Through 22 games this season, considering all their injuries and unusual circumstances, the fact that the Memphis Grizzlies are 11-11 this season likely seems to be a surprising and better than expected scenario. However, according to Basketball-Reference.com, this reality is right in line with Memphis’s expected record. They have certainly remained competitive on most nights, mainly due to their consistent production in the paint, passing the basketball, and creating turnovers. However, those three traits were already known to be strengths of the Grizzlies from their play last year. It has been improvements in other areas that has allowed Memphis to remain in the playoff picture despite the absences of their best talents.
Three areas where improvement was critical for Memphis to be a playoff hopeful this season were limiting turnovers and fouls, defending the three, and shooting the three.
Last season, the Grizzlies NBA rankings in these four categories:
18th in fouls committed per game
23rd in turnovers committed per game
23rd in 3PFG% per game
24th in OPP 3PFG% per game
Though the Grizzlies certainly exceeded expectations last year, these areas were also reasons as to why Memphis struggled at times against better competition and in the bubble. Considering the Grizzlies would be without Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. to start the season, two talents who theoretically would impact each of these areas, it was hard to see Memphis finding its needed improvement with a limited roster. However, once again, the Grizzlies have exceeded expectations in ways few expected.
The Grizzlies rankings in these four categories this season:
9th in fouls committed per game
16th in turnovers committed per game
15th in 3PFG% per game
24th in OPP 3PFG% per game
In three of these four highlighted categories, the Grizzlies have shown significant and needed improvement. They are displaying more discipline, better decision making, and are featuring significantly more talented shooting depth. However, while this progression is certainly encouraging for Memphis’s young roster, the Grizzlies struggles defending the three cannot be ignored.
As the Grizzlies have certainly shown flashes of improvement, that also have naturally struggled with stretches of inconsistency.
The Grizzlies record itself has been wildly inconsistent so far this season. After the Grizzlies started off the season 2-6, they reeled off seven straight wins, only to then lose five of their next seven games. The main reason for the ups and downs over the first six weeks of the season is that many of the Grizzlies best talents have missed significant time. Beyond Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr., Ja Morant, Jonas Valanciunas, Grayson Allen, De’Anthony Melton, and Brandon Clarke have each missed significant stretches of games.
Fortunately, Memphis has still been successful in the paint, passing and creating turnovers. Furthermore, their newfound ability to limit their own turnovers and fouls has remained consistent since the beginning of the season. This has developed a reliable floor of production for Memphis to feature in remaining competitive for most of their games this season. However, it seems the most influential factor in the Grizzlies success so far has been their ability to defend and shoot the three.
So far this year, Memphis has steadily progressed in shooting the three and regressed in defending the three. Their production in both areas before and after their 12-day pause in the season due to Covid-19 tells the tale of two different teams. Furthermore, it also illustrates key reasons as to why the Grizzlies were 7-6 before their season was halted and are just 4-5 since.
Defending and Shooting the Three Before the Break in the season (Before 1/18/2021)-
10.1 three pointers made per game (27th in NBA until 01/18/2021)
33.3% three point field goal percentage (27th in the NBA)
11.7 opponent’s three pointers made per game (6th in the NBA)
35.8% opponent’s three point field goal percentage (8th in the NBA)
Defending and Shooting the Three After the Break in the Season (Since 01/30/2021)-
14.1 three pointers made per game (11th in the NBA since 01/30/2021)
40.6% three point field goal percentage (8th in the NBA)
14.5 opponent’s three pointers made per game (23rd in the NBA)
43.1% opponent’s three point field goal percentage (30th in the NBA)
Without a doubt, it has been both a night and day scenario for the Grizzlies both defending and shooting the three before and after their season was halted. Before the pause, they were a top ten team defending the three and a bottom five team shooting the three. Since the pause, they are a top ten team shooting the three and a bottom five team defending the three. The fact that the Grizzlies have had a significant stretch being among the best teams in the NBA in both categories so far this season is encouraging. However, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of their performance in both categories is a bit concerning.
