You may or may not know this, but the Memphis Grizzlies are currently playing sub-par basketball.
Four losses in their last five games. Six of their last nine ending with defeats. It all spells a varying level of doom and gloom among fans of Ja Morant and company. Overwhelming amounts of games and inexperience/immaturity be damned - this current run of poor play is unacceptable.
Plot twist - you’re right! Just not for the reason you may want to be.
The Grizzlies remain in a state of taking the long view of things while being in the play-in conversation. The Memphis front office and coaching staff continues to not necessarily care about that postseason reality, prioritizing working players that have been out due to injury like Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. at the expense of chemistry on the court. It hasn’t been pretty, but it has been necessary - Winslow needed minutes, and Jackson Jr. is arguably the best two-way player on the team when right.
It appears, at least for now, that the Justise experiment may have reached its conclusion. Winslow garnered his first DNP-CD in a while on Monday night against the New York Knicks, and for many that follow the Grizzlies it was a long time coming. There is no denying that Justise struggled, and removing him from the rotation does eliminate one aspect of things that is making the situation tougher for Memphis to find its bearings. But between Jaren, fatigue of both the mental and physical variety, and other factors? While Winslow was a convenient scapegoat, there are larger problems with the Grizzlies.
But rejoice! For there are solutions to the quandaries that Taylor Jenkins and his staff are facing. And while implementing some of them will be easier than others, if all three are put in a position of importance things could start turning around for Memphis.
Let’s start with the “easiest” one.
NUMBER ONE - Start Jaren Jackson Jr.
On a smaller scale than the Justise Winslow debate, the question of why a player the caliber of Jaren Jackson Jr. is still coming off the bench as a reserve has been raised several times by various Memphis media members and fans alike. When you watch a star young talent like LaMelo Ball return to Charlotte after a long lay-off and get the chance to start right away - and play well right away - it can certainly seem as reinforcement of that criticism of Coach Jenkins and the performance team’s plans for JJJ. But the vision of the franchise must be kept in mind - they clearly want to see Jaren achieve at a high level in this role first, in a healthy manner, before pushing him to the starter stage. They also appear interested in Jaren logging minutes at the traditional “5” position, meaning he has been an early substitute for Jonas Valanciunas of late. The early numbers bear that out - of Jaren’s 129 minutes to date, approximately 86% of them have come at the center spot according to basketball-reference.com.
In the name of “data collection”, that makes sense. And that pursuit - a larger amount of time at the “5” than the “4” - is a worthy one if you envision Jaren as that long-term. But you can get a good look at Jackson Jr. the center while also helping the team now.
Just start him. And get Jonas out early, sliding Jaren to the five.
For example - say both Jaren and Jonas play 30 minutes a game as starters beginning with Thursday’s game in Detroit, since Jaren is missing the Wednesday game at Minnesota. If you subbed a “big” (more on that later) for Jonas five minutes in to the first and third quarters, that would put Valanciunas at the 5 next to Jaren’s 4 for 10 total minutes of their 30. Play Jackson Jr. as the center the remaining minutes, with Jonas relieving him later on in the rotational process, and Jaren sees 66% of his time in that role. It isn’t 86%, but it’s still a vast majority of his time on the floor.
Meanwhile, you’re aiding your most important player by giving him earlier access to the unicorn that is Jaren Jackson Jr. Ja Morant has had success offensively alongside Jonas Valanciunas in the two-man game. But Jaren is a different beast - he can create off the dribble for himself on the perimeter. He can shoot the three. He has displayed an early emphasis on an improved game on the low block, adding another layer to his skill set. The space that Jonas provides as an expert screener and roller to the rim is quite valuable, but the room that Ja would get would be created differently with Jaren.
Ja and Kyle Anderson do not have that relationship in their current 1-4 dealings. Jaren would open up a whole new world for Morant, enabling him to get in to a rhythm faster. And the sooner your best offensive facilitator gets going, the better. Returning Jaren to his rightful place in the starting five gets Ja that variety in his creative process on the floor.
