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Making identity an institution

Though the Grizzlies are still a work in progress overall, they already are elite at two critical components of a winning formula for the present and future.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

A week ago, I wrote about how the Grizzlies have been performing a balancing act this season, as they have shown both improvement and inconsistency. Last week was a perfect microcosm of this truth, as Memphis handedly defeated Sacramento, Detroit, and Oklahoma City, but also endured blowout losses to New Orleans and Phoenix. This team has shifted between being among the best in the league and worst in the league in certain statistical categories all year.

However, while sources of constant positive production may be scarce for this team, Memphis has established results in two areas that not only could be defined as consistent but also elite. Currently, Memphis leads the NBA in both assists and steals per game, with 27.8 assists per game and 9.8 steals per game, respectively. While these rankings and numbers may be a surprise to some, the Grizzlies ranked 2nd and 12th in the NBA in these categories during the 2019-2020 season.

This production should actually come across as more of an expectation than a surprise when it comes to the Grizzlies and Coach Taylor Jenkins. In nearly every postgame media session, Jenkins directly references success or struggles with passing and opportunistic defense as to how Memphis performed. He knows that if the Grizzlies are successfully passing the ball and disrupting passing lanes, they are creating advantages to feature the strengths of their roster and improving their chances to win.

Therefore, the Grizzlies ability to create steals and assists is certainly imperative for them to succeed. This is not only true in the present, but also in the future.


NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Since Taylor Jenkins became head coach last year, the Grizzlies have produced 10 or more steals 35 times and 27 or more assists 56 times (the numbers 10 and 27 are based off their season averages in steals and assists). That is good for sixth and first, respectively, in terms of the frequency in meeting these statistical marks among NBA teams over that time frame.

While reaching a high number of steals or assists in a game is ideal, the more important development is how they impact Memphis’s ability to win. And when it comes to the Grizzlies reaching 10 steals and/or 27 assists in a game, whether or not they meet those thresholds has a strong correlation with their ability to earn victories.

With Coach Jenkins, the Grizzlies record is:

21-14 when producing 10 or more steals

25-39 when producing less than 10 steals

35-21 when producing 27 or more assists

12-31 when producing less than 27 assists

Obviously, the Grizzlies ability to reach 10 steals or 27 assists in a game is a big key to their success under Taylor Jenkins. This is further validated when you consider that the Grizzlies record is 17-5 when they produce at least 10 steals and 27 assists in the same game. Fortunately, the Grizzlies have reached that threshold more than any other team since the beginning of last season, and is a key reason as to why they have continued to exceed expectations with Jenkins.


NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

It may seem like a bit of a fluke that a 13-13 team ranks among the best teams in the NBA in steals and assists. However, when it comes to the Grizzlies, their elite numbers are caused more by effort and emphasis instead of luck and coincidence. The game plan that Coach Jenkins uses places a high priority on passing the ball and disrupting passing lanes. The Grizzlies are currently seventh in the NBA in passes per game, the same place they ranked last season. They also are currently first in the NBA in deflections per game, an improvement from ranking ninth in the NBA last season.

Because the Grizzlies strategies and schemes emphasize activity that results in deflections and passes happening more frequently than almost any other team in the league, they logically will be among the best in the NBA in assists and steals. This means the Grizzlies game plan and the preferences of Coach Jenkins significantly supports Memphis’s elite steal and assist rates.

The ability that Coach Jenkins has shown to develop talents up and down the roster to contribute in multiple ways when on the court is another big reason for Memphis’ success with assists and steals. This season, Memphis has seven players that are averaging two or more assists per game, which is tied for the most on any one roster in the NBA (min. 10 games played). The Grizzlies roster also has eight players averaging one or more steals per game, the most of any team in the NBA (min. 10 games played). In fact, no other team has more than five players meeting that rate of steals.

Obviously, in terms of assists, Ja Morant is a big reason as to why the Grizzlies are so successful using ball movement to set up scoring opportunities. However, during the nine game stretch where Morant either did not finish the game or was out due to his ankle injury, the Grizzlies ranked second in the league in assists per game. The Grizzlies ability to produce elite steal and assist numbers is not due to just a few players, but is instead the result of Coach Jenkins’s game plan and contributions up and down the roster. This is why Memphis’ ability to sustain their current production rates in both categories is completely logical. The returns of Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. will certainly make that logic even more valid in time.


NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

The other big advantage of the Grizzlies consistent production with assists and steals is that both activities allow the Grizzlies to feature additional strengths of their roster to create advantages. The Grizzlies youth and athleticism allows for them to excel on the run, and through causing steals at a high frequency, they have plenty of opportunities to create in the open court each game. As a result, Memphis currently ranks first in points off turnovers per game and second in fast break points per game in the NBA.

Overall, Memphis has experienced steady improvements offensively this season beyond just transition opportunities. A big reason for that is due to their intelligent passing and assist production. The Grizzlies are currently in the top five of the NBA in percentage of field goals, two-point field goals, and three-point field goals assisted. Because of the frequency and quality of their passes and assists, the Grizzlies have produced an above average offense since Morant returned on January 16th, as Memphis is 12th in both FG% and 3PFG% over that timeframe.

Simply put, by consistently creating steals and assists, the Grizzlies are also becoming more consistent at featuring other strengths of their roster and improving areas of weakness, such as shooting from distance. This is why Coach Jenkins places such an emphasis on passing and opportunistic defense, and why everyone on the roster is committed to the plan.

Both Jenkins and the players know that is the best way to maximize their talents and to be competitive and win regardless of their competition.

If the Grizzlies were to finish the season leading the NBA in both assists and steals per game, it would certainly be a rare accomplishment. As this graphic from Grizzlies PR shows above (numbers through Feb. 19th), it would only be the sixth time in the past 45 years a team lead the NBA in both categories in a single season. It would certainly be a great achievement for this Grizzlies roster to build off of in the present and future.

However, even if Memphis does not finish first in both categories, it is very likely that the Grizzlies will finish in the top five in each measure. That still carries plenty of significance, as over the past decade (since the 2010-2011 season), only ten teams have finished in the top five of the league in both steals and assists in a single season. Eight of those ten teams made the playoffs, and six teams advanced to the second round or beyond. While the Grizzlies will certainly continue to improve and add talent over time, maintaining their ability to create steals and assists could be a highly successful source of postseason success.

Overall, the Grizzlies have established an identity centered on opportunistic defense and effective passing. These abilities are based on the coaching staff and roster being committed to consistent activity and strategies that put the team in the best position to compete and win. While many variables, such as current roster development, new talent additions, and increased expectations will evolve over time, it is critical that the one constant that remains in place is the Grizzlies commitment to an identity that has generated success.

In time, this will allow Memphis’s newfound identity to become an institution of production that can support sustainable winning. That specific productivity of creating steals and assists will not only help Memphis consistently be in the playoffs, but could be a major reason the Grizzlies become a true title contender in the future.

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