We officially are less than two months away from the start of the 2021-2022 NBA Season. And while much regarding the much the Memphis Grizzlies will be similar, much has changed along the way as well. Talents such as Jonas Valanciunas and Grayson Allen are in new places, young players will take on expanded roles, and the team’s offensive philosophy itself could look different. This is what happens as a rebuilding team attempts to evolve into a sustainable winner.
Who starts, who closes, and which