Yet, the most eye-opening development of all is that the same source has both significantly improved the Grizzlies’ shooting from three and significantly contributed to their struggles defending the three this season.
His name is Ja Morant.
So far this season, Morant has played in 14 total games and missed eight due to his ankle injury against Brooklyn on 12/28/2020. Considering that he missed the majority of that game, the Grizzlies have played nine games without his impact on their play. As a result, here is how Memphis has looked both shooting and defending the three when Morant has been available through an entire game this season (numbers do not include game vs. Kings):
In the nine games Morant either did not play or finish:
Grizzlies shooting the three: 89-268 total, 9.9 of 29.7 per game, (33.2%)
Opponents shooting the three: 107-302 total, 11.8 of 33.5 per game (35.4%)
In the 12 games Morant has played this season:
Grizzlies shooting the three: 156-406, 13 of 33.8 per game (38.4%)
Opponents shooting the three: 161-391, 13.4 of 32.5 per game (41.2%)
Doing research, Ja Morant is currently in the 1st percentile in opponent's effective field goal percentage per Cleaning the Glass. That's worst among any player who has played at least 300 minutes entering tonight's games. Teams shoot 9.6% better with Ja on the floor. Yeesh.— Joe Mullinax (@JoeMullinax) February 12, 2021
One obvious reason in the increased production of threes is the faster pace that Memphis plays with Morant. However, it is clearly evident that Morant both strengthens the Grizzlies shooting on offense and weakens their ability to defending shooting on defense. This is confirmed, as Joe Mullinax shows above, via Cleaning the Glass, which shows the Grizzlies are in the 91st percentile when it comes to their own eFG% when Ja plays but only in the first percentile of opponent’s effective field goal percentage. The clear and simple truth is that Morant’s defensive struggles this season have negated value from what he brings to Memphis’s offense.
However, though other teams clearly shoot better when Ja plays, he still adds a good amount of positive value overall. When Morant has not played this season, Memphis’s opponents are averaging 1.9 more threes per game than the Grizzlies . When Morant plays, that number shrinks to 0.4 threes per game. Yes, there certainly is plenty of room for Morant to improve both defending and shooting the three (12-43, 27.9% from three this season.) However, the Grizzlies will certainly take the good with the bad when it involves benefitting from Morant’s playmaking ability in setting up his teammates for looks beyond the arc.
Y’all. We’re so lucky. pic.twitter.com/UI3ChsEoxo— Matt Hrdlicka (@theRealHrdlicka) January 19, 2021
While it is primarily his ability to kick out to a teammate after getting the defense to collapse as he drives into the paint, Morant has shown the ability to create catch and shoot opportunities from anywhere on the court. When you add that ability to the addition of Desmond Bane and a healthy Grayson Allen this season, plus the shooting improvements of Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton, the Grizzlies potential and production from three has overwhelmingly improved. This improvement up and down the roster allows for Morant to play with two or three shooters around him at any given time, and the quality of those shooters should only improve when Winslow and Jackson Jr. return.
Along with the obvious positives that Morant provides to the Grizzlies ability to shoot the three on offense, there are a few reasons to hope the defensive numbers will improve with him on the court in the near future. After allowing teams to make 84 threes on 174 attempts in their previous five games, the Grizzlies limited the Lakers and Kings to 14-63 from three over the past two games. Furthermore, Brandon Clarke, Melton, Jackson Jr., and Winslow will all be returning in the coming weeks. These are all names that will play significant minutes with Morant, and will allow for his defensive role to become more effective as a result.
Overall, this Grizzlies team is likely not one of the top ten teams in the league when it comes to shooting or defending the three. However, they have shown the potential they can reach that level in each category. If the Grizzlies can simply get back to their disciplined approach on defense and continue working off each other to sustain shooting success on offense, they will take a needed step toward making the playoffs a reality. Fortunately, as both Morant and the rest of the team have continued to show, its best to trust their efforts and be confident that consistency from beyond the arc on both ends of the court will arrive soon and be here to stay for good.
*stats through 02/12/2021