Though there was plenty of individual prosperity for Memphis during the 2019-2020 season, the chemistry and cohesion among different units of the Grizzlies was also consistent and valuable. While the front office and coaching staff deserves plenty of praise, the unity on the roster and the effort to work together was clear from day one. The Grizzlies starting lineup developed nicely as the season progressed, and certainly contains the most important talents for Memphis’s future in Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr. Yet the Grizzlies bench was the most advantageous part of their roster.
The legitimacy of that advantage only grew as the season unfolded. While the unexpected emergence of this unit was certainly welcome during the 2019-2020 season, the most exciting aspect is that many of its most important members are under contract for multiple years into the future. Though some familiar names may leave as some new names arrive, the biggest reasons as to why the Grizzlies bench as become one of the best in the NBA are here for the foreseeable future.
Of course, the significance and importance of this unit has been known for a while.
But what makes them so good?
How could they improve?
What type of talents could make the bench even deeper and more dangerous?
Let’s take a look!
WHAT MAKES THE GRIZZLIES RESERVES SO GOOD?
Efficiency and chemistry lead to consistency!
Obviously, the most talented lineups for Memphis are playing when Morant and Jackson Jr. are on the court. However, their most advantageous lineups this season occured when multiple members of the Grizzlies bench were on the floor together. For instance, when considering all of Memphis’s three-man lineups that played more than 100 minutes together this season, nine of the ten combinations that produced the highest NET ratings for the Grizzlies included two or more reserves. This remains true when the perspective expands to four-man lineups, as the two units with the best NET ratings for any combination that played 100 or more minutes contain three or more reserves.
The reason why names such as Tyus Jones, Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and De’Anthony Melton are frequently present in the Grizzlies’ most productive lineups is how well they compliment each other, specifically Jones and Clarke on offense and Melton and Anderson on defense. Through March 11th (when the bench was mostly at full health) on a per game basis, the Grizzlies bench led all NBA benches in FG%, assists per game, steals per game, and were fifth in fewest fouls per game. Though plenty of names were relevant to the reliability of the Grizzlies reserves, these four players were arguably the biggest contributors throughout the season.
The historic efficiency in Jones’ passing and Clarke’s scoring were a major reason for the elite offensive numbers. The elite defensive playmaking ability of Melton and Anderson helped the bench create turnovers. The immediate and ironclad chemistry of these four players and the rest of the Grizzlies bench allowed them to stay disciplined and not beat themselves through excessive fouls and mistakes. Though other teams may feature more prominent individual talents off their benches, plenty of statistical evidence supports the idea that when three or more of these names were on the court together, Memphis featured one of, and arguably, at times, the best, second unit in the NBA.
HOW COULD THEY BE BETTER?
Obviously, there are plenty of things that the Grizzlies bench does well. If they simply continued to do those things, it will likely remain among the best benches in the NBA. However, there are a few areas where the Grizzlies bench could certainly get better. The main area of improvement has been one of the most consistent themes for this franchise for over a decade, and certainly is true regarding the reserves: reliable shooting from distance.
Clarke obviously does his job quite well with his shot selection and scoring ability around the basket. Though he does not do it often, Jones has shown some decent scoring ability himself, those his clear preference is to shoot near the basket and in the paint. Neither Melton nor Anderson are talented scorers, though Melton has shown some potential in transition, and Anderson can use his intelligence to find looks in the close to the rim. Other players, such as Grayson Allen and Gorgui Dieng, showed improved scoring rates this year compared to previous seasons.
However, overall the overwhelming majority of the bench’s success scoring was inside the arc and the paint. Among NBA benches, the Grizzlies were 21st in 3PFG attempted per game and 21st in 3PFG%. This should not be surprising, as considering the names listed above none of them have shown any consistency at creating their own shot from distance in their careers. Considering 14 of the 16 teams that made the NBA Playoffs this season had more productive three point shooting from their benches compared to the Grizzlies, immediate improvement in this area should be a priority.
Fortunately, there is hope that the Grizzlies can find that immediate improvement internally. Beyond their bench, the Grizzlies current roster does not offer a lot of reliability when it comes to individual players creating their own shots. However, their are some players who have shown they could be reliable through strategy and schemes.
