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Memphis Grizzlies: Progression in a Pandemic

Nearly a year ago, Covid-19 halted Year 1 of the Grizzlies rebuild. A year later, how is the team progressing in Year 2?

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Sacramento Kings Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies will look to continue their pursuit of the playoffs tonight as they welcome -the Washington Wizards to FedEx Forum. They will begin a crazy stretch of nearly ten weeks of basketball in which they will play 40 games in 68 days. The Grizzlies are tied for the most games left to play in the 2020-2021, as like several other teams, their season was put on hold for a stretch of time due to COVID-19.

While the second half of the Grizzlies season starts on Wednesday, Thursday actually marks the one-year anniversary of when the NBA became the first professional sports league to officially halt its season in response to the Pandemic. The Grizzlies had arrived in Portland to play the Trailblazers that night; however, it is likely no one knew that while the next game the Grizzlies played would be against Portland, it was not until July 31st, 2020 in the Bubble. It certainly has been a crazy and unpredictable year, for the Grizzlies, the NBA, the sports world and everyone in general.

However, while the schedule of games have certainly been unprecedented and unconventional, it is hard to deny that the Grizzlies roster has certainly progressed. Not only have the players and the team improved, so has the effectiveness of Taylor Jenkins and his staff. Some aspects of the Grizzlies have remained among the best in the league, while other areas have shown significant progression while a few traits of this team remain a work in progress. It seems a fun way to identify these strengths and weaknesses is to compare how the Grizzlies are performing in certain areas compared to the rest of the league now versus where they stood against the league a year ago.

With that in mind, here are a few areas where the Grizzlies have clearly improved and a few areas where work is still needed!

NBA: Los Angeles Clippers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

IMPROVING OFFENSIVE STRENGTHS

The Grizzlies quickly established their offensive identities last season: production in the paint, passing, and excelling on the run. The numbers, both last year and this year, show Memphis was and is right for featuring these aspects of their approach on the court:

Rankings Before Suspension of 2019-2020 season vs. First Half of 2020-2021 (NBA RANKS):

  • Assists per game: Then 27.0 (2nd) / Now 27.0 (5th)
  • Points in the Paint Per Game: Then 56.3 (1st) / Now 55.3 (1st)
  • Fast Break Points Per Game: Then 17.9 (4th)/ Now 16.3 (2nd)

The Grizzlies have stayed consistent in these areas because these are the aspects of the game that feature the strengths of several individuals on the roster. Many Grizzlies are at their best finishing near the rim or with a floater, while many Grizzlies are also successful pushers and finishers on the run. Based off that success, the passing ability of Ja Morant, Tyus Jones and others can be featured more effectively to set up high percentage looks from distance.

CREATING A POSSESSION ADVANTAGE

During the first half of this season, there has been a strong correlation between when the Grizzlies have significantly more shot attempts in a game than their opponent and Memphis earning a victory. The Grizzlies ability to create this advantage when it comes to overall possessions is due to the improvements Memphis has made in being a more opportunistic defense while also remaining disciplined:

Rankings Before Suspension of 2019-2020 season vs. First Half of 2020-2021 (NBA RANKS):

  • Turnovers Committed Per Game: Then 15.2 (23rd)/ Now 13.8 (11th)
  • Turnovers Created Per Game: Then 14.6 (13th) / Now 16.8 (1st)
  • Steals Per Game: Then 8.0 (12th) / Now 10.1 (1st)
  • Deflections Per Game: Then 15.8 (8th) / Now 17.7 (1st)
  • Points off Turnovers: Then 16.9 (13th)/ Now 20.6 (1st)
  • Fouls Committed Per Game: Then 20.8 (17th) / Now 18.9 (7th)

From a statistical perspective, the ability to create advantages via turnovers is not only the biggest area of improvement for the Grizzlies over the past year, it is becoming their most advantageous identity. The cohesiveness and consistent activity that this roster displays not only creates this advantage, but makes it sustainable. The turnovers allow Memphis to transition immediately into when they at their best on offense, which is on the run. It is hard to argue against the fact that the Grizzlies are the most opportunistic defense in the league, and it is a big reason as to why they have remained competitive despite being without some of their best talents for stretches this season.

PERIMETER PRODUCTION REMAINS STAGNANT

Besides limiting mistakes, the other area where the Grizzlies needed to improve to truly be in the playoff discussion this year was defending and shooting the three. They have certainly improved in each area for different stretches of the season; however, they have yet to consistently show improvement in both areas at the same time. Overall, the Grizzlies have remained at nearly the same level they were a year ago when it comes to their production on the perimeter on both ends of the court:

Rankings Before Suspension of 2019-2020 season vs. First Half of 2020-2021 (NBA RANKS):

  • Three Pointers Per Game: Then 10.9 (23rd) / Now 10.8 (26th)
  • Three Point Field Goal Percentage: Then 35.2% (21st) / 35.5% (21st)
  • Catch and Shoot Percentage from Three: Then 36.6% (18th) / Now 36.1% (24th)
  • Pull-Up Percentage from Three: Then 31% (26th) / Now 32.5% (22nd)
  • Opponent’s Three Pointers Per Game: Then 12.8 (23rd) / Now 13.1 (19th)
  • Opponent’s Three Point Field Goal Percentage: Then 36.3 % (22nd) / Now 37.5% (21st)

The Grizzlies have improved their ability to shoot the three recently due to finding some consistency with corner threes. However, despite a slight improvement in finding their own shots from deep, the Grizzlies remain below average both shooting and defending the three. This is the biggest area for the franchise to improve for it the take the next step competitively. Hopefully with a roster near full strength, they will begin to show progress on one or both ends of the court when it comes to the perimeter.

Milwaukee Bucks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

OPTIMISM OVERALL

It certainly is fair to say that with all the injuries and interruptions that the Grizzlies have had to deal with this season, it is hard yet to truly quantify just how much this roster has evolved or progressed. However, there certainly has been clear growth in many areas for this team, especially when it comes to the role players and reserves. Their impact, despites obvious limitations, has certainly yielded positive results this season:

Rankings Before Suspension of 2019-2020 season vs. First Half of 2020-2021 (NBA RANKS):

  • Offensive Rating: Then 108.9 (20th) / Now 110.3 (19th)
  • Defensive Rating: Then 109.9 (15th) / Now 109.4 (8th)
  • Net Rating: Then -1.0 (15th) / Now 0.8 (11th)

The fact that Memphis has actually improved both offensively and defensively while also being nearly two full points better according to NET rating is a significant success considering all the players that have been injured or absent. Without a doubt, the Grizzlies will hopefully get better both defending and shooting the three when Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. are back to normal. Furthermore, the overall improvements, though incremental, show valid proof that not only is the roster as a whole improving, but Coach Jenkins and his staff are utilizing schemes and strategies that put the roster in positions to succeed more frequently.

Though Memphis is still a significant ways away from where it ultimately wants to be consistently, the Grizzlies are slowly but surely showing signs they are headed in the right direction to becoming sustainable winners.

Stats Via NBA.COM

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