Entering the 2020-21 NBA Season, there was a communicated goal by the Grizzlies front office: Development. It was never stated that winning games or pushing to make the playoffs was not important, rather developing and evaluating the young talent on the roster was the end goal for this season. Pushing for the playoffs is arguably the most important piece to the development of young talent outside of real playing time, however. So the pursuits went hand in hand.
Sophomore coach Taylor Jenkins knew his task heading into his second season. With Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow beginning the season rehabbing injuries from the bubble, Jenkins had opportunity for in-game reps for guys like Xavier Tillman, Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, and Grayson Allen.
A popular narrative is that Coach Jenkins struggles at times with his rotations. Last season he had an 11 man rotation with an obviously worse collection of talent, but this season he seems more set on a 10 man rotation with loads of talent — handing out DNP-CDs to arguably the most improved player on the team and one of the most improved in the league in Melton.
Allow me to remind you that not long ago the J.B. Bickerstaff administration was significantly worse at rotations — whether it was playing Shelvin Mack or closing with the starters no matter how they have played that night. Jenkins at least has seemed willing to close with the hot hands on most nights, not forcing the starters to always close. Obviously Ja Morant is going to close nightly, but some nights Grayson or Dillon Brooks may not have it and coach has rolled with Melton or Bane instead.
The sign of a great coach and leader is whether or not the team buys in to the system. Jenkins and his staff have identified the strengths and weaknesses of this team and seek to use them to their advantage.
Memphis is second in deflections per game, leading directly to leading the league in fast break points. They are ninth in screen assists, using Jonas Valanciunas, Xavier Tillman and Brandon Clarke as elite screeners in the PNR. Here are some other stats:
9th in Defensive Rating — 110.3
8th in Assist % — 62.7%
3rd in Assist to Turnover ratio — 2.0
6th in Offensive Rebounding % — 28.1%
9th in Pace — 100.8
1st in points off turnovers — 19.4
1st in second chance points — 15.3
1st in points in the paint — 56.0
No team since these stats were first tracked in 1996-97 has ever led the NBA in the four stats the Memphis Grizzlies currently lead the league in. Only once, the Denver Nuggets in 2012-13, has a team been in the top 2 in all four categories.
This is all a direct reflection of a system put in place by a coaching staff and the players fully believing in it. To have one of the youngest teams in the league, be a top 10 defensive team, and be selfless enough to also lead in assist percentages is a testament to the job Taylor Jenkins has done at the helm.
Amplifying the strengths also means avoiding the weaknesses. Early in the season, while Memphis led in paint scoring, they were also 28th in 3 point field goal attempts. At that juncture, the Grizz really only had Desmond Bane and Kyle Anderson consistently shooting from deep. As the season has progressed, Anderson has regressed while Grayson and De’Anthony have drastically improved their shooting numbers. With three players shooting over the 35% mark, the Grizz have had a recent uptick in three point attempts, helping them rattle off recent impressive victories.
The debut of Jaren Jackson Jr against the back end of the bench of the Los Angeles Clippers felt like a devastating loss to some. The Grizzlies played 2⁄3 of a season without Jaren and were tasked with integrating him into what they were already doing well. The rotations seemed out of whack and confusing at times, but to expect Jenkins to deliver his perfect rotations (while still missing Jonas Valanciunas) is amiss. The addition of Jaren will have it’s growing pains and when the goal is development, that is ok.
The Grizzlies are fully capable of learning this season who and what fits together while pushing for the playoffs at the same time. However, if the focus ever shifts solely to the playoffs, that would be a mistake. The championship window is still in the future, therefore the window to experiment, evaluate and develop is now. Just as there is grace for Morant in his sophomore season, Jenkins deserves the same grace. After all, we are unaware at how much influence the front office has on what takes place rotationally. Jenkins has no control on rehab timelines, forcing him to adjust.
The Grizzlies are currently above .500, way ahead of schedule and still have a shot to win their first ever division title. Taylor Jenkins is not “the” problem because there is not a problem yet.
When someone fails to meet your expectations, that’s not on them, that is on you. They did not ask nor agree to your expectations therefore their failure to deliver is not a failure at all. To expect the Grizzlies to be a top seed or win a title this season has always been unrealistic. Enjoy being ahead of schedule and the development of a young staff and young core.