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Staying alive with the Grizzlies

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Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Things have not gone according to plan for the Memphis Grizzlies since the seeding schedule got under way last week. Whoever said Disney World was the happiest place on Earth was a damn liar - the Grizzlies are 0-4 and have seen their lead in the race for the eight seed shrink to just a half game over the Portland Trail Blazers. Not only have things gone poorly on the court, the mounting injuries have made fans and media alike wonder whether or not Memphis would have been better off not making the trip to the NBA’s Orlando campus as the season resumed. Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. are out for the remainder of the Grizzlies’ stay at Mickey’s house of basketball horrors, and Tyus Jones is being re-evaluated this weekend.

Three key players that would have played large roles in the rotations and schemes of Head Coach Taylor Jenkins. Four losses in, while competitive, tough games where the maturity and mental toughness of the Grizzlies has been tested to mixed results. One exhausted soon-to-be Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant, who has played more minutes in fewer days of rest (the Grizzlies play their fifth game in eight days today against the impressive Oklahoma City Thunder) than at any point in his NBA career. It all adds up to a young team stretched too thin to remain relevant in the pursuit of the playoffs.



Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

No, things aren’t great. The standings are not as promising as they once were, and it’s now probably just as likely that Memphis tumbles out of the playoffs altogether as it is that they stay at the 8 seed. Yet for as well as the Trail Blazers have played - and they’re looking the part of a playoff team right now, unlike the Grizzlies - outside of them (and the Phoenix Suns, who are undefeated in the bubble but had a lot of ground to make up) it is as if no one else wants to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.

The team many thought was most likely to pass the Grizzlies, the Pelicans, are now tied with the Sacramento Kings for last in the race. The lowly Suns have marched up to just two games behind Memphis - and just as likely currently to sneak in as the San Antonio Spurs.

Bubble life is weird.

But even with the Grizzlies in such dire straits, both Phoenix and San Antonio are still two games back with four to play. That would mean, if the Grizzlies go winless in the bubble (sad but possible), both the Spurs and Suns would still have to do some serious work to pass Ja Morant and company.

Since this chart was made, Memphis lost to the Jazz, Portland beat the Nuggets, San Antonio lost to Denver, and Phoenix beat the Pacers. That means that San Antonio would still need to go 3-1, and Phoenix would need to go 3-1, to pass the Grizzlies if Memphis doesn’t win a single game. If one victory gets hung up somehow?

4-0 for the Suns (who Memphis owns the tiebreaker over), 4-0 for the Spurs. Considering the Kings and Pelicans play each other twice in the next week, those two will either cancel each other out going 1-1 in their two games or one team will effectively eliminate the other going 2-0.

See? Not so bad! It just starts with the Grizzlies getting one win of the hottest teams in the bubble (OKC just beat the Lakers by 19) and the top three teams in the Eastern Conference.

That’s...daunting. Yet possible.

Here’s how, beyond hoping the Eastern Conference powers rest their best players.

Let Kyle Anderson help Brandon Clarke and De’Anthony Melton

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

Over the last week the issues with De’Anthony Melton on the ball as the de facto backup point guard and Brandon Clarke as a starter have been discussed. Check out those posts if you haven’t already done so - in short, Melton is much better on the wing as a secondary facilitator and Clarke has been dominant off the bench but hasn’t seen as much success as a starter. Both of those truths remained after the Utah Jazz game - Clarke had an awful run replacing Jaren Jackson Jr., posting his fewest points in the bubble. In fact, Brandon has not been his impactful self since the Blazers game last week where he scored 21 and shot 7 of 8 from both the floor and the charity stripe. He impacted the game across the board - 7 rebounds, 2 blocks and assists, and one steal with only one foul. THAT Brandon Clarke needs to return to Orlando for Memphis to have a chance.

He’s never appeared as a starter. In four games with the starting unit Clarke has only played 20 minutes or more twice (injuries occurred against the Timberwolves and Clippers) and in the two games he played more than 20 minutes he scored a combined 9 points on 4-11 shooting from the floor along with 11 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 2 steals. In over 47 minutes Clarke only scored 9 points. That’s not gonna cut it - when Brandon scores 10 or more points Memphis is 20-16. And in every game he did that, he came off the bench.

