jones returns (if he eventually does).

Almost 2,000 words, and one goal is accomplished. What about those three three pointers and the 1.5 blocks from Jaren? Fortunately, in the time added above - and with a progression to the mean in areas - those particular voids could be mostly filled.

Beyond the arc? Ja Morant has shot 33.5% from three this season, bubble games included. In Orlando specifically he has shot 2-19, or 10.5%. If Ja just gets that up to 25% against the Jazz and beyond, on an average of six attempts per game he will make one more three on average. And if you’ve made it this far, chances are you’re familiar with the issues Dillon Brooks has faced in Orlando. 21.7% from beyond the arc on almost 8 attempts per game is miserable, and over over 14% worse than his season average. A Dillon improvement to just 32%, still below his average but obviously better from three on such attempts, would add yet another three to the team’s ledger. From there, all it would take is one more make from an Anthony Tolliver, Josh Jackson, or De’Anthony Melton (who is also shooting more than 15% worse from range than normal) and you’ve done it.

Three additional threes without any dramatic shift in scheme, and that could improve even more if some of the eight or so attempts Jaren would’ve taken get shot by Brandon Clarke or Jonas Valanciunas (37.5% and 36.1% from three, respectfully.) Getting feet set on off ball screens before shooting and allowing for rhythm to be established through tempo likely are all that is needed. You can also get to these points the old fashioned way - more slashing and attacking the rim off the ball for Morant and others means more contact at the basket, more attempts for and-one buckets.

In terms of rejections? According to Cleaning the Glass, Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas are above average shot blockers, being in the 61st and 63rd percentile in the NBA in block percentage. De’Anthony Melton is in the 86th percentile, making him near elite. Josh Jackson is above average (63rd percentile), and Kyle Anderson (83rd percentile) is comparable to Melton. Even Dillon Brooks (57th percentile) can combine his on-ball prowess with an extra block from time to time. Attention to this style of defense can be a coaching priority - not just in terms of blocked shots, but with regard to increasing on-ball pressure full court and creating deflections in passing lanes through more aggressive and calculated risk attacking opposing offenses. But across these six players in particular, an extra block or so can surely be added as minutes get increased for most of them.

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

The Grizzlies are going to miss Jaren Jackson Jr. immensely. The numbers and your eyes don’t deceive you - he’s been the best Memphis player in in the NBA’s bubble, and for now he’s gone. They will miss his improved ball handling skills and ability to finish at the rim. They will of course be lacking his shooting acumen and defensive versatility - his ability to switch and defend wings and other perimeter players at times is extremely important beyond his shot blocking. Perhaps most of all, though, they’ll long for the steadying presence on the floor he has provided. He has grown as a leader - one that the Grizzlies have sorely needed. His absence will be felt there more than anyone will probably ever know.

But the games go on. The ball still bounces. And whether it is willingly in free agency or by a bad break via injury, finding ways to recreate the tangible productivity Jaren Jackson Jr. provides will be the difference between the Grizzlies overcoming their latest bout with adversity to stay in the play-in picture or utterly collapsing under the weight of all Jackson did for this team. No one member of this roster can magically become a 6’11” Klay Thompson with a better handle. That’s why Jaren is a unicorn - he’s rare. They must combine their efforts and remake Jaren’s impact in their collective image.

Coach Jenkins has his hands full. It all must lead to a new direction - one that will attempt to solve an unresolvable riddle. How do you replace the most unique young player in the NBA? You don’t decipher - you adapt. You don’t retreat - you recreate what Jaren did best as best you can. You depend on the likes of Morant, Brooks, and Melton to be more efficient from three. You look to more free throw opportunities after attacking the paint. You get more aggressive defensively in terms of pressuring ball handlers.

You endure...and much like Beane’s Oakland A’s or Jaren Jackson Jr. as a personification of the NBA big man, you evolve.

For more Grizzlies talk, subscribe to the Grizzly Bear Blues podcast network on Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, and IHeart. Follow Grizzly Bear Blues on Twitter and Instagram.