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Filling in for Dillon Brooks

Dillon Brooks will be missed, but it’s a “next man up” mentality defensively.

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2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies are going to miss Dillon Brooks in general - but especially on this West Coast road trip that starts tomorrow. It sounds crazy to say, given the Grizzlies just won and the guys filling in for him combined for 42 points and 50% (6-12) from 3. They’re specifically going to miss him defensively.

The Grizzlies struggled a little bit Wednesday night on that end, surrendering 121 points to the Cleveland Cavaliers. They let the Cavaliers get to their spots from the point of the attack, as their opposition benefitted off driving and kicking. On this 4-game West Coast road trip, they’ll face even greater challenges — battling the Clippers, Lakers, Trail Blazers, and Warriors.

Though the Grizzlies had their problems against them last season, Dillon Brooks experienced great success defensively in the majority of these matchups. The lone exception is LeBron James — story of his career, am I right — who torched Brooks (14-21 shooting in roughly 18 matchup minutes). Nonetheless, he did a tremendous job against a few of the stars they’re going up against on this trip.

Obviously, Brooks’ defense captured everyone’s attention in the play-in against Steph Curry. He was an absolute menace — avoiding all social distance protocols while defending off the ball, fighting past any screen the Warriors tried to throw, and face-guarding him like he was the only one in the gym. In regular season and play-in action, Brooks held Curry to 9-22 (40.9%) shooting from the field and 4-11 (36.4%) from 3.

Brooks was also tremendous guarding Damian Lillard and Paul George. Dame Time never clocked in, as Lillard was forced to 11-30 (36.7%) shooting from the field — 5-15 (33.3%) from 3. Paul George switched to “Pandemic P” mode against everyone’s favorite villain, shooting 2-12 (16.7%).

More importantly, the team was successful in these games — notching a monster blowout win against the Clippers, two massive wins in Portland, and obviously the play-in game that led to the team’s 1st playoff berth in 4 years.

While Dillon Brooks’ defensive presence can’t be understated and will be missed, there are easy solutions that could ultimately pan out for this road trip.

As Taylor Jenkins always says, it’s a “next man up” mentality with this team.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The first one involves Kyle Anderson and where he fits defensively. I don’t know if Taylor Jenkins will be doing any matchup-based starting lineups — if he didn’t do so for the gigantic frontcourt of Lauri Markkanen, Evan Mobley, and Jarrett Allen, he probably won’t going forward. However, it’s going to be interesting to see how that shifts when the Grizzlies go up against the likes of LeBron James and Paul George.

So if we don’t see any sort of change in the starting lineup, then it could be interesting to see how much time Anderson shifts over to the 3. In Wednesday’s season opener, Anderson played all his minutes over at the 4. And while he’s better fit at the 4, you have to wonder where his minutes align when they’re matched up with the league’s elite on the wings for the time being. Without Brooks, the only wing with a good combination of size and defensive prowess is Kyle Anderson.

If Anderson’s at the 4, and he’s guarding James or George, they’re going to have to be strategic with who’s at the other forward position, since they’ll take the opposing team’s power forward. You could probably roll with Bane against Marcus Morris or Carmelo Anthony. But if Anderson’s on the floor with LeBron and Anthony Davis on the other end, he’ll need to shift down to the 3 alongside Jaren Jackson Jr. That wouldn’t be a bad thing either. Last season, the Grizzlies allowed 107.6 points per 100 possessions (88th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass) when Anderson played the 3 spot.

Regardless of whether they slot him, look for Kyle Anderson to serve as the primary defender on LeBron James and Paul George to fill in his absence. He has great hands defensively, displays impeccable timing on swipes without fouling, and uses his size and wingspan to bother ball-handlers.

Milwaukee Bucks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

This West Coast road trip is a massive growth opportunity for the man making his homecoming to the area — De’Anthony Melton.

The 4th year combo guard is a great point-of-attack defender who has the tools to make any defense fanatic salivate. He has a +6 wingspan (6’2” with a 6’8” wingspan), a good defensive base when keeping up with his man, and great timing on steals. As an off-ball defender, he’s nearly the basketball equivalent of Trevon Diggs of the Dallas Cowboys with his knack for jumping into passing lanes for steals.

Now, he’s going to have probably his biggest defensive challenge of his young career.

As someone who’s not been a frequent starter, he hasn’t been tasked with being the primary defender on the other team’s best perimeter players. Next week in particular could be his moment when the Grizzlies face off against Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard, and their respective teams.

There’s promise for Melton to deliver a solid defensive outing against these players — and it’s an important reminder that your best hope is to contain them.

Last season, offensive players shot 1.8 percent worse with Melton as the nearest defender, and 4.8 worse on 3-pointers. He was also one of 3 players, 6’3” or shorter, to notch a steal percentage of at least 2.0% and a block percentage of at least 1.5%. (Fun fact: the only other players to do this were my 2 favorite statistical Melton comparisons, Fred VanVleet and Jrue Holiday). There’s plenty of evidence that he’s a great defender, and now he’ll enter an important test against two of the greatest guards in the league.

And this moment in particular is important when expanding out into the long-view plans for the Grizzlies — shameless podcast plug. If De’Anthony Melton could end up being Ja Morant’s backcourt partner-in-crime long-term, either in starting or closing situations, he’s going to play big spots defending these elite guards. If he could couple his budding offensive game with pretty good stopper abilities on the league’s elite, that’s an interesting wrinkle to his ceiling.

This road trip will provide a fantastic test for De’Anthony Melton to test the horizons of his defensive game. It could may or may not pay off immediately, but the dividends in the long-run could be big-time.

2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Jeff Swinger/NBAE via Getty Images

Dillon Brooks will be missed on this West Coast road trip, but that doesn’t mean they will be lost without him.

Taylor Jenkins is a good tactician that’s built a formidable defense that generates turnovers and deflections. They have a lot of solid team defenders that help the system still hum. However, they’re entering a big early test on the road against several of the league’s elite talents without their premier defensive stopper.

As they enter this West Coast test Saturday and going over the next week, Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton should get the majority of these reps. Anderson will get to prove he’s another stopper at the Grizzlies’ stopper, and Melton will get the growth opportunity to get these reps against two of the league’s best guards.

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