It’s common for most coaches to crunch their rotation down to 7 or 8 when it gets to playoff time, but through the first 2 games it’s looking like Taylor Jenkins is going to stay with 10. His commitment to a deep rotation is a common criticism among media and the fanbase, but it’s fair for him to roll 10-deep.
For starters, there’s not a clear top-8 — like how there is with other teams. Desmond Bane is the 6th man; he’s established that with strong play over the past month. From 7 on, there’s very little separation from De’Anthony Melton to Brandon Clarke (the presumable 11th man). You can even argue that the gap between 7 and 11-12 is tighter than the gap between Bane and Kyle Anderson (the 4th starter right now).
In addition, two of that 10 are more spot-minute players. Tyus Jones is the only person on the roster that can run the offense with Ja Morant out of the game, and the same goes for Xavier Tillman with Jonas Valanciunas at the 5 — especially with how Jaren Jackson Jr. has been at that position since his return. So nobody in the starting lineup can spot Morant or Valanciunas, and the two bench guys that can don’t mesh well alongside their positional counterparts, leaving under 10 minutes each for Tillman and Jones.
That leaves Grayson Allen and De’Anthony Melton at the final two spots. They have arguably been in the top-8 this season in terms of production, but it’s tailed off in the past month. However, that second quarter run with Bane, Melton, and Allen allows Jenkins to see which of those 3 are on their games and could be relied on going forward.
So the reasoning is valid, but the effectiveness hasn’t been there. What are some things Jenkins should tweak with the rotation to keep up with Utah’s high-powered bench?
I’ll go with the elephant in the room first. Jaren Jackson Jr. doesn’t need to be on the floor without Jonas Valanciunas or Ja Morant. It’s clear that the 3rd-year big man is struggling getting adapted to the game speed on both ends of the floor, and it’s amplified by 10 when he’s without his starting point guard and his frontcourt partner-in-crime.
His efficiency is down, as he’s still searching for his rhythm from deep and finding his legs offensively. The most magnifying parts of his struggles are his defense and rebounding. The rebounding has been a common theme for a while, but it’s also enhanced when he’s not on the floor with Jonas Valanciunas — a top-3 rebounder in the league. Like rebounding, fouling has been a struggle for Jackson’s career. However, with getting back into game flow, he’s missing rotations and having more defensive miscues.
Keeping him with Valanciunas is a major key going forward this postseason, as it allows him to be more of a rover and less of a protector. It could swing the series, as the Grizzlies get obliterated in Jaren/no JV lineups so far:
- Jaren with Valanciunas vs. Jaren without Valanciunas: +3.4 NET rating in 39 minutes; -61.3 NET rating in 19 minutes.
Small sample, yeah, but that can’t keep happening. If Valanciunas needs a rest, those are Tillman’s minutes.
With Morant in the mix too, they’ve been a slight negative (-2.9 with them 3 on the floor this postseason), because it takes into account lineup shuffling around the 2 and the 3. However, Morant and Jackson have solid pick-and-pop chemistry — a nice wrinkle to the offense from the Morant-Valanciunas pick-and-roll. In addition, Morant generates more attention than Tyus Jones, which should give Jackson more open shots to find his rhythm.
Ensuring that he’s on the floor with the engine and the rock of the offense will help his impact. In these lineups, he can hover around the 3-point line, wait for drive-and-kicks from Morant, and not be the primary rim protector and rebounder.
The second suggestion is making a call on the bench wings.
Again, Desmond Bane is the 6th man — and perhaps even a closer. He’s clearly been better over the past month than Melton and Allen by a mile. With his size, outside shooting, live-dribble creation, and gritty defense, he’s been a plus in these playoff moments.
Melton and Allen have struggled over the past month. Their shots haven’t been on, and they haven’t impacted the game in other ways that have warranted big-time minutes. It’s been rough and uncharacteristic.
Those 3 wings are worthy of a 10-man rotation spot — 8 is when things would get a bit dicey. Either of those 3 could get hot from deep and change the momentum of a game this series. However, Jenkins needs to stop with the lineups that included all 3 at the same time.
It’s a lineup that wasn’t deployed often, and when you add Tyus Jones to the mix, that quartet logged 4(!!) minutes together all season long. And it wasn’t even a positive lineup.
The Jazz got too much size from the 2-4 for Memphis to roll with them 3 at the same time, especially when you factor in Gobert or Favors at the 5.
These 3 guys are crucial to the system, and Jenkins sees that. Going forward, they need to stagger those guys better, and use the 1st half to see which guy between Melton and Allen have the hot hand before shrinking the rotation after halftime.
Finally, the Grizzlies need to stagger their lineups better.
On the other side, Utah does a wonderful job staggering their lineups. Having the better team helps, but their staggering is tremendous. There isn’t a time where Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell are off the floor, which gives them a potent All-Star playmaker on the floor at all times. In addition, they always have Joe Ingles or Bojan Bogdanovic on the floor, giving them a deadeye shooter that can put on the floor for all 48 minutes.
Granted, the Grizzlies don’t have that same talent luxury right now. However, there shouldn’t be a time where they don’t have 2 of Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Jonas Valanciunas, or Kyle Anderson on the floor.
At all times of the game, they need stability — whether it’s a guy that can run the offense, create their own shot, find their teammates, get stops, get a rebound, or just give the team an easy bucket. Morant, Brooks, Valanciunas, and Anderson do just that. Morant and Brooks, despite low experience level, have shown they’re built for these moments, while Anderson and Valanciunas have years of playoff battles under their belts. They’re also the 4 best players right now, and have been all season long.
This is a young team that has a lot of players that are new to this atmosphere. Any form of stability is key, as the game can fall apart like a house of cards without it.
Pure bench lineups are an absolute no-no at this stage of the year. The games are too crucial, the intensity is ramped up to new levels, and the stakes are too high for it. The playoffs are the times to have your best players on the floor, and all-bench lineups aren’t the way to go right now.
Taylor Jenkins has done a phenomenal job this season and this series thus far. He’s instilled the confidence in his team to play their game with a green light, while fostering a “next man up” mentality. And that confidence and mentality has also resonated with this team through their resilience and their inability to give up. He’s also made proper adjustments to get his guys good looks and attacking points against the Utah defense.
And just like it is for the players, this is a growth opportunity for Taylor Jenkins and his staff as well. He’s a young coach who’s been a sensational tactician and communicator with his team. In these playoffs, he’ll get the chance to learn from in-series adjustments and playoff rotations that’ll foster growth across the staff.
Regardless, the rotation has been bothersome, since there have been obvious backbreakers that have opened the floodgates for Utah to make runs. In a situation where every little detail matters, these rotations (even for just spot minutes) can swing the entire game.