If you have a strong opinion about Dillon Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies, you’re not alone. The small but cozy corner of the internet that Grizzlies fans inhabit is full of both love and hate for the former Oregon Duck. For every “that dude plays his ASS off”, there’s a “that dude needs to have his ASS permanently glued to the bench”. Any “no, Dillon, don’t shoot that!” is almost certainly followed by a “yes, Dillon, get that hot shooting streak started!” Dillon’s infamously unconquerable confidence has been both a gift and a curse for the Grizzlies. It has helped establish the team’s current swagger-filled culture while also limiting the (already limited due to injury) ceiling of the Grizzlies starting unit. He is currently posting some of the worst stats of his career, and yet he remains a fixture in the Memphis rotation as he leads the team in minutes played.
This article isn’t about convincing you that he does, or doesn’t, deserve his place in the Memphis Grizzlies machine. It is about telling you that your potential main argument for why he should, or shouldn’t, be more valued is quite likely wrong - at least this season.
Dillon Brooks doesn’t fit neatly in to any box. His unorthodox playing style on the floor is matched (and perhaps exceeded) by his off the court fashion sense and demeanor. He isn’t the offensive liability you probably believe him to be, and he isn’t staying in the good graces of Taylor Jenkins solely because of his elite defensive talents.
It’s time to debunk two key tall tales regarding the notorious Dillon Brooks.
Dillon Brooks: The Grizzlies Defensive Stopper is a myth
Is Dillon Brooks the best defensive player on the Memphis Grizzlies? Some would say yes, pointing to his usual role as the lead defender on the opposition’s best scorer. His frame as a wing and strength/commitment to team defense help feed that notion as well. There’s no denying that Dillon is more than willing to take on the challenge of the league’s best bucket getters, and there’s also no doubt that much of defensive success in the NBA - especially in the regular season - is in competing harder than the opposition. Even the most adamant Brooks haters would admit that Dillon does indeed play the game with maximum effort and tenacity, especially as a defender. That makes up for other shortcomings, like a lack of elite athleticism, when it comes to these “mismatches” with top-tier scoring talents.
Or, at least, it seems that way. But is it indeed the truth? The numbers suggest that not only is Dillon not the best defender on the Grizzlies...he isn’t the best defender currently on the wing.
Per Cleaning the Glass, there are three “wings” on the Grizzlies that have logged at least 300 minutes of playing time so far this season - Dillon, Grayson Allen, and the rookie Desmond Bane. Among those three wings, Dillon ranks last in opposing team’s effective field goal percentage (29th percentile - opponents shoot 1.6% better when Dillon is on the floor). Bane is in the 64th percentile (-1.1%) and Allen is (surprisingly) in the 93rd percentile (-4%!!). Brooks also is the only wing among the three that allows for opponents to shoot better from three overall while on the floor (+1.3% for Dillon, -1.2% for Bane, -2.2% for Allen).
Of course, defense goes beyond these percentages and Dillon excels in other areas. Brooks is in the 85th percentile in steal percentage (1.9%) and he is quite good at creating offense-disrupting deflections (in the top-20 in the NBA at 2.9 per game according to NBA.com/stats). These clips demonstrate his film study and ability to play passing lanes, helping the Grizzlies get in to transition and find easy looks offensively.
But once again there is Grayson Allen, who this season is doing these things at a similar level to Dillon (82nd percentile this season in steal percentage). There is De’Anthony Melton, who doesn’t meet the minutes criteria but also posts similar stats in steals and deflections while forcing opponents to shoot more poorly than Dillon (-3.9%) and also has demonstrated an elite ability to block shots - his 2.4% block percentage is best in the NBA among combo guards according to Cleaning the Glass. Melton is long enough and smart enough to help protect the rim more than most players his size. That’s not an area of strength for Dillon defensively.
Then there’s Kyle Anderson, who doesn’t have the advanced stats on his side (-.1% when he is defending is almost negligible, but still better than Dillon) but has the clear length and versatility to defend any and all players on the floor. From point guard to center, depending on matchups Anderson can fill any void both on and off the ball in defensive scheme. The eye test tells you that.
That doesn’t even mention analytics darling John Konchar, who outperforms Dillon in these percentages and is also an elite rebounder, or any bigs like Gorgui Dieng (teams shoot 6% worse at the rim against Gorgui this season). And none of this to this point has included mention of Dillon’s foul rate, which has gotten better (4.1% this season compared to 5.1% last season) but still ranks him worst on the Grizzlies and in the 15th percentile overall in the NBA. He contacts shooters and ball handlers too much, using his hands and mistiming contest of jumpers, and his opponents effective field goal percentage is 4th worst on the Grizzlies (Ja Morant’s is the worst - opponents shoot a shocking 9.6% better with him on the floor, followed by Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke).
No, you shouldn’t jump at the chance to say John Konchar is surely better defensively than Dillon Brooks. Yes, Brooks defends the best player on the team often and takes some “punishment” statistically for it. But numbers say he consistently gets beat by them - and others - to the point where his effort and commitment to that end of the floor masks reality.
Maybe Dillon shouldn’t be the one taking on those assignment after all.
