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Looking for sustainability in Memphis

The Grizzlies have had stretches playing elite defense and offense all season. What might it look like once they achieve a consistent balance?

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Though the Memphis Grizzlies are only 4-6 over their last 10 games, their certainly should be more positive than negative feelings about their play in April overall. The Grizzlies are 9-7 in April, a month that included the majority of Memphis’ games being on the road and against teams with playoff aspirations this season. They just completed the longest and arguably toughest road trip in franchise history with a 4-3 record, and through their play this month, have validated they are one of the best road teams in the NBA.

Beyond their record, the way the Grizzlies have found success is also exciting. Last week, I detailed how the Grizzlies were playing their best stretch of offense this season and perhaps in franchise history. Their offensive production and balance this month has certainly been a pleasant surprise due to it being a stark contrast from how the offense performed in March. However, as the Grizzlies played a very tough stretch against some very good teams over the past week, their offensive numbers have logically regressed a bit. The hope is that, even with the expected regression settling in, this hot offensive streak would at least signal the Grizzlies embarking on the next evolution of their offense, especially in terms of becoming better shooting from distance.

Personally, this is the aspect of the Grizzlies’ performances that has been the most interesting as the Memphis roster has continued to achieve full health. During different stretches of time in March and April, the Grizzlies have featured both a top five offense and a top five defense. Yet, because of how young Memphis’s roster is and the fact that several of their best players have played such little time together, it never seemed wise to believe that Memphis truly had an offense or defense that could sustain a Top 5 ranking on either end of the court for an extended period of time.

This assessment is not meant to come across as a negative critique; it is simply meant to be a sensible observation of the overall talent of Memphis’s roster compared to the rest of the league. Though their elite play on either end of the court may not be sustainable, it certainly should be considered a positive that the Grizzlies young roster has shown the potential to play at an elite level offensively or defensively when it needs to.

The collective result of the Grizzlies solid but somewhat streaky play over the past several weeks is a 16-15 record since March 1st. Though the Grizzlies have shown flashes of above average to elite production at times, they remain an average team at best currently as a whole. Furthermore, with the wide variety of performances the Grizzlies have shown during this span, it is also difficult to pinpoint an idea of what an improved version of this Grizzlies’ team might be. However, generating an idea of a sustainable performance each game for the Grizzlies becomes easier when you consider the impact Memphis’s recent play has had on their season numbers overall.

The Grizzlies were completely different between March and April, as evidenced by where they rank in offensive rating and defensive rating each month (NBA Ranks through April 28th):

March: 20th in OFF RTG, 6th in DEF RTG

April: 1st in OFF RTG, 24th in DEF RTG

While there are big differences in production across the board when comparing the two months, two of the most positive differences have occurred in the areas of scoring and three point production (NBA Ranks through April 28th):

March: 112.5 PPG (14th), 9.5 3PMPG (29th), 32.8% 3P% (28th)

April: 120.1 PPG (2nd), 13.2 3PMPG (13th), 39.2% 3P% (4th)

Overall, the Grizzlies true ability on offense and defense lies somewhere in the middle of their production over the past two months. For the season, they are 14th in OFF RTG and 9th in DEF RTG, supporting the idea that the true talent level of this team is a league average offense and above average defense. However, before this month when the Grizzlies are the best offensive team in the league, they were 19th in OFF RTG. This illustrates the significance of the Grizzlies offensive outburst in April:

It seems unlikely that Memphis will remain among the best offenses in the league; the hope is that the adjustments that led to this offensive outburst in April will allow the Grizzlies to take a sustainable stride from a below average offense to a league average offense moving forward.

If the Grizzlies can be a consistently league average offense, it significantly improves their chances of winning when combined with their above average defense. As of April 28th, the Grizzlies average 113.3 points, 11.1 threes, and are shooting 35.9% from three this season. These marks rank 13th, 25th, and 18th in the in the NBA, respectively. Despite the three point production still being below average, the Grizzlies elite ability to score in the paint, off turnovers, on the run, and via offensive rebounds results in average overall production.

In general, when you consider how rare the Grizzlies offensive production at the first of April has been in franchise history, it is fair to assume those numbers will not be met very often going forward. That means that the key focal points in terms of the Grizzlies offensive production in the present and future is at or worse their production in March when they struggle and at or better than their current season averages when they succeed. Though it may seem like there is not much difference between these two sets of data, the Grizzlies record when they produce one way or the other in a game suggests otherwise.

NBA: Portland Trail Blazers at Memphis Grizzlies Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Under Taylor Jenkins, the Grizzlies record when they perform at or worse than their March averages (112 or less points and 10 or less threes in a game) is 13-31.

Under Taylor Jenkins, the Grizzlies record when they perform at or better than their current season averages (113 or more points and 11 or more threes in a game) is 38-17.

In terms of the 133 games total games Taylor Jenkins has coached as of April 28th, the Grizzlies have fallen into the March category 44 times and the season average category 56 times. Under Jenkins, the Grizzlies offense has performed at one extreme or the other roughly 75% of the time (33% and 42%, respectively). However, in the Grizzlies 30 games since the start of March, their offensive performance has fallen into one of these two categories 80% of the time. Fortunately, only 30% of those games have fit into the March category while 50% have fit into the season average category.

If the Grizzlies can continue this trend moving forward, it will significantly improve their ability to win. However, it is going to take time. For one, it took a month in which the Grizzlies have played like the best offense in the NBA to simply be considered a league average offense for the season overall. Secondly, with how young this Grizzlies team is and the fact that players are continuing to play in new roles and in new lineups, switching from one extreme to the other will continue to happen multiple times every few weeks. There is no better proof of that than Memphis shooting 13-64 over their past two games from beyond the arc.

Memphis already does a few things consistently well that are needed to win consistently in this league. They pass the ball well and now have a defense that has improved defending the three. If Memphis can find its consistency shooting the three, their ability to win improves even more when combining that improving trait with their ability to pass and defend the perimeter. Under Jenkins, when the Grizzlies score 113+ points, make 11+ threes, produce 27+ assists and hold their opponent under 40% from three, they are 22-4. Of the 26 total games in which the Grizzlies have met these statistical marks, nine of them have occurred in their past 20 games. Not only are the Grizzlies 8-1 in these contests, the frequency at which the Grizzlies are playing effectively on both ends of the court over the past month is certainly encouraging.

Overall, even if it has been in short stretches, the Grizzlies have certainly progressed on both ends of the court this season. They have made small but significant steps toward the next evolution of this team. While these strides may not reach a level of sustainability this season, they certainly increase confidence that the Grizzlies can play at an improved level consistently in the future.

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