Clarke, Jones, and Allen each shot 37.5% or better from beyond the arc in catch and shoot opportunities. Each of them had more than 60 attempts, and while that is not a huge sample size, this trio collectively can generate shooting success from distance. This is especially true in the case of Allen.
Though he was out a significant portion of the season, Allen was healthy once the NBA Bubble began. His role unexpectedly yet significantly grew once Jones suffered a season ending knee injury. However, Allen made the most of his opportunity as he emerged as one of the bench players in the bubble as the regular season closed, mainly due to his shooting. Overall, Allen shot 50.7% from the field and 48% from three. He also was 21 of 41 on catch and shoot opportunities from three. Though the small sample games and opportunities should keep the significance of these stats in context, Allen showed he could be a reliable outside scoring option against talented opposition.
A strength of this Grizzlies roster as a whole is productivity in the paint and passing. If the reserves can find success in the lane, much like the starters, it would force the defense to collapse to defend the paint. As a result, Memphis could then use its intelligent passing skills to find shooters on the outside in catch and shoot situations. This would hopefully result in reliable shooting from distance being added as a trait of the Memphis bench. With Jones, Clarke, and Allen, the Grizzlies can implement this concept consistently, and have a very talented trio to build around in their reserves.
On an individual level, all of these names have weaknesses and areas they need to improve. Clarke and Jones need to improve their confidence and ability to shoot from distance, while Jones and Allen are still works in progress on defense. Melton and Anderson can make a difference on defense, but are highly limited on offense. Yet while they each have their flaws, a potential second unit lineup of Jones, Melton, Allen, Anderson, and Clarke could easily use their strengths to minimize their weaknesses on both ends of the court. This is why the chemistry that has developed among the Grizzlies bench offers hope and encouragement that the unit could certainly become even better in time.
ROSTER PREFERENCES GOING FORWARD
Clarke, Jones, Anderson, Melton, Allen, Dieng, and Josh Jackson were the most relevant reserves used by the Grizzlies this season. The Grizzlies have multiple years of control with Clarke, Jones, and Allen. Jackson is likely gone due to the limited ability for Memphis to retain him and his decreased role in the Bubble. Melton is a restricted free agent, and though the Grizzlies would like him back, several scenarios could eventually play out. Dieng is under contract for one more year, and Anderson is signed for two more years. However, logic suggests due to odd fits and decreased roles in Taylor Jenkins’s system, both veterans could have more value has potential trade pieces.
As was clearly shown above, retaining Anderson and Melton would be a positive turn of events for Memphis. However, their skill sets as players are not the best fits for what Jenkins wants to run as a coach. Jenkins wants a system that is based on a fast pace, spacing the floor, and featuring the three. The defensive value that both Melton and Anderson provided this season to the bench was certainly important; however, finding players who can add shooting value is and should be the preference for the Grizzlies roster as a whole.
If Melton and/or Anderson were to find new homes this offseason, a player with a track record of decent to above average shooting ability from distance who is not a major liability on defense could be a logical target for Memphis. Adding someone who could create their own shot on occasion would certainly add another element to the overall ability of the Grizzlies bench. Names such as Joe Harris and Jordan Clarkson would be ideal, but they could be out of the Grizzlies’ price range. Other names that could fit include Langston Galloway, Alec Burks, Meyers Leonard, and Bryn Forbes as affordable additions who could expand the abilities of the bench.
Memphis could also focus on finding an addition through the draft, as this front office has already shown how creative they can be in making draft night trades when they drafted Brandon Clarke in 2019. Of course, one other potential option, and perhaps the most ideal route, is moving Dillon Brooks into a sixth man role if Justise Winslow proves to be healthy and the Grizzlies bring in another significant backcourt talent via trade. Regardless of what route Memphis chooses to go, being in the position to simply make an already advantageous situation even better is a luxury the Grizzlies are lucky to have.
The creativity and intelligence of the front office along with the effort and developmental ability of the coaching staff has created some good assets for the Grizzlies to work with going forward. While the overall development of Morant and Jackson Jr. is the most essential element to the Grizzlies’ future success, featuring one of the best benches in the NBA is a great advantage for a contender, and a great source of support for a team on its way to contention. Even if Memphis keeps the majority of their bench in place as it was last season, it certainly has the potential to remain great.
Yet, it is quite encouraging that there are simple and logical ways to make it even better in time.