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Growing the Grizzlies - Shot Distribution

The Grizzlies have sensibly played to their strengths for two years. A few of their strengths may need to change in order to experience their next evolution.

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NBA: Playoffs-Utah Jazz at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past two years, the Memphis Grizzlies have logically done what any team in the NBA is smart to do: feature their strengths. Specifically, the Grizzlies have been able to create offensive advantages through:

  • producing in the paint
  • creating extra possessions through forcing turnovers and grabbing offensive rebounds
  • featuring the fast break
  • active ball movement to find high percentage looks

Memphis’ team numbers this past season tell the whole story. During the 2020-2021 season, Memphis ranked among the Top 5 teams in the NBA in assists, offensive rebounds, and steals per game. They also led the league in points off turnovers, fast break points, and points in the paint per game. They were fourth in second chance points. Overall, when it came to finding high percentage shots at the rim, the Grizzlies were arguably the most resourceful team in the NBA this season.

In terms of their field goal attempts as a whole, 46.4% of the Grizzlies FGA were within 10 feet of the rim. Theoretically, with many of the Grizzlies best offensive talents better at finishing in the lane than shooting from distance, this approach makes sense. In fact, the Grizzlies had the fifth highest percentage of their total FGA within ten feet of the rim in the NBA. However, while the Grizzlies certainly were right to put their players in the best position to succeed, this approach did not have a strong correlation with winning teams across the league. Only 3 of the 10 teams with the highest percentage of their shots within 10 feet of the rim had winning records. On the contrary, nine of the ten teams in the NBA with the lowest percentage of their shots within ten of the rim did have a winning record. While it may be as simple as saying teams that shoot the three better win more, the bigger key is having the offensive balance to make life tough for defenses.

This story becomes even more relevant in the playoffs. Of the 16 teams that made the playoffs this year, the Grizzlies led all playoff teams with 48.5% of their FGA within ten feet of the rim in their five games against Utah. Obviously, while this may have been a recipe for success in the regular season for stretches of time, it was a recipe for disaster against the Jazz’s ability to shoot the three. In fact, the Jazz - the best team in the NBA during the regular season - and three conference finals participants make up four of the five teams with the lowest percentage of their FGA near the rim.

The significance of these numbers should be fairly obvious. While the Grizzlies are certainly smart to play to their strengths, they strengths must evolve if they hope to not only continue making the playoffs but to eventually advance. Obviously, personnel upgrades and improvements from core members of the roster will certainly help that cause over time. However, a continued shift in a few offensive schematics could also allow for needed changes to happen in quicker fashion.

Here are a few ideas of how the Grizzlies shot distribution could improve next season...

Corner Threes

Memphis Grizzlies v Chicago Bulls Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Back in the bubble, I discussed how the Grizzlies focus on shooting more corner threes could be a smart strategy to feature more high percentage looks from distance. In March, I followed up to show the Grizzlies were doing exactly that, especially after they returned from their break in the season due to COVID-19. Overall, the Grizzlies did make a noticeable improvement in shooting the corner three in their second year under Taylor Jenkins:

2019-2020: 36.6 3P% on 7.1 Corner Threes per game

2020-2021: 37.6 3P% on 8.5 Corner Threes per game

This certainly needs to be a continued focus for the Grizzlies as an area of their game to grow. In the playoffs, the Clippers, Suns, and Bucks are three of the top six teams in terms of 3PFGA from the corners per games. Featuring the corner three is how the Jazz beat the Grizzlies and then how the Clippers closed out the Jazz. Having the corner three as a reliable offensive option or counter makes life hard on the defense because that is usually the hardest three for the defense to defend since its away from the main action. If the Grizzlies can position some of their best shooters in the corner for catch and shoot chances more frequently next season, that is a logical step in a needed direction toward a more balanced shot distribution.

Early Threes

Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Three Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

While the Grizzlies have certainly improved as a franchise when it comes to featuring the three point shot more overall, they still were in the bottom-third of the league in three point production. Without many options that can reliably create their own shot from beyond the arc, the Grizzlies need to find a rhythm early and often for their offensive schemes is critical.

During the 2020-2021 regular season, April was the only month (not including December due to low number of games) that the Grizzlies ranked higher than 20th in the league in first quarter 3PA per game. That month, the Grizzlies ranked sixth in the league in 3PFG% overall, not just in the first quarter. The best rank for the Grizzlies in any other month besides April was 18th. The Grizzlies featured their looks from three early and often and that allowed for them to find a needed groove more frequently. As a result, the Grizzlies arguably had their best offensive month in the history of the franchise.

In the playoffs, the Grizzlies ranked 14th out of 16 teams in first quarter 3PA per game. They also ranked 13th in terms of overall 3PFG%. Though frequency of first quarter 3PA per game may not strongly correlate with teams advancing in the playoffs in general, it does show that attempting threes early and often is essential for teams without much shot creation from distance on their roster. In the Grizzlies case, having Jaren Jackson Jr. back and creating more catch and shoot three point opportunities for Dillon Brooks, Desmond Bane and others early in games could be a nice wrinkle to add to the offense.

Transition Threes

Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Obviously, the Grizzlies ability to shoot the three in half court setups will continue to be a huge point of emphasis moving forward. More corner threes, plays designed for high percentage catch and shoot threes, and featuring their best shooting talents will be critical. However, another aspect of the Grizzlies approach that could help their ability to shoot from distance is transition or early in the shot clock threes.

During the 2020-2021 regular, the Grizzlies shot their best from three within six seconds of the shot clock starting. In fact, they were fourth in the NBA in 3PA per game with 18-22 seconds left on the shot clock. A big reason for this is the Grizzlies creating offense through forcing turnovers and the fast break. However, beyond just transition itself, quick hitting three point looks through off-ball screens or with just one or two passes could certainly benefit Memphis due to getting a good look from beyond the arc before the defense is set.

Though this will not be the part of the shot clock where they shoot the most threes during the game, it may be when they can consistently get the best looks. Attempting 2 to 4 more threes through transition or quick-hitting schemes could be another way to help the Grizzlies find their rhythm early. Memphis is at its best the more it can create offensive opportunities without the opposing defense being set. The emphasis on threes early in the shot clock is a way to accomplish that goal.

Overall, the obvious need for the Grizzlies is shooters who can create their own shot from distance. Of course, every team needs more of those players. The Grizzlies and Taylor Jenkins have certainly done their best to make the most of the roster they have over the past two years. As mentioned above, if the Grizzlies can find a few more times per game to feature high percentage looks from three, it can continue opening up the playbook to find a sustainable offense balance between producing in the paint and shooting from distance. Once the Grizzlies find that balance, it will be a big step toward them being a sustainable winner and even a contender.

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