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How to address the Grizzlies defensive issues

Hint: Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke are significant parts of the answer.

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NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

For all of his heroics both on Monday night and throughout this season, Ja Morant had an instance of defensive misfortune against the Wolves so terrible that it caused me to open my mouth in horror only to scream in excitement when Jaren Jackson Jr. more than made up for it just a moment later. If you watched the Memphis Grizzlies’ game against the Wolves on Monday night, then you already know what play this is.

Grizz fans will remember this play as just Jaren being awesome with his weak-side defense, and Ja needs to be deeply thankful that he was. Because this was quite possibly the worst isolation defense with an NBA game on the line that I’ve ever seen. Traffic cone, thy name is Ja Morant.

This play, of course, was just a microcosm of how bad the Grizzlies have been defensively this year. In the modern NBA, teams try to get as many shots at the rim and from three that they can get, so defenses obviously attempt to make life difficult in those areas. But the Grizzlies...have not done that. Through 10 games, they are currently 28th in defensive efficiency (110.5), 25th in opponent paint points (49.0), and 28th in opponent three-point percentage (38.6).

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Even though they’re just one season removed from being a top-10 defense with most of the same players, the Grizzlies couldn’t stop a boo-boo with a Band-Aid right now.

Now there are a few reasons for why this is the case, and none will be particularly revelatory to anyone who’s been paying attention. They’re also all connected to each other.

Yes, the Grizzlies badly miss Dillon Brooks, who has established himself as one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He alone is not going to make the Grizzlies into a top-10 defense again—the Grizzlies issues are a bit more systemic than just his absence— but he will definitely help.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

His return will also mean that the Grizzlies will get to rely far less on three-guard lineups, which have generally been the defensive equivalent of me trying to tackle Derrick Henry. Even last year, the team’s “most-used” three-guard lineup (Tyus Jones-De’Anthony Melton- Desmond Bane, a trio that only played 36 minutes together), got absolutely obliterated on defense, as they had a -52.2 net rating and gave up 142.1 points per 100 possessions.

While not being quite as woeful, this season’s starting lineup consisting of Ja Morant, De’Anthony Melton, and Desmond Bane has been rough defensively both by the eye test and the math, as it gives up 109.8 points per 100 and an opponent eFG% of 56, which rank in the 22nd and 8th percentile respectively. The reason for this is obvious: they’re just too small. You need length and size to properly defend skilled, athletic wing scorers, and three-guard lineups—especially ones with a defender as rough as Morant—just don’t provide you that.

However, there are three-guard lineups that have been successful for the Grizzlies this year, and this where it starts to get extremely interesting. Because that same three-guard lineup that contains the much-maligned Morant becomes a superb lineup on both ends of the court when Jaren Jackson Jr. plays the five.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

This holds true regardless of who’s playing at the four next to him, whether it’s Kyle Anderson or Brandon Clarke. In the most frequently-used lineup with Anderson at the four, the Grizzlies have a +27.3 net rating and only allows 95.7 points per 100. With Clarke at the four, the team has a +47.1 net rating (!!!) and only gives up a mere 88.2 points per 100, which for the sake of context, would easily be the best defense in recent NBA history if adjusted for an entire season.

So this all leads to a rather simple conclusion: Jaren Jackson Jr. needs to be playing the vast majority of his minutes at the five, and Brandon Clarke needs to be a consistent member of the rotation who regularly gets significant minutes. Of course, someone else will need to lose some minutes in order for this to happen, and Steven Adams is the most likely candidate.

Now to be fair, Adams is not a bad player. He’s a physical bruiser, a superb rebounder, an excellent passer at his position, and a solid rim protector (opponents are shooting just 47% at the rim against him). There’s a reason why he’s been a starter in the NBA for eight years, and he should continue to be a member of the Grizzlies’ rotation in some capacity.

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Yet his limitations have become quite apparent, especially over the Grizzlies’ last few games. And the reality of these limitations presents itself in the Grizzlies’ lineup data, as the Grizzlies have a -5.3 net rating and give up 115.7 points per 100 when he’s on the court.

Of course, you could make the argument that I’m over-analyzing these numbers since the Grizzlies get outscored by a similar margin and similarly struggle defensively when Ja Morant, who has clearly become a bonafide superstar, is on the court. But beyond the fact that Ja is obviously irreplaceable with his offensive production in a way that Adams isn’t, Ja also becomes a positive by every team metric when he plays with Jaren Jackson Jr. at the five. Outside of the starting lineup, there is no other frequently-used lineup that is successful on either end of the court with Adams.

This is because Adams’ skill-set is limited, and he doesn’t compensate for the weakness of others on the roster like Jaren does. Even though he’s relatively more agile in space than Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies are still limited to only employing drop coverage when Adams is on the court just like they did with Valanciunas. And while he does function well offensively as a screener and high-post passer, his inability to space the floor or be a true scoring threat limits what the Grizzlies—and specifically, Morant—can do.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Adams still needs to be in the rotation. In fact, he should probably eat most if not all of Xavier Tillman’s minutes since the Grizzlies have generally been nuked from orbit when Tillman is on the court (you’ll need eye surgery after clicking on this link). Brandon Clarke or, more likely, Kyle Anderson should take Adams’ spot in the starting lineup, while one of them plays at the 4 next to Adams off the bench. Other teams’ bench lineups won’t be able to exploit Adams’ lack of versatility to the same degree that their starters do.

And versatility in particular is key for the Grizzlies to become everything that they desire to be. With Jaren Jackson Jr. at the 5, the Grizzlies can switch everything defensively while also compensating for their defensively deficient players and spacing the court offensively in a way that few other NBA teams can. It also provides flexibility for Brandon Clarke, who showed on Monday night that he’s entirely too skilled to be getting splinters on the bench, to again become an impactful part of the rotation.

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