The Memphis Grizzlies have struggled defending the 3-point line, and that statement is putting it lightly.
The results on the floor have been borderline traumatizing. There are teams shooting nearly 50% on 3’s in some games. Carmelo Anthony rewinds it to the late 2000’s. Kelly Oubre engaged revenge mode after the Grizzlies pulled out of the trade for him in 2018 since it was the wrong Brooks in the deal. Cameron Payne fires like he’s back at Lausanne Collegiate school. Jae Crowder is blasting 3’s at a clip that’s making Joe Mullinax scream into the heavens asking “why is this happening to me” (Site Manager’s note: Jae Crowder making threes now does not change the fact he shot 29.3% for the Grizzlies from range. Carry on.)
Statistically, it’s not any prettier. Their opponents are hitting 3’s at nearly a 40% clip (39.4%) so far this season. If you want a team comparison, imagine if the Grizzlies opponents blasted 3’s to the same tune as last year’s Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and — one that hits a little closer to home — Utah Jazz.
Though the Grizzlies defense isn’t to the levels of the old “Grit and Grind” defense, they were one of the most formidable defenses in basketball last year. They were 7th in Defensive Rating and 1st in Steals, thought they were middle of the pack in 3-point defense. Now, they’ve fallen to 2nd-to-last in both 3-point defense and Defensive Rating.
Surely, percentages and numbers should start to normalize soon, as sample sizes start to build. Like I said though — should. The Grizzlies have similar ingredients back in the fold from their top-level defense last year, as well as a returning Jaren Jackson Jr. who’s been great on that side of the ball. Nonetheless, the defensive drop-off is still concerning, given the rate at which teams are scoring on them, and how those struggles lower their floor.
Our very own Nathan Chester tackled the defensive woes through different personnel changes last week. I briefly touched on this in a recent column on the West Coast road trip, where they gave up 3-point onslaughts in the losses to the Lakers and the Blazers.
I want to look at it through a scheme lens — help defense. You could also see stints of it in the clips above as well, and it lingered as a negative force primarily in their 3-game losing streak — where opponents shot made 15.7 3’s per game at a blistering 46.7% clip. There was often too much help, or small slacking in help-side positioning that led teams to get in rhythm for open 3’s.
Let’s start with how the Grizzlies used the helping technique of stunting, where teams are really capitalizing on 3’s against Memphis. The Hoop Student says this technique occurs when “executed when a defender temporarily leaves the original assignment but immediately returns to the same assignment within a half second to a second.” It’s aimed to force the ball-handler to make a quick action in response to a potential double-team, with the defensive end goal of causing a turnover. The Grizzlies could be using this technique to generate turnovers and fast-break opportunities — a pillar of their system — and teams have been using it to their advantage.
On this Rozier drive, John Konchar doesn’t have bad positioning at the point of the attack. He probably could’ve imposed some sort of threat to him at the rim, given the size advantage and his shot-blocking prowess for his position — blocking percentage of 1.1% falls within 86th percentile among wings, per Cleaning the Glass. Or at the very least, Brandon Clarke could’ve slid over for help defense, if needed. Instead, Jaren Jackson stunts off the drive a little too hard, which leaves Oubre open. Given the amount of ground covered, he has to close out hard, leading to a fallen fake and a big 3.
Any alternative would’ve closed off a 3-ball opportunity, or forced a tough dump-off pass or layup.
Devin Booker getting downhill is potent because of his mid-range excellence. However, the defensive coverage is baffling. Bane recovers nicely, and Adams is in drop coverage — though he could probably rise a bit higher, due to Booker’s mid-range prowess and Kaminsky’s low roll gravity. Is a stunt from Jaren Jackson really needed here? I’m not sold that it is, and Jae Crowder gets a clean look at a 3.
The coverage gets blown with the pick-and-roll synergy and with the bad switch off the LaMelo-Hayward pick-and-roll. Brooks jumps high on the switch, and the miscommunication leads to a tough spot for Konchar — who has to slide to help off the Hayward roll. It puts Kyle Anderson in a difficult decision to either help on the cut or stick to the shooter. He stunted on the cut, leading to an Oubre 3.