He’s comfortable there. He can dominate there. Let him stay there - and preferably around as many “shooters” as possible. Morant/Allen/Brooks/Clarke/Gorgui Dieng, for example, may be the best Memphis can do right now to provide spacing for the Ja/Brandon pick and roll to be most effective.

As for Melton, if Coach Jenkins had read the unicorn piece above he would’ve seen slotting him in to the starting lineup and moving Kyle Anderson to the four would have been a preferable move to the one that he went with. But in fairness to Coach, Melton has been miserable in Orlando. 5-22 from the field (1-11 from three), an awful 4-9 from the charity stripe, and a little better than a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio should lead one to believe that what De’Anthony is being asked to do is detrimental to both him and the team. Kyle Anderson’s assist to turnover ratio is over 5:1 - he’s a much more efficient “point forward” than Melton is a point guard.

So let him do it. And stop making Melton try to be something he’s not.

It’s easy enough to correct within rotations. If you start Melton with Anderson at the 4, when the time comes for the first substitutions Brandon Clarke comes in for Kyle to get him a few minutes of rest - leave in Melton (or sub in Grayson Allen). Want to start the hot-shooting Allen instead of Melton? Fine - getting De’Anthony off the ball matters more than whether he starts or not. Just flip the roles. Regardless, when Morant leaves the game, Anderson comes back in to run the offense. The Grizzlies have enough wings - Melton, Allen, Dillon Brooks, John Konchar, Josh Jackson if he ever gets another chance (he may not) - that Kyle does not have to play as a “3”. He can remain as a generator of offense for others, and Melton can stay on the wing and slash and attack the rim while defending off the ball, and Clarke can mash opposing reserves to get in to a rhythm offensively for closing out games.

Kyle Anderson starting at the 4 and also serving as Ja Morant’s backup is the bridge to getting Melton and Clarke in better positions to contribute at a high level. Kyle’s been inconsistent himself in four seeding games, but at some point you have to push your veterans. And Kyle is one of your veterans. Let him take on the brunt of the work load and focus on what he does well - defend, help others score, and rebound. The game’s scoring chances will come more easily to him that way once he’s able to prioritize others.

Speaking of veterans...

Let Jonas Valanciunas

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Jonas was tied for first on the team in shot attempts with the villainous Dillon Brooks against the Jazz, and he was slightly more efficient than Dillon (8 made shots to Dillon’s 7) while also somewhat hilariously being a better passer in terms of production. Valanciunas had three assists in the game (only one for Brooks) to go with his monstrous 14 boards in yet another double-double, and actually posted a higher defensive rebounding percentage than the dominant Rudy Gobert did (32.9% to 32.5%) according to Where Rudy got the best of Jonas was on the offensive glass - Jonas’ game at times leads to him floating away from the basket a la’ Marc Gasol, whereas Gobert is much more focused of dunks and immediate attempts at the rim.

While Valanciunas is a skilled back to the basket player, he needs to prioritize being in a better spot on the offensive boards to get a struggling offense as many shot attempts as possible. Jonas, according to Cleaning the Glass, is only in the 82nd percentile when it comes to the amount of shots rebounded that his own teammates missed. For comparison, Valanciunas is in the 94th percentile on the defensive glass. His 11.2% offensively is a full point or more worse than the likes of Derrick Favors, Hassan Whiteside, and Ivica Zubac. If those three can do it, Jonas surely can. And every additional take at the rim matters for this Grizzlies team.

Kyle Anderson (79th percentile, 4th among NBA forwards that have played at least 1,000 minutes per Cleaning the Glass) can help on this front, and it is an area of potential growth for Brandon Clarke (45th percentile). Guards like De’Anthony Melton (86th percentile, 8th among combo guards) can also help gather as many offensive rebounds as possible.

Stop sleeping on dribble penetration and shooters

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies three point defense has been rough at points, and Coach Jenkins and players like Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks have mentioned mental lapses and a lack of communication at times. Opposing offenses are averaging 40.6% shooting from beyond the arc on over 33 attempts per game against the Grizzlies in the bubble - that’s about 13.5 made threes a game. On the season overall teams Memphis faced shot 36.6% from three, and while of course the competition in the bubble is indeed better than what the Grizzlies earned part of that percentage through it stands to reason that they’ve run in to some hot hands from three that maybe will balance out some.

Still, they can’t control how the other team takes such shots. Rotations must be much more crisp, and it starts with keeping in front of dribble penetration and being more aware of shooters on the perimeter. It sounds simple - but attention to detail matters.

