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The Grizzlies defense is clawing back

Slowly but surely.

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Miami Heat v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies mantra has been built around gritty defensive play for a decade now. Even as Coach Jenkins propelled the team into the new era of basketball with an improved pace of play, the Grizzlies still possessed a top 10 defensive unit as of last season: 7th in Defensive Rating and first in steals.

To begin the 2021-22 season however, the Memphis Grizzlies have not been as sharp, ranking next to last in Def Rating thus far. The Grizzlies’ opponents are also making the fourth most threes while taking the 12th most shots for 39.6% which is 3rd worst defensively in the association.

While this past Saturday’s affair against the stout Miami Heat is most likely an outlier, this young Grizzlies squad has shown glimpses that the poor defense is poised to get right. Memphis held an undefeated Golden State team below 50 points in the second half, mounting a comeback victory, and reigning MVP Nikola Jokic and the Nuggets below 40 second half points during a Monday night victory earlier this week.

Shooting percentages are destined to average out over time, and the league typically sits within 5-6% points differential between the top and bottom. Last season Memphis was middle of the pack with a 36.7% 3 pt shooting percentage against and the league best was the Knicks with 33.8% against.

The signs of an effective defense can be better found in the activity level, such as deflections, defending the paint and rebounding. Before the Wednesday night tilt against the Nuggets, the Grizzlies were one of eight teams that had four players averaging 2 or more deflections per game (min. 3 games played) — Jaren Jackson Jr. is averaging 1.9. De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson would be the suspected culprits of such a stat, but Ja Morant and Xavier Tillman have also found their way in this category.

The other 7 teams are the Charlotte Hornets, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Miami Heat, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Philadelphia 76ers. Check out the chart below for some similarities between the 8 teams (rankings as of 11/2/21):

NBA Defensive Leaders

Team Opp. Pts off TO Opp. 2nd Chance Pts Opp. Fastbreak Pts Opp. Paint Points D Reb% Steals Blocks Deflections D-Rating Fastbreak Pts Points off TO TO% +/-
Team Opp. Pts off TO Opp. 2nd Chance Pts Opp. Fastbreak Pts Opp. Paint Points D Reb% Steals Blocks Deflections D-Rating Fastbreak Pts Points off TO TO% +/-
CHA 11th 30th 6th 23rd 28th 7th 11th 5th 28th 1st 1st 2.8
CHI 7th 23rd 15th 20th 22nd 12th 5th 3rd 6th 10th 2nd 4.2
GSW 15th 1st 24th 7th 2nd 13th 13th 8th 3rd 16th 13th -1.2
MEM 22nd 22nd 26th 17th 11th 3rd 12th 4th 29th 3rd 12th -0.6
MIA 5th 2nd 16th 2nd 1st 18th 30th 15th 1st 4th 9th -0.8
MIN 20th 27th 9th 5th 30th 4th 4th 6th 7th 17th 3rd 2.7
PHI 3rd 18th 10th 8th 27th 15th 2nd 2nd 14th 8th 15th 1
TOR 13th 11th 2nd 1st 12th 1st 28th 1st 8th 6th 5th 4.5

Miami and Toronto are elite defenses only in the bottom of the league in blocks. Toronto leads in deflections, opponent paint points and steals while Miami leads in D-Rating, Defensive Rebound % and second in opponent paint points. Golden State and Philadelphia are good to great defenses while Minnesota has played great thus far on that end of the floor. Memphis and Charlotte are very similar teams that flash defensive potential.

It is no coincidence that Memphis is top 4 in steals, deflections and fast break points as they are all generally related. Deflections lead to steals which lead to fast break opportunities. This video below is a textbook example of a heady defender making a great play initiating the fast break.

The Grizzlies are currently 26th in the NBA in opponent fast break points, which is exactly where Memphis finished last season — as the 7th best defense in the league. Memphis finished 15th last season in opponent points of turnovers (16.6) but are currently 22nd giving up 18.4 points off turnovers.

The offense has to help the defense in this area. Last season Memphis finished 6th in turnover percentage at 13.1%, but so far in this season the Grizz are turning it over 15% of the time, 16th in the league. Cutting down on turnovers will cut down on both fast break points and points off turnovers by the opponent.

The Grizz are currently giving up a point less in the paint this season than last, but seven more points on average than the elite defenses. The Grizzlies are also 11th in defensive rebounding % which aids in their 7th best second chance points defense — an improvement upon last year’s defense.


Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game Five Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Then there is the return of the villain. At some point Dillon Brooks will return to the lineup, which should give a boost to most aspects of the team. Brooks is undeniably the team’s most physical defender as well as their best ball denial defender. His ability to frustrate and wear down the other team’s best perimeter scorer matters. With the new emphasis on natural shooting motions, Dillon’s foul count should (hopefully) tick down a bit allowing his defensive prowess to have an even larger impact.

The current starting lineup has a D-Rating of 107.3, 5.4 points better than the current team rating. If Ja can cut down on the turnovers and Jaren stay out of foul trouble, this defense will return to form rather quickly. No need to hit the panic button just yet.

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