A recurring theme in many of the Grizzlies media sessions leading up to the season was many of the players’ specific goals of improving in certain aspects of their individual games. From Brandon Clarke’s ball-handling to Tyus Jones’ shooting to Ja Morant’s desire to be aggressive at all times, despite the short, unprecedented offseason, nearly every player had an area they were intent on getting better at.
For Dillon Brooks, that focus centered on a few areas, including his playmaking. However, perhaps the most profound statement from the entire team regarding areas of development came from Brooks in regard to his defense when he made it clear he wants to be in the All-NBA defensive team conversation. And while his words were certainly sincere, the validity of his statement has become crystal clear through his effort and effectiveness on defense so far this season.
Among players who have played at least nine games this season and averaged 30 or more minutes played, Brooks is currently fifth in terms of individual Defensive Rating (as of Tuesday Night). A few reasons for his early success this season is being aggressive without fouling (four or less fouls in each of his last seven games) and extremely active yet intelligent utilization of his hands. As a result of his consistent efforts, Brooks, among players who have played at least 10 games this season, is currently fifth in the NBA in deflections per game and ranks in the Top 15 in steals per game. Though an individual’s Defensive Rating may be dependent on his team’s ability to defend as a whole, Brooks as certainly played a major role in the defensive success of the Grizzlies so far this season.
Fortunately, this focus on defensive effort and effectiveness does not just include Brooks. It extends across the entire Grizzlies roster in regards to those who currently are active. As Joe Mullinax pointed out Tuesday, Tyus Jones has also improved as a defender. While Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton have maintained their impactful defensive play from last year, others, such as Jonas Valanciunas, have also progressed defensively as they have become more comfortable in Taylor Jenkins’s defensive schemes. The end result is across the board production that certainly is making a growing case that Memphis is currently one of the best defensive teams in the league.
Currently, the Grizzlies’ ranks are as follows in several defensive categories:
Defensive Rating- Sixth
Steals per game: Second
Deflections per game: Second
Turnovers forced per game: Sixth
Fouls committed per game: Fourth
Points allowed per game: Fourth
Several of these categories are due to the improved discipline that Memphis has shown in terms of communicating, staying in position, and limiting fouls. However, the main source of success has been the Grizzlies ability to create disruption and chaos on the perimeter. The fact that Memphis ranks in the top six in the NBA in steals, deflections and turnovers forced is not due only a few players causing havoc each game.
Eight different Grizzlies are averaging 1.5 or more deflections per game (min. five game played), the most of any roster in the NBA.
Memphis has been a nightmare for opposing backcourts this season. Among NBA backcourts, the Grizzlies guards rank first in turnovers forced per game, first in steals per game, second in rebounds per game, and second in blocks per game. While teams have found some success at times shooting against Memphis, the Grizzlies guards have certainly emerged as one of the most opportunistic defensive units in the NBA.
The significance of this identity emerging for the Grizzlies cannot be understated. Obviously, without their best talents for an extended stretch to start the season, Memphis’s playoff chances naturally seemed to take a bit of a hit. However, while a 4-6 record certainly is not ideal ten games into the season, the Grizzlies’ defense is allowing for them to consistently remain competitive and win games that they should. Furthermore, Memphis’s defensive effort is not just consistently preventing their opposition from scoring; perhaps more importantly, it is creating opportunities for the Grizzlies to score as well.
The Grizzlies offense has certainly been very limited since Morant suffered his ankle injury on December 28th. In the three games Morant played, Memphis averaged 115.7 points per game, good for 9th in the NBA at the time. In the seven games that Morant has not played, Memphis has averaged 101.0 points per game, which ranks 27th in the league since December 29th. Without Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr., the offensive upside of the Grizzlies is limited, especially with their struggles creating their own shots and shooting from distance.
Fortunately, Memphis’s ability to convert its stellar defensive efforts into points has allowed the Grizzlies offense to have some sort of consistency to rely on. Memphis currently ranks in the Top Six in the NBA in points off turnovers, second chance points, fast break points, and points in the paint. Though some of these categories are more dependent on turning defense into offense than others, the Grizzlies’ production in each of them is certainly influenced to some degree by their perimeter defense. The ability to gain extra offensive possessions in which they can get looks before the opposing defense is set is due to the chaos they are causing on defense.
Whether it be through steals, turnovers, or long rebounds, the Grizzlies gaining possession of the ball on defense near their opponent’s three point line plays to the strength of their offense. Even without Morant, the Grizzlies still have multiple distributors and finishers who excel in transition and on the fast break. This leads to plenty of good looks in the paint close to the rim. Furthermore, if the first shot does not fall, trailing Grizzlies can have an easier time for a put back since the opposing team is not yet set to challenge for rebounds.
It’s no coincidence that the NBA.com site groups these four stat categories under the title of “miscellaneous”. True to the definition of the word itself when you look it up. the Grizzlies are finding scoring opportunities “of various types or from different sources.” While the source may not always be the same, the Grizzlies are finding various ways to score just enough to be competitive and win. For a team that right now simply is lacking overall offensive talent, this is certainly a welcome and needed development.
It should certainly be noted that these results have come from a sample size of ten games. As the Grizzlies schedule starts to go through stretches of tougher competition, their defensive effectiveness could decline a bit. By that time, the Grizzlies will hopefully have Morant, Jackson Jr., Justise Winslow and others healthy. By the time Memphis’ best talents are back, the defensive success of their depth pieces now will allow Memphis to feature different lineup rotations that can play effective defense for long stretches in each game they play. That is an essential development for a young team like Memphis to continue emerging as a sustainable winner earlier than many expected.
While the Grizzlies certainly made headlines and created highlights through their offensive production several times last season, the key to their postseason aspirations this year and beyond will truly rely on their ability to play defense. Fortunately, their impressive defensive play so far this season is a great compliment to this roster and Taylor Jenkins. It also increases the chances they will continue to exceed expectations going forward.