The Memphis Grizzlies have been phenomenal this preseason. Ja Morant looks ready to put together an All-Star campaign, Jaren Jackson Jr. appears healthy and locked in, and Steven Adams looks like he has been on the team for years. The offense is highly efficient while the defense is highly effective. The end result is a young team that is plenty of fun to watch and is ready to exceed expectations for the third year in a row.
Two other big reasons for the Grizzlies’ success are Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton. Both Bane and Melton are looking to succeed in bigger, more featured roles with Grayson Allen now in Milwaukee. Both players certainly have strengths that can and should be featured in different moments and in different lineups often. However, one of the more newsworthy preseason battles is who could start at the two-guard position next to Ja Morant.
In general, both Bane and Melton are more than deserving to start and/or be in a more featured role. Bane’s incredible shooting prowess and Melton’s “impossible to ignore” two-way impact were highly productive for the Grizzlies last year. This year, Memphis would likely benefit regardless of who starts. However, instead of the word battle, perhaps a better way to label this great situation that the Grizzlies have is “platoon”.
In the case of Bane and Melton, and due to their strengths and the preferences of Taylor Jenkins, an ideal “platoon” could be Bane in the starting lineup and Melton in the closing lineup. Last year is a big indicator as to why starting Bane makes the most sense. The most frequent starter next to Morant last season was Grayson Allen, despite some clear indications that Bane and Melton were more talented. However, Allen provided the consistency as a shooter that Jenkins wanted next to Morant.
When Allen did not start, Bane was the alternative inserted into the starting lineup with the same idea of having a reliable shooting source in mind. Overall, the numbers produced by the Grizzlies starting lineup with Allen or Bane certainly supported Jenkins. In the first half of the 2020-2021 season, the lineup of Morant, Allen, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson and Jonas Valanciunas had the best NET rating(40.5) in the NBA of all 5-man lineups that played 50 or more first quarter minutes together. In the second half of the season, the lineup of Morant, Bane, Brooks, Anderson, and Valanciunas had the 7th best NET rating in the NBA of all 5-man lineups that played 50 or more first quarter minutes together.
Whether it was Allen or Bane, the Grizzlies starting lineup certainly performed better than expected for most of the season. Career seasons from Brooks, Anderson, and Valanciunas certainly were big reasons why. However, the shooting of Bane and Allen were also nice compliments. Both Bane and Allen made over 40% of their first quarter threes. Furthermore, when the Grizzlies were shooting the three well to start games, it typically allowed for them to be in a better position to earn wins.
As the Grizzlies three-point shooting trended up, there was a positive correlation with their record. In January, when the Grizzlies were their most accurate on first quarter threes (40%), they were 7-3. In April and May, when the Grizzlies made more first-quarter threes per game than previous months, they were 16-11. Obviously, with Allen gone, the primary source of this trend hopefully happening again this season will be Bane. However, Melton, who shot over 37% on 70 first quarter attempts himself last year, is a worthy option as well.
The key for Jenkins and the Grizzlies is get off to as hot of a shooting start as possible consistently. With Jackson Jr’s shooting talents back, improvements from Morant and Brooks in the second half of last year, and Bane’s historic accuracy, Memphis may have its best chance to do that for the first time in many years this season. Morant, Bane, Melton, and Jackson Jr. have combined to go 9-22 from three so far this preseason.
While the old adage may suggest that “it’s not how you start but how you finish”, Memphis simply wants to feature lineups that can give them the best success to do both. In the case of the starting lineup, starting Bane certainly brings plenty of logic and statistical support that it can be successful from last year. However, when it comes to closing lineups for the Grizzlies, there is also logic for Memphis to shift its preference from shooting to overall impact.
Last season, it was De’Anthony Melton who clearly produced the biggest impact playing along side Ja Morant when compared to Grayson Allen and Desmond Bane when on the court. Melton’s improved shooting along with his significantly higher defensive impact were a big reason he seemed to be the best compliment of these options when playing alongside Morant.
However, another key reason as to why Melton makes sense in the Grizzlies closing lineup is that he was arguably their best fourth quarter performer last season. Among Grizzlies players that averaged six or more fourth quarter minutes per game in 45 or more games last year, Melton was the only player to produce a positive Net Rating and had the best efG% and TS% on the roster. Further more, he also was sixth in the NBA in 3P% among players with 60 or more three point attempts in the fourth quarter last season. There also were plenty of instances, included sealing a win against Toronto in May and big threes in the playoffs late in games against the Jazz, the showed Melton can be clutch in high leverage situations.
In an ideal world, the information above is a bit of logic behind the idea of starting Bane and closing with Melton. However, the news yesterday that Dillon Brooks will be unavailable to start the season is certainly less than ideal. As a result, the Grizzlies best option appears to simply be starting Bane and Melton with Morant, Jackson Jr. and Adams.
In Dillon Brooks, the Grizzlies are arguably losing their most valuable defender and third, sometimes second, scoring option. Though that skill cannot directly be replaced, the best response for Memphis is to simply feature your next best two-way impact player in Melton. Without Brooks, Melton not only becomes your best perimeter defender, he also becomes your third best shooting option behind Jackson Jr. and Bane. Regardless of the situation, the need to heavily utilize Melton has never been bigger.
Memphis has already seen good initial results by starting Bane and Melton together this preseason. They are a combined 20-46 from three through four games this preseason. Along with Morant and Jackson Jr., as mentioned above, they have been a significant reason why the Grizzlies have got off to a great start in the three games the starters played in. Beyond their good offensive impact, both Bane and Melton have done well within an effective team defensive concept as well.
Beyond stats and strategy, perhaps the biggest reason why it makes sense to start Bane and Melton together until Brooks returns is because it will allow Memphis to have a better opportunity to truly see how Bane and Melton may succeed or struggle in a true featured role. Last year, when the Grizzlies were dealing with injuries to important talents, Grayson Allen stepped into the role and shined. This time, it could be both Bane and Melton who could do the same. And even if the overall outcome for the Grizzlies may be a struggle, Bane and Melton will either succeed in featured roles or they will struggle and be better prepared to succeed in the future.
Without a doubt, Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton are two critical components in the Grizzlies attempt to transition from a rebuilding team to a sustainable winner this season. While both players are clearly apart of the Grizzlies future plans, this season could go a long way in defining their roles in those plans. Last year gave plenty of reason to have confidence in each of their abilities if called upon. This season, that if is certain to change to when called up, and those calls for success are likely to happen early and often this season without Brooks. For the benefit of Bane, Melton, and the Grizzlies, those opportunities may lead to some early season struggles. However, if history repeats itself, those struggles will only make it more likely that Bane and Melton will consistently achieve success in important situations as the season progresses.