NUMBER TWO: Kyle “Hypothetical Justise Winslow” Anderson
Chris Herrington of the Daily Memphian has said a lot about the exploits of Kyle Anderson this season, even stating that Kyle is what the Grizzlies want Justise to be. That’s fair, especially this season - Kyle is a larger wing, a versatile defender that can create offense for himself and others while displaying an improved shooting stroke from beyond the arc. Winslow in Miami showed to be this type of player, but he has yet to show up in Memphis for the Grizzlies - and many would argue that Justise’s exploits with the Heat were not to the level of what Anderson has been this season for Memphis.
Take that energy and apply it to the current state of things. If Winslow can be Justise Winslow better than Justise Winslow can be in the here and now, let him do it more often.
Five minutes in to each half, substitute Kyle Anderson in for Jonas Valanciunas (and De’Anthony Melton for Grayson Allen). A Morant/Melton/Brooks/Anderson/Jackson Jr. lineup creates massive issues defensively (beyond Morant) for the opposition while also putting five players on the floor that have displayed the capacity to create for themselves off the dribble both in the half court and also in transition. They all also can score the ball from three (again, beyond Morant - although his three point shooting improved drastically over the span of April) and between Melton and Anderson can provide opportunity for Morant to be a scorer off the ball, disrupting game plans of opponents knowing Ja’s exploits as the primary creator off Taylor Jenkins’ drive and kick sets. And with Anderson running the second unit, his offensive tools can better help establish and amplify the strengths of that group.
The Justise Winslow comparison continues in the next substitution, when a big man comes in for Ja Morant.
NUMBER THREE: Get Brandon Clarke going
Two basketball seasons ago, Brandon Clarke was the most efficient college basketball player on the planet not named Zion Williamson. Last season, Brandon Clarke was a first team All-Rookie selection and in several ways (Win Shares per 48 minutes, PER, Value Over Replacement Player) was superior to the Rookie of the Year Ja Morant. Now there’s a reason that Morant won - larger usage rate, for one, and it isn’t as if Morant was a slouch in the previously mentioned statistical areas. But if you’re one of those folks that would argue that Jonas Valanciunas was Memphis’ best player last season (and there is a strong minority of people that do), then Brandon Clarke was also in that “dark horse Grizzlies MVP” mix.
Brandon Clarke didn’t just forget how to play basketball. He is clearly not right physically, and has said as much recently. Perhaps his DNP-CDs of late have more to do with that than anything. That helps it make more sense, because when he is right, he’s fantastic. And he’s better than Xavier Tillman Sr.
Clarke’s Win Share Per 48 Minutes number last season, for example, was .183, just edging out Valanciunas for the best mark on the team by .001. Tillman’s this season is .134, which is good! But even with Clarke’s struggles, he is still posting a better number at .136. Clarke also has a higher PER (16.9 to Tillman’s 14.9) and higher VORP (1.0 to Tillman’s 0.5). Now X is better as a rebounder (12.4 to 11.8 rebound rate) and is scoring the ball much more efficiently (60% true shooting to Brandon’s 56%) while attempting more threes (22.1% three point rate to Clarke’s 15.2%). X is simply the better scorer of the basketball right now. But how much of that is because Brandon is hampered? He’s had bumps and bruises all season long and has yet to get in to a rhythm as a player in part because of that reality.
This all comes with the caveat that Brandon is healthy. If he isn’t, X should keep getting his run. But assuming that a couple games/days off eventually do Clarke’s body good, he needs to play. He needs to be on the floor with players that cater to his strengths as a transition force who can finish at the rim. If his first substitution is for Morant, than he needs Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton by his side (in addition to the three point shooting of a Grayson Allen or Desmond Bane). This proposed Anderson/Melton/Bane/Clarke/Tillman bench unit carries with it three guards/forwards that are either already (Melton and Anderson) or are becoming (Bane) above average to elite rebounders for their positions, especially defensively (Anderson is in the 88th percentile in defensive rebounding percentage among players that have played at least 600 minutes this season per Cleaning the Glass, Melton is 83rd and Bane is 64th). This would offset glass cleaning concerns with a smaller lineup.