Anthony Tolliver is on the right of Rudy Gobert in this photo, while Dillon Brooks fronts him. That’s a double team on a center who could get fouled in a pinch and sent to the free throw line where he is a career 63% shooter (although he was essentially Steve Nash in this game from the charity stripe, 11 for 12!). Grayson Allen is also collapsing, leaving some space for a shot with noted Grizzlies killer Joe Ingles. But Mitchell sees the wide open Royce O’Neale - Tolliver’s man - and passes across court to Royce for an easy three.

That’s a relatively easy fix. But the confusion and miscommunication begins with how the pick and roll is being defended. Coach Jenkins has a lot of Coach Budenholzer of the Bucks in him when it comes to defensive schemes. Open threes aren’t always a bad thing, depending on who is taking them. That makes sense - for example, see how opponents are defending the Grizzlies currently, who have had issues from range in the bubble.

But if you want to preach to “know your personnel”, perhaps not leaving a wide open O’Neale (38.5% from three on the season) would be the right call. Or Ingles (39.8%)...but 25 points later, the message once again must have gotten lost.

Six made threes. The last one was a heat check that went in - Kyle Anderson didn’t defend him from long range and Ingles was feeling it. But on the other five one of two things happened - a mental lapse occurred and/or dribble penetration forced the defense to collapse the paint, leaving Ingles wide open.

Count em’ down.

  1. Basic pick and pop that Melton loses a step fighting over trying to stick with Mike Conley. Valanciunas drops, per usual, and isn’t quick enough to get out on the shooter.
  2. Jonas is already defending Donovan Mitchell (again, dribble penetration) and for some reason Kyle Anderson decides he needs help as Mitchell falls away from the basket, leaving Ingles wide open in the corner.
  3. Transition this time, but another occasion where two defenders collapse on one player in the paint and the ball is kicked out to a wide open Ingles.
  4. Another transition opportunity, Kyle Anderson is helping off entirely too much, Ingles uses the space in rhythm and hits.
  5. Kyle Anderson tries to play help defense on Mitchell as Brooks gets caught up in a Gobert screen. Donovan finds Joe. Bang.

#1 has happened all season long and is a schematic flaw (not a judgment - all schemes have flaws). And with Jaren Jackson Jr. - a key cog of this defensive system - out, clearly there were some miscommunications. But in film sessions coaches must point out these deficiencies and the players must then take coaching points and apply them. Kyle especially had issues with Ingles. But in three of the six made threes there was too much helping the helper, and not enough perimeter awareness, because of a ball handler getting in to the paint and stressing the defense at the rim. That’s correctable, and at least closer proximity to better defend these shots can be achieved.

How? Better angles. Improved leverage and verticality on shot attempts. Quicker feet, or in the absence of that a better understanding of the opponent (which side does he dribble to most consistently, which hand does he finish with, etc.). If you’re beat, don’t just reach to send players to the free throw line. Communication of screens and sets as they are recognized. Focus...mental effort counts just as much as physical effort, and in some ways it means more.

And if a guy who shoots 40% from three is your assignment...don’t give him so much room to shoot.

Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t walking through that door. Aside from Tyus Jones (hopefully Sunday) there are no reinforcements arriving. The Memphis Grizzlies are halfway through their seeding slate, and it has gone as poorly as it could have to this point. Their vaunted chemistry and team cohesion is being tested. Coach Jenkins, who is usually very polite and thoughtful with the media, was as testy as he’s ever been in his post-game availability Wednesday - understandably so given the way the bubble has gone for his squad. Dillon Brooks said the team must look themselves in the mirror and find how they can get better. In adversity, individual maturity and will to win shines through. It reveals who knows how to fight for what it takes to be victorious - who knows how to compete, even when the world and odds feel as if they are against them.

There are ways to get out of this hole. They involve offensive rebounding and attacking 50/50 balls and getting key players back in their ideal-as-possible roles. It also entails attention to detail defensively and better helping/hedging to prevent penetration in the paint. But beyond these schematic things, Memphis must rely on one another for energy and efficiency. No one outside of those Memphis folks in the bubble can help them get this right. It’s up to them to keep this wonderful dream-like season alive while growing from the mistakes of the last four games.

We’re not ready for this campaign to end just yet. Hopefully, the Grizzlies prove starting today that they’re not either.

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