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The Memphis Grizzlies and the Evolution of Grit n’ Grind

A look at the ‘10-11 season and now

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2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

One of the ultimate truths in life is that things change over time. In just the last ten years, I have graduated college, got married, had a child and moved three times. Social media platforms have exploded and changed the media game, and streaming services have made cable and satellite television near obsolete.

The same is true in the NBA and with the Memphis Grizzlies. Ten seasons ago, the Memphis Grizzlies made the playoffs for the first time in what came to be known as the Grit ‘n Grind era. They were an eight seed matched up with the mighty San Antonio Spurs who were 60-22 on the year. Memphis went on to not only snap an 0-12 playoff record with the first win in franchise history, but did the improbable and won that first round series and took the Oklahoma City Thunder to 7 games in round 2.

Ten years later, the Grizz Next Gen era began it’s quest in the NBA Postseason. Although they did not advance past the first round, they did manage to win their first three* postseason games. The success on paper looks slightly different for the two teams, but the similarities between the 10-11 and 20-21 teams are very interesting — as well as the contrasts.

Same Vibe A Decade Later

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs - Game Five Photos by D. Clarke Evans/NBAE via Getty Images

The similarities after a decade in each era’s first playoff run are kind of nuts. For starters, both teams featured 3 non 2-way rookies on their rosters. Greivis Vasquez, Xavier Henry and Ish Smith played alongside the Core Four, while this season featured Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman and Jontay Porter.

In 2010-11, the future franchise cornerstones were a point guard and a big were under 25. Go figure, in 2020-21 the cornerstones are a point guard and a big fall in the same category. Each team’s most experienced player was a bruising rebounder in the front court — Zach Randolph and Jonas Valanciunas. Both teams had a starting wing player who relished in being a defensive menace, also known as Trick-or-Treat the OG and Trick-or-Treat 2.0.

When it came to their playoff debuts as a team, both teams were the 8 seed, and both featured four players to average over 10 points per game. Each team had two starters with previous playoff experience — Tony Allen and Zach Randolph; Jonas Valanciunas and Kyle Anderson.

Perhaps the craziest similarity as people try to move this team beyond the Grit n’ Grind style of play, is that both teams led the NBA in steals — 2010-11 had 9.4 per and 2020-21 averaged 9.1 per. This led to each of these groups to be top 10 in opponent turnovers per game. A not so fun similarity is that both teams attempted and made less threes per game than their opponents. Perhaps GNG will never fully die as a franchise embodies the city they reside in...

The Evolution

2021 NBA Playoffs - Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

While the similarities between the teams an entire decade apart are borderline eerie, the differences are perhaps more telling about how the NBA has evolved and the Memphis Grizzlies have had to catch up.

The “veteran” on the current roster is 8 year pro Jonas Valanciunas. A decade ago, the Grizzlies featured two 9 year vets in Zach Randolph and Shane Battier as well as an NBA Champion in Tony Allen. That roster bolstered 102 games of playoff experience, including two separate Finals appearance by the Grindfather. As it was noted heading into the play-in game against Golden State, this year’s Grizzlies’ roster had 77 amongst 3 players.

This year Memphis featured six players ages 25 and under and only 2 older, that averaged 10 minutes or more per game, while a decade ago the ratio was 5-4. In the playoffs, ZBo was the only Core Four member to average over 20 points per contest. This year both Ja Morant (30) and Dillon Brooks (25.8) joined elite company in the NBA 25 and under to score over 25 club.

The starters this season were responsible for 93 points per game, good for 78% of the team’s total scoring. While we rave about the depth of this bench, the 2010-11 bench had a larger rotation and contributed more to the team. Those starters scored 68 points per game at 68% of the total scoring. So while the scoring has increased (league wide), this year’s group had to (or chose to) carry more of the load.

The Stats

  • 2010-11: 33.4% from 3 (27th in the NBA) — Opponents shot 36.9% (28th)
  • 2020-21: 35.6% from 3 (20th in the NBA) — Opponents shot 36.7% (18th)
  • 2010-11: 71.6 2 point attempts per game (1st in the NBA)
  • 2020-21: 60.4 2 point attempts per game (3rd )
  • 2010-11: 11.8 Offensive Rebounds per (6th)
  • 2020-21: 11.2 Offensive Rebounds per (2nd)

The shift in style of play is apparent in these numbers alone. The Grizzlies took 11.2 less shots from 2 than a decade ago but were still third in the NBA. Their opponents shot the same percentage from three but due to the volume now, they are towards the middle of the pack defensively. The Next Gen Grizzlies grabbed practically the same amount of offensive rebounds, as the team that coined the term “ZBound” but finished 4 spots higher in the association.

The NBA today, as our eyes tell us, has shifted from the paint to the arc. Memphis has taken more threes, but still struggle to make them. They still have this decade old approach at times, while still playing fast. It’s like the team plays the Kyle Anderson way — a slo-mo fast break... oxymoronic.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game Five Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Comparing Enemies

As mentioned before, both teams were an eight seed headed into the first playoff run of their era. To get a better feel for what they faced, I did a little (more) research.

10-11 Spurs vs 20-21 Jazz

Stat Spurs (rank) Jazz (rank)
Stat Spurs (rank) Jazz (rank)
3 pt % 39.7% (1) 38.9% (4)
Opp FTA 2nd 2nd
Points/G 103.7 (6) 116.4 (4)
PA/G 98 (14) 107.2 (3)
BPM 5.7 9.2
Total Rebounds 12th 1st
eFG% 52.7% (1) 56.3%(5)
ORating 111.8 (2) 117.6 (3)
DRating 103.6 (11) 108.3 (4)
3pt Attempt Rate 26.1% (6) 48.8% (1)
OReb % 24.9% (21) 24.5% (3)
Defensive eFG% 49.1% (10) 50.7% (1)
# of All Stars 2 3
Basketball Reference & Cleaning the Glass

Some of these stats are mind boggling. The Spurs were a middle of the road defense allowing less than 100 per game and the Jazz are lauded as an amazing defense giving up closer to 110 per game.

The most gaudy difference was the three point attempt rate. Almost half of the Jazz’s offense are three point shots and they are hitting nearly 40% of them — absolutely bonkers I must add. The Spurs were SIXTH in the NBA at 29% of their offense coming from behind the perimeter. Neither iteration of the Grizzlies are particularly great at defending the perimeter, but this year’s team ran into an offensive juggernaut.

The Spurs were a fine offense, top 10 in most categories that mattered, but their defense was middle of the league or worse in a lot of categories. The Jazz are an elite offense that boasts an elite defense — only team in the NBA to be top 5 in both. One last crazy stat is that both teams had a similar offensive rebound rate, but the Jazz were 3rd in the league while the Spurs were 21st.

The Next Gen Grizzlies really had no chance. While being a better offense than the Grizz of yore, it was never going to be enough against one of the better offenses the NBA has seen. The Spurs did not scare you on defense and the Grizzlies had the right mixture of vets and skill sets to exploit their weaknesses. This Jazz team just did not seem to have a weakness, coupled with an extremely youthful team (3rd youngest in all major sports).

2021 NBA Playoffs - Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Joe Mullinax said it best, the best version of the Memphis Grizzlies is yet to come. They went up against a significantly stronger one seed and you feel like there should have been a game 6 or 7. While the 2010-11 Grizz went on to win the first playoff series in franchise history (and go to game 7 in round 2), this Grizzlies team took even bigger leaps forward. Contending is no longer a thing of the past, this team is here to stay.

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