Dillon Brooks: The Main Offensive Liability isn’t true, either
What would you have him do?
Dillon Brooks has been asked to be more than he has ever been capable of, both defensively and offensively, since he arrived in Memphis. It’s almost like Sam Darnold with the New York Jets - sure, the top-5 draft pick quarterback hasn’t been what people hoped, but what would you expect from an organization that has little to no stability/respect? In Memphis, respect isn’t necessarily the question...but stability has been. Ever since Brooks came to the Grizzlies this team has been in a state of flux. Injuries to Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, trades, upheavals in coaching staffs and front offices...rarely has he been able to just be a catch and shoot player who creates off the dribble on a secondary or tertiary basis. Or just defend comparably talented wings.
He’s had to go above and beyond.
His shot selection specifically shows this. Per basketball-reference.com, Dillon is currently shooting the lowest percentage from the floor (38.7%) and three point percentage (30.5%) of his career while also attempting more shots than ever before (15.5 per game). That is, of course, problematic. But even more concerning is the way he is getting to those shots. Despite a career high usage (27.1%, 2nd on the team behind Ja Morant) he is shooting fewer assisted twos (49.4%) and threes (82.1%) than ever before. Despite it becoming more clear than ever in the NBA’s Bubble last summer that Dillon’s hot and cold shooting while creating his own shot was not conducive to winning, only 34.8% of his attempts come off of zero dribbles (meaning catch and shoot opportunities) per NBA.com/stats. Only Ja Morant and Tyus Jones - the two true point guards on the roster - attempt fewer shots with zero dribbles.
So where does the blame lie when a player who clearly is struggling is essentially put in positions to fail? When you watch these offensive possessions, and see him launching step back threes and taking tough fadeaway midrange jumpers (and making them), who should get reprimanded - the player who has been asked to do such things time and again to help his struggling team, or those who continue to give such a perspective a platform to perform on? Brooks scores 24 and has some success in this series of clips against the Nets...but the degree of difficulty guarantees this level of production isn’t sustainable. Aspects of these plays - catch and shoot opportunities, pick and roll controlled facilitation - can be, if prioritized.
Memphis continues to find themselves in less than ideal health circumstances. When the team is fully healthy, they will not have to depend on Dillon Brooks to be such a self-creator. And there are legitimate signs of growth in Dillon’s game - career bests in assist percentage and three point rate show attention to trying to be more efficient. Brooks also figures to get hot soon - progressing to the mean is an NBA truth, just like regressing to it is. Dillon is not THIS bad of a shooter and should get closer to his usual 40% from the field and 35% from three, especially as the likes of Jaren Jackson Jr. return to lighten the offensive load.
But in a starting lineup with Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Kyle Anderson, and Jonas Valanciunas...if you were Dillon Brooks - the guy who has started 167 games in his career for the Memphis Grizzlies and has always been asked to be the guy to take the tough shot -wouldn’t you feel the need to step up in the absence of so much production? When precedent has been set by both players and coaches that such attempts aren’t just OK - they’re sometimes preferred? In the absence of consistent set pieces where you get catch and shoot looks, or when placed in spots to attack downhill in a drive and kick offense where more often than not you’re doing the driving on the wing, what other result would you expect from a player like Brooks who has supreme self-belief in his game?
Dillon is struggling. But he isn’t doing so in a vacuum. He’s enabled by coaching and encouraged by the play of those around him. Maybe some day it’ll be Justise Winslow doing what Dillon does on the dribble drive, and Brooks can play the role of Bane or Allen and launch open threes. But until those circumstances change, he won’t fully do so either.
Dillon Brooks is not as bad as some think he is for the Memphis Grizzlies. Nor is he as good. He’s necessary - a player willing to absorb your hate and get mocked by LeBron James. He’s capable of not flinching when Jaylen Brown drills a three in his face while he plays near-perfect defense and helping create offense for himself and others the very next possession. His defensive intensity serves as a masking agent for his struggles while guarding a variety of wings, but without that mental toughness and attention to detail with what opposing teams want to do Memphis would be in a worse place as he helps set the tone for the Grizzlies. He can be an offensive liability, but are his shortcomings the cause of the scoring issues or a symptom of a system that doesn’t prioritize the right kinds of looks or incentivize better behavior within scheme?
Brooks is the latest in a long line of scapegoats. It’s difficult to point the finger of blame at the young superstar Ja Morant, who to his credit has openly admitted he must be better. It’s too easy to simply say “they’re not healthy” when so many teams deal with similar concerns of depth. But Dillon’s flaws and circumstances aren’t new. How he is perceived for them is what ebbs and flows.
His greatest strength is his infallible sense of self and his willingness to be that confoundingly consequential player who can be both vital to a defense while also being beaten on a near nightly basis. Or the high usage player who only gets such opportunities out of a necessity that is both outside of team control and self-inflicted at the same time.
That’s what makes him so notorious. Look at Dillon, and you can see both the hero of a flawed story and the villain in a potential tragedy of lost season opportunity. But the epic confidence of this particular protagonist is what makes Brooks’ importance to Memphis such a key part of the tall tale his run with the Grizzlies has become.