Here, Brandon Clarke is executing the stunt, and this example is probably the most perplexing of these clips. Tomas Satoranksy doesn’t have the best driving burst, nor does he have the best angle here. The stunt gives him an easy out to Josh Hart for an in-rhythm 3.
The Pelicans generated a good advantage here. Nickeil Alexander-Walker got Morant behind him, with Adams having to play the roll in drop coverage. Jackson stunts over, which scrambles the defense for Dillon Brooks to help on the swing to Hart, and it leads to an easy 3 for Brandon Ingram.
Clarke helps with the stunt here, though Dillon Brooks looks to have a good base for point-of-attack defense. That’s an understandable move, given how Ingram can rise and pop for a mid-range jump shot. Nonetheless, Herb Jones got a clean look from the corner off the drive-and-kick.
The stunt is a good defensive tactic, but when it’s too far over or in a spot where it may not needed, it could create an easy 3 from the outside.
The Memphis Grizzlies can also get caught in these tough spots defensively, primarily due to their scrambling, and it leads to a various range of adjustments needed to be made. Sometimes they’re over-helping, or they’re in a matchup disadvantage that forces a double-team. Or there’s simply lapses mentally or in communication that lead to forced help situations for 3’s.
There’s a lot going on during this possession. Adams chases out to Hayward, thinking that there isn’t a perimeter player ready to cover him. Maybe a communication lapse? Whatever the reason, the double opens up Mason Plumlee to rumble down the lane. Here’s where the help defense hurts them: Jaren Jackson Jr. slides over for a 1v1 contest, as he should, but Ja Morant drops a little too far down. He could’ve stayed near the wing for a strong contest, but the swing was right there too. The help defense burned there, but the initial help on the double-team left the defense scrambling here.
Yes, there’s a post mismatch here with Devin Booker. Is a triple team needed though? Maybe a double would’ve been fine, leaves good help position to either left-side perimeter player. The miscommunication there gives Jae Crowder enough of a load time to get an in-rhythm 3 — regardless of how hard Ziaire Williams closed out.
The Grizzlies switch off screens a lot. A con of that is these mismatches are created against Morant or Jones. Help is forced to prevent the easy post-up shot, which Brandon Clarke does. However, it puts Desmond Bane at a disadvantage in this 2-on-1 to get an open 3. That was just a good strategic attack from the Suns.
You hear the Grizzlies bring up the idea of needing to be locked in for 48 minutes. This here is an example of what happens when they’re not locked in. Morant is technically in help positioning here, and Paul catches him sleeping, so he finds Crowder for a 3 in rhythm.
This help sequence was the most baffling, in my opinion. Kyle Anderson helps way too far on the potential Satoransky post-up opportunity. So it opens up a skip pass to Herb Jones, who could have a slow-motion wind-up and still have a clean 3 up.
Granted, there are probably reasonings within these different defensive tactics and coverages. After all, any of NBA personnel — players, coaching staff, etc. — have PhD-level knowledge on basketball. They are the ones in the trenches with all this stuff, and we don’t get the entire feel for the communication and coverages here. However, these are just different trends that are noticeable with their opposing team’s 3-point explosion, and it’s leading to teams getting crispy clean looks with a good rhythm into their shots.
The Memphis Grizzlies defense has been rough so far, and these schematic — or personnel, as Nate Chester inferred last week — reasons are big indicators. However, all isn’t completely lost with them.
As mentioned before, there could be stat normalization occurring as larger samples build. Teams will get hot against them, but they will also go cold through the ebbs and flows of the season. Dillon Brooks being back does help them defensively. Getting him back at the point-of-attack should lower the frequency of scrambling help situations. However, it also recalibrates the roles and responsibilities of players like Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, and Kyle Anderson on that end of the floor — returning them to a more naturally defensive role.
In addition, the Grizzlies made progress with their defense on Monday night. They defended better at the point of attack, had sharp rotations, and communicated — areas they pointed out in Monday’s postgame session. Though the competition didn’t provide any sort of answer on if it was fixed, the sustainability of their defensive impact — primarily on the perimeter — will serve as the biggest indicator of this problem resolution.