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The Grizzlies starting five of the future

The Grizzlies can have an eye on the future, while continuing on the playoff track, by making a big change to the fully-healthy starting lineup.

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Golden State Warriors v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

As the Memphis Grizzlies are out of action, we’re going to be closer (in terms of games) to the return of Jaren Jackson Jr. Adding him back to the mix raises this team’s potential, as there aren’t many big man in today’s game with his size, 3-point shooting, ball-handling, or defensive prowess.

When he does return, there will be a change to the starting lineup... or technically a revert to the original starting lineup. It seems like a lock that Coach Jenkins will go with Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas back to the 4 and 5. But should he though?

[Quick tid-bit before I unload a bunch of stats here. I generated all the lineup data to include the lineups that did not have Jae Crowder, Solomon Hill, or Marko Guduric. Those lineups were worse, and the Grizzlies don’t have anyone in the rotation with that skillset/production level].

Last season, in 458 possessions with Jackson and Valanciunas together, the Memphis Grizzlies’ opponents outscored them by 14.3 points per 100 possessions — per Cleaning the Glass. Though they are arguably the two most productive big men on the team, it may not work simply because of the modern NBA. Jackson is a modern big that creates spacing but also needs spacing to maximize his superb footwork and evolving live-dribble game. Meanwhile, Jonas is an old-school, bully-ball center that needs low post touches offensively and needs to be close to the rim defensively. Valanciunas’ weaknesses as a switch defender prevents the team from generating turnovers.

Offensively, the poor spacing yields inefficient offense (1st percentile in points per 100 possessions, 94.8, per Cleaning the Glass), as is evident below.

Though that 14.3 threshold isn’t a tough one to clear, the Grizzlies were better when they staggered their minutes.

In minutes where Jackson was on the floor without Valanciunas (594 possessions), the Grizzlies outscored their opponents by a whopping 15.4 points per 100 possessions. Meanwhile, when Valanciunas was playing without Jackson last season (1245 possessions), Memphis outscored their opponents by 5.4 points per 100 possessions.

The not-so-hard-to-decipher analysis is that the Grizzlies should alter the starting lineup when Jackson returns. It’ll ultimately be beneficially for the team’s development and production. It maximizes the production of their 2 steadiest big man, while having an eye on the future.

The question is, what will the winning combination be? And how could they make way with Jaren Jackson Jr. playing the 5 spot?

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Ashley Landis - Pool/Getty Images

Finding Jaren’s new frontcourt buddy

There are 3 candidates to man the extra frontcourt spot next to Jaren Jackson Jr. — Brandon Clarke, Kyle Anderson, and Xavier Tillman. Though we don’t have any data on Tillman and Jackson’s fit at the NBA level, we know what lineups look like with either Anderson or Clarke next to Jaren...and it’s very nice.

Clarke and Anderson at the 4 w/ Jaren Jackson Jr.

Scenario Point Differential (per 100 possessions) Number of Possessions
Scenario Point Differential (per 100 possessions) Number of Possessions
J. Jackson/B.Clarke ON 15.7 528
J.Jackson/K.Anderson ON, J.Valanciunas/B.Clarke OFF 32.5 45
Clarke and Anderson at the 4 w/ Jaren Jackson Jr. Cleaning the Glass

Just to get out of the way, Xavier Tillman and Jaren Jackson Jr. would be a solid frontcourt pairing. It keeps Jackson at the 4, and he’d be paired with a playmaking big man that can also defend in space. While it could eventually become the long-term solution (as Sports 56’s Anthony Sain regularly advocates), it brings another problem to the fold — the Clarke and Valanciunas pairing, who faced a point differential of -5.0 last season and -4.1 in this one. So let’s hold tight on this for now.

Kyle Anderson is best fit to play the 4, and our Site Manager Joe Mullinax has been a huge proponent of starting Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Justise Winslow, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. together. It’s a marvelous lineup. Winslow, Jackson, and Brooks give Morant driving space — and now Anderson can space the floor a bit. Anderson, who averages 7.2 rebounds, gives Jackson help on the glass too. The problem though? Coach Jenkins has been adamant about having a 10-man rotation this season, and this lineup probably shoves Tillman out of the rotation, as Clarke and Valanciunas would take the 4 and 5 off the bench.

So that leads me to my favorite solution...starting Brandon Clarke next to Jaren Jackson Jr.

For the longest time, the Clarke-Jackson pairing was the endgame. Clarke starting wasn’t a matter of if, it was a when. Clarke’s production as a starter (2.3 points and 3.3 rebounds in 15.5 minutes per game, 4 games - left early for injury in 2) and comfort level as a 6th man led lots of us to believe that his future role is “super sub” big man, a la Montrezl Harrell. His move to the starting lineup this season though draws more optimism that he can be a long-term starter. In 9 games in the starting lineup, Clarke is averaging 14.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists, and 1.3 steals in 31.1 minutes per game.

Now can he start next to Jaren Jackson Jr.? The numbers and eye-test are convincing.

Lineups with Clarke and Jackson at the 4 and 5 are awesome, because of their two-way versatility. Their defensive switch-ability forces them to generate turnovers, as their opponents turn the ball over 17% of their possessions (94th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) in these lineups. Offensively, the spacing and perimeter creation yield high production (123.3 points per 100 possessions). Those against this idea — more particularly Jackson playing the 5 — will point to rebounding, the Clarke/Jackson lineups are in the 87th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage (23.0%), per Cleaning the Glass.