A fair counterpoint to this suggestion is how much better Tillman has been at defending the rim this season than Clarke. If you go Tyus over Brandon due to wanting a stable force like Jones running the traditional point, that means X is at the 5 with Kyle at the 4...which has worked! Opponents shoot 3.3% worse near the basket when Tillman is on the floor, good for the 83rd percentile using the pervious criteria from Cleaning the Glass. This is also the exact same percentage/percentile for Kyle Anderson. Meanwhile, Clarke allows for folks to shoot .8% better (43rd percentile). But considering how other bigs on the roster like Jonas Valanciunas (teams shoot 2.9% better at the rim against him and 4.4% better in the midrange, “good” for the 24th and 9th percentiles respectively) are doing without health issues, Clarke’s struggles there (although he is in the 81st percentile in defending the midrange at -3%) would not be as profound as one may think.
Ironically, Jonas has been a better three point defender (85th percentile at -2.7%) than Clarke (+2.1, 22nd percentile) or even Tillman (+1.8%, 25th percentile). Some of that surely has to do with Clarke’s struggles responding to his health and Jonas’ drop coverage strengths where he isn’t asked to be the primary defender on long range shots in the same way that Brandon or X are. And this isn’t an indictment on Jonas - Clarke and Jonas have played well together this season (+4.5 net rating in 453 minutes sharing the floor per nba.com/stats) and the numbers used throughout this piece would argue that it is Jonas who is the Grizzlies best player currently. It is more about how the other bigs on the roster beyond X - Jonas, Jaren Jackson Jr., and “big” Kyle Anderson, fit with Clarke relatively well. And in 422 minutes together, Tillman and Clarke have posted a +6.4 net rating, good for 7th on the team in two-man lineups that have played at least half of Memphis’ games together. So they can play alongside one another effectively if you decide to run with X instead of, say, Tyus Jones. Or even go without Kyle Anderson for stretches if you wanted a more “traditional” look, but despite two-man lineup numbers Kyle has been one of the best Grizzlies this season and brings more versatility to the lineup.
Tyus, while a great back-up point guard, is limited beyond that specific position. There’s a reason he was a victim of Justise Winslow’s run. A Kyle/De’Anthony/Desmond/Clarke/Tillman bench rotation behind a Ja/Grayson/Dillon/Jaren/Jonas starting five best creates defensively impactful moments and chances in transition - the things the Grizzlies are best at - with enough shooting to keep teams honest in the half court.
Again, if Clarke is not healthy than he should not play. But once he is, he has the physicality and ability to move in space to be an impactful defensive player while also being a transition big who can finish strong at the rim. He has the potential to take this reserve unit to the next level, especially alongside De’Anthony Melton and/or Tyus Jones. He is too good (if healthy) to be on the bench. Too many saw him as an untouchable part of the Grizzlies just months ago.
That didn’t all just disappear.
The Grizzlies have proven time and again that they are not going to bend to the whims of media and fans. They have a vision for what the future of Memphis pro basketball looks like, and they’re not going to go away from it without a reason that better serves their long-term goals. But in these three specific points of emphasis the team can improve their current state of the team and do so without disrupting what their seasons ahead likely look like. Jaren Jackson Jr. almost surely is a key piece of that process. Brandon Clarke was as of several months ago and probably still is. Kyle Anderson, assuming Justise Winslow is done for at least this season, can be what the Grizzlies hoped Justise could be - at least for now. These moves allow for some time at the “5” for Jaren, and for players like Melton to get run alongside Ja, whose games compliment one another so well (Melton and Morant have the best net rating of any Grizzlies pairing that has played at least 300 minutes together this season).
Improved defensive rotations and prioritizing that area of the floor will lead to better offensive production. That has been clear time and again. These moves do that, while also getting more out of Ja Morant through being more fully reunited with his unicorn running partner Jaren Jackson Jr. The team (again, if Clarke is healthy after these games off) gets better.
And in both the here and now as well as the great beyond, that helps the Memphis Grizzlies.