When the Memphis Grizzlies announced that they would be without Ja Morant for 3-5 weeks due to a sprained ankle, it was easy to write this team off. After already being down Jaren Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow, and others at any given point, it felt natural to go to YouTube and look up Cade Cunningham and Jalen Suggs highlights. After all, as has been stated numerous times, this is the last Grizzlies season without real expectations. The playoffs (or even a play-in) would be a terrific experience for such a young team. A high Lottery pick opportunity to add even more talent to this core would be a wonderful asset to have in your pocket. It’s literally win-win...for one more year.
But apparently no one told the remaining Grizzlies, who have Memphis at 3-4 without Ja Morant (they were 1-2 with him) and still very much in the play-in conversation 10 games in to the 72-game campaign.
When the Memphis Grizzlies walked off the floor victorious last night over the Cleveland Cavaliers, it was easy to say that Memphis knocked off a weaker/less deep team that should’ve fallen victim to Dillon Brooks and company, regardless of health circumstances. But even with those injury issues Cleveland is/was ranked ahead of the Grizzlies on various Power Rankings lists entering today’s game, and the Cavaliers were the home team after beating Memphis in their place just days prior. It was no guarantee these Grizzlies would beat Cleveland - or a 2-3 Hornets team that was at full strength, or a Brooklyn Nets team that is good even without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant - and yet they were able to do just that, and because of those efforts whenever Morant and company come back the road to the playoffs won’t be as difficult to navigate (as of now).
How is this team doing it?
A throwback that Grizzlies past can appreciate
Playing fast is still a priority - Memphis players like Dillon Brooks talk about playing with pace wherever possible - but there’s no denying that to this point the Grizzlies aren’t executing offense quite as quickly as they did last season. Their 100.8 pace number entering Monday’s Cleveland game was good for 14th in the NBA (they were at 102.8 last year, good for 6th in the Association per basketball-reference.com), and it’s safe to say the 101-91 victory over the Cavaliers didn’t bump that number up too high. But the losing score...91...that number is indicative of a larger trend that helps explain just how the formerly high-flying Memphis team has helped negate the loss of an elite transition weapon like Ja Morant.
Before Monday’s games the Memphis Grizzlies were 10th in the entire NBA in defensive rating. They were shockingly 5th in the league in fewest fouls committed per game. They were in the top two in steals (9.6, they snagged 10 against Cleveland on Monday so that ranking will stand). Per Cleaning the Glass, after the game with the Cavs Memphis jumped up to fourth in terms of defensive rating (107) while ranking 4th in turnover percentage (16.5%) and 9th in free throw rate (17.7). The team has committed to playing defense as a unit in much the same way that they speak of offensive selflessness. Both on the ball and within team scheme, the Grizzlies are moving well and communicating effectively.
From players deflecting and disrupting passing lanes and ball hand offs like Tyus Jones (1st in the NBA among point guards in foul percentage, 94th percentile in steal percentage at 2.4%) and Dillon Brooks (91st percentile in steal percentage among wings) to dominating the glass like Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas (1st in the entire NBA among forwards at 19.4% defensive rebounding and 2nd in the entire NBA among bigs at 30.2%), the starting lineup’s most veteran players are leading the way when it comes to limiting opposing offensive chances (1st in the NBA in second chance points for opponents in only nine) and creating opportunities in transition where possible.
In a way, it’s a throwback to the Grit and Grind days. And that makes sense - Memphis needs to win games however possible right now just to stay afloat with so much talent out. Defense can translate and travel regardless of physical ability on most nights - it’s about effort and execution. And that is something that, even with the role players, the Grizzlies can build upon and compete with.