At the moment, Brandon Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas are essentially on the same level when it comes to the threat of the jumper, in terms of percentage (25.9 and 28.6) and rate (.167 and .111). However, Clarke is quicker off the dribble, and he’s starting to create his own shot from the perimeter.

This duo also gives Taylor Jenkins different sets to roll out. They can run Ja Morant pick-and-rolls with Clarke rolling and Jackson fading. They can float Clarke to the perimeter, while Jackson takes a mismatch in the post — or vice versa. And the most intriguing ...

Just imagine for a moment...Ja Morant drives to the basket. He has Jaren Jackson, Dillon Brooks, and Desmond Bane waiting for the kick, while Brandon Clarke is in the dunker’s spot. It’s a virtually un-guardable set.

If Coach does elect to go with a starting 5 with Jaren Jackson at the 5, he should test out Clarke as the 4. It could ultimately be a decision that sets the tone for the next great Grizzlies team.

Memphis Grizzlies v Minnesota Timberwolves Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Jonas Valanciunas - 6th man bucket-getter

When I suggest this, I’m not saying they need to be phasing Jonas Valanciunas out of the plans. I’m actually suggesting the opposite. Moving Valanciunas to the bench gives the Grizzlies a pure go-to scoring option in the second unit, and it’d put him in scenarios where he can be fed more pick-and-roll’s and more post-ups.

And he’d be doing this against 2nd unit big men. Through sports-reference’s Stathead database, some of the Western Conference big men that have started fewer than 5 games this season are Montrezl Harrell, Enes Kanter, Mike Muscala, and Kevon Looney. That’s vastly different than Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Deandre Ayton, Steven Adams, and Marc Gasol. It’s not that he can’t go up against the NBA’s elite, or starting, centers — he can — but he’d be put back in a situation where he can be a focal point of the offense against more inferior talent.

Who do they need to have next to Valanciunas at the 4? Here’s how Valanciunas paired with the Grizzlies’ frontcourt players not named Jaren Jackson this year and last.

Jonas Valanciunas Pairings

Scenario Season Point Differential (per 100 possesssions) Number of Possessions
Scenario Season Point Differential (per 100 possesssions) Number of Possessions
J.Valanciunas/K.Anderson ON, B.Clarke OFF 20/21 10.2 235
J.Valanciunas/K.Anderson ON, B.Clarke, J.Jackson OFF 19/20 7.6 661
J.Valanciunas/B.Clarke ON, K.Anderson OFF 20/21 0.7 147
J.Valanciunas/B.Clarke ON, K.Anderson/J.Jackson OFF 19/20 -1.2 139
J.Valanciunas/B.Clarke/K.Anderson ON 20/21 -7 243
J.Valanciunas/B.Clarke/K.Anderson ON 19/20 -8.1 255
Jonas Valanciunas Pairings Cleaning the Glass

The obvious fit is with Kyle Anderson, who’s a deft playmaker that can find Valanciunas in the low post, but also join forces with him to dominate the glass. The problem here is, it shoves Xavier Tillman out of the rotation. So Coach Jenkins has some opportunity costs:

  • Pair Anderson with Valanciunas at the 4 and 5, add another perimeter threat at the 3 (Desmond Bane), and sit Xavier Tillman
  • Pair Tillman with Valanciunas at the 4 and 5, and make the super tough call of choosing 1 of Grayson Allen, Desmond Bane, and De’Anthony Melton for the backup 2 spot.

It would be a tough pill to swallow to halt Tillman’s development by pushing him to the bench. They could try to run Valanciunas and Tillman together. It’s a minuscule sample size (15 possessions), but the Grizzlies outscored opponents by 20.8 points per 100 possessions when they shared the floor together.

Though both aren’t prolific floor-spacers, it can work offensively. They could slow things down a bit and run some high-low with Tillman around the top of the key and Valanciunas in the low post. Tillman has potential as a shooter, as evident in the pre-draft process, so they can try to get him set for corner jumpers to instill confidence in him from the perimeter.

Moving Jonas Valanciunas would give them a pure bucket-getter off the bench, and with the depth of this roster, they can test different lineups to find the winning one.

2020-21 Memphis Grizzlies Content Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

None of this is moving Jonas Valanciunas away, or rushing Jaren Jackson Jr. into playing the 5. It’s also a winning combination, in terms of the numbers. In a season of “data collection,” it makes sense to test out the existing data on a larger scale to see if it’s a long-term building plan.

This move allows for Valanciunas to maintain value as one of the best per-minute contributors in the league. It also gives the Grizzlies an opportunity to see where they want to go with Jaren Jackson Jr., and who they want starting next to him long-term...whether it’s Brandon Clarke, Xavier Tillman, or even Kyle Anderson.

The Memphis Grizzlies are at a fascinating spot where they can invest in their young talent and give them valuable game reps, while also still being in the thick of things for the playoffs. Staggering Jaren Jackson Jr. and Jonas Valanciunas’ minutes, while tweaking the starting lineups, accomplishes just that.

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