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Floating on with the Grizzlies

More diversity is needed in the offense.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Phoenix Suns Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

History appears to be cyclical when it comes to Memphis sports. No matter what year it is or the coach is, you can always rely on the fact that the Memphis Tigers basketball team will be a terrible free-throw shooting team that doesn't take care of the basketball. And for better or for worse, it appears that the Memphis Grizzlies in particular will always be a team that specializes in paint-scoring and generally struggles in the realm of three-point shooting.

NBA: Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

In a vacuum, the fact that the Grizzlies under Taylor Jenkins have geared their offense toward the paint isn’t inherently a bad thing. They have led the league in paint scoring each of the past two years, and most of the team’s best scoring options — Ja Morant, Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, among others — excel at finishing once they get into the painted area. In many ways, it would appear that Jenkins has designed an offense that simply suits the strengths of his best players. That’s very nice of him to do!

But no matter how well-tailored the Grizzlies’ offense may be to its personnel, it doesn’t change the fact that the offense is generally somewhere between mediocre and outright bad. For the second year in a row, they are 22nd in offensive efficiency and often look impotent compared to the league’s elite offenses. To be sure, it’s mainly been the Grizzlies’ 8th-ranked defense that has allowed them to surpass expectations to this point,

NBA: Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Now some caveats: With due credit to Taylor Jenkins, the principles of a quality NBA offense are there, as the Grizzlies excel in sharing the basketball, ranking 5th in the league in assists (26.8) and 2nd last year (27.0). The Grizzlies also just simply lack elite perimeter scoring, so until that changes, there will always be a ceiling on how good they can be offensively. Not having their best overall shooter when accounting for volume and accuracy in Jaren Jackson Jr. also doesn’t help matters much (although they weren’t any better with him last year).

However, there are ways that the Grizzlies are not helping themselves. They are not a particularly good shooting team (23rd in the league at 35% from three), but they also seem to lack the desire to be a good shooting team. They are 28th in the league in three-point attempts (29.8), and the only teams that attempt less are the New York Knicks and Cleveland Cavaliers, who rank 23rd and 30th in offensive efficiency respectively (in case there was any doubt about the correlation between three-point shooting and overall success offensively). In their five games before last night against the Miami Heat, the Grizzlies were dead-last in three-point attempts by a comfortable margin, as they were unable to keep up with the volume of threes that the Phoenix Suns and *checks notes* the Oklahoma City Blue (ft. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander) shot.

NBA: Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

Again, some of this is by design. The Grizzlies are not one of the better shooting teams in the league, and they have a surplus of effective paint-scorers, so they seek to do most of their damage in the paint. But even with that in mind, it still hasn’t translated to real offensive success. And the problem is not necessarily that they take over 63% of their shots in the paint, but rather the type of shots that they take in the paint.

Yes, I’m coming for the floaters.

I’ll be blunt: Floaters are one of the least efficient shots in basketball, yet it’s where the Grizzlies get their bread and butter. Over 30% (????) of the Grizzlies’ shots are floaters, and I’ll save you the trouble in case you’re wondering: there’s not a single team in modern NBA history that even sniffs that number. To put it into perspective, the Grizzlies led the league in floaters attempted last year, and just 25% of their shots were floaters. Of course, it’s been a running joke for awhile that the Grizzlies specialize in floaters, but the sad truth is that they're not even particularly elite at them. They shoot 44% on them, which is good for 8th in the league but not necessarily great for the absurd amount of these generally inefficient shots that they attempt.

And that’s the point. The Grizzlies do have plenty of players that are good at making floaters, but it doesn’t really matter how great you are at making relatively bad shots because relatively bad shots cannot be the foundation of a great offense. Floaters have the same statistical stigma as normal mid-range shots because they’re often contested and just not as efficient as shots at the rim or from three.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

The problem for Memphis is simple math: Only 29.4% of the Grizzlies’ shots are threes as compared to just over 30% for floaters. Since they are shooting 44% on floaters, then they are scoring an average of 8.8 points for every 10 floaters that they attempt. Since they are shooting 35% from three, they are averaging 10.5 points for every 10 threes that they attempt. The Grizzlies may be prolific at floaters and short mid-range shots while being a relatively bad three-point shooting team, but the implication is simple: three-pointers are still significantly more efficient shots than floaters, and the Grizzlies should be shooting more threes than they currently are.

Floaters also are a negative for the Grizzlies in that they mitigate an advantage that elite paint scoring teams usually have, which is free throws. There’s been a narrative for awhile now that the Grizzlies just don’t receive respect from officials, which would seem to be a possible explanation for how the Grizzlies can rank 25th in the league in free throw attempts (20.2) while somehow also being the league’s best paint-scoring team and totaling the 2nd most drives into the paint (53.7 per game). While there might be some truth to that, the reality is that the Grizzlies take only 32% of their shots at the rim, which ranks only 19th in the league. Because they settle for floaters so much instead of getting all the way to the rim, they don’t get fouled as much as their statistical profile would suggest that they should.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Oklahoma City Thunder Alonzo Adams-USA TODAY Sports

And to a certain degree, it’s the profile of the Memphis Grizzlies offense that needs to change. Maybe Taylor Jenkins has already realized that. They attempted 42 threes against the Miami Heat last night, although that game might not be the best example since they only scored 89 points and shot 23% from three. It was a bit of an over-correction, considering that they were outscored 46-36 in the paint. No matter what changes that they make, they need to remain true to their paint-scoring identity.

But there is still room for growth and diversity within their offensive identity, and that should be seen the most clearly at the three-point line. With his size and athletic limitations, Tyus Jones shouldn’t be expected to give up floaters, and neither should Ja Morant with all of the size and bodies that teams are throwing at him in the paint. Whether it’s Jones, Morant, Clarke, Tillman, or whoever else, they should continue to take what the defense gives them.

And in doing so, they should demonstrate a greater willingness to — as a former player from a different era of Grizzlies basketball likes to say — let it fly.

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