An emphasis on the collective offensively
No one will mistake this Grizzlies team as currently constructed for an offensive juggernaut. They currently rank 28th in the NBA in effective field goal percentage according to Cleaning the Glass at 49.9% - that is a Tony Allen era-esque number. They’re 29th in halfcourt scoring and if it wasn’t for playing in transition (6th in point added in transition) they’d be dead last overall in the entire Association. When lacking a set go-to offensive player (no offense Dillon Brooks) that makes sense - at least two of the current Grizzlies starters (if not three) should be reserves. Forcing things is necessary when your spot in the lineup is out of your control as you fill a void left behind due to injury.
But instead of trying to do it alone (usually - again, no offense Dillon Brooks) the Grizzlies remain committed to their stated ideal of playing unselfish basketball and making smart passes/decisions with the rock. It shows in their 6th in the NBA in team assists number (26.2). It also is clear when you look at just how many players scored in double digits over these last seven games without Ja Morant, and who was the leading scorer for the team on that night.
- Loss vs. Boston - 5 in double digits (3 reserves), Jonas Valanciunas
- Win vs. Charlotte - 6 in double digits (2 reserves), Dillon Brooks
- Loss vs. Los Angeles Lakers - 4 in double digits (1 reserve), Kyle Anderson
- Loss vs. Los Angeles Lakers - 5 in double digits (1 reserve), Jonas/Dillon/Gorgui Dieng
- Loss vs. Cleveland Cavaliers - 4 in double digits (0 reserves), Jonas Valanciunas
- Win vs. Brooklyn Nets - 6 in double digits (3 reserves), Dillon Brooks
- Win vs. Cleveland Cavaliers - 4 in double figures (0 reserves), Dillon Brooks
Until last night’s Grizzlies win over Cleveland, there had been a new leading scorer from game to game with no one player repeating with the honor in back to back games (Jonas shared it with Dillon and Gorgui against the Lakers). But in no game since Morant’s injury has Memphis had fewer than four players in double figures, and multiple times they’ve had five or six. There were four such scorers in the season opener against the San Antonio Spurs, and five in the loss to the Atlanta Hawks, but both of those games featured the audaciously awesome Ja Morant.
It hasn’t been as efficient as Coach Jenkins would like. But players have stepped up and picked up their games to try to manage offensively without their star. The likes of Anderson and Jones have helped with that, as has Desmond Bane (leads the team in three point shooting) and the aforementioned Dieng. Jonas and Dillon haven’t been alone.
When Morant went down, Tyus Jones was asked what this increased role meant for him and for the team.
Tyus Jones is here. @fastbreakbreak asked Tyus about excitement about a larger role. Jones says that the approach remains the same - “...you’ve got to be ready for your minutes to be increased...”— Grizzly Bear Blues (@sbnGrizzlies) December 30, 2020
Jones has lived up to that and then some, and embodies what makes the Grizzlies able to do what they’ve done without Ja. In seven games in that larger role, Tyus has shot 47.5% from the field (28.5% from three) with a 6:1 assist to turnover ratio. His teammates and coaches have spoken highly of his defensive effort as a reason for the team’s success in that area of late. He has stepped up when Memphis needed him most...but before he became the starter, he was shooting 33% from the floor (without making a single three in three games) while posting closer to a 2.5:1 assist to turnover ratio. He has used this opportunity to kick start his season...while also helping the team endure while the guy he backs up heals up.
Tyus helps lead a group that, once the team is healthy, will have to get used to being reserves again. They will have to adjust to roles that shift back to what they’re more accustomed to throughout their careers. But in the here and now, they are allowing for that calvary’s potential arrival to mean more than just building chemistry for next year. With two games against a beatable Minnesota Timberwolves team ahead and a home game with the 76ers, it is entirely possible that, entering a Martin Luther King Jr. Day Game with the Phoenix Suns that would make a lot of sense for Ja to return for, the Memphis Grizzlies are at - or even above - .500.
That is a testament to the standard that Zach Kleiman and Taylor Jenkins speak of...and that the players of the Memphis Grizzlies clearly believe in - no matter how it is realized, or who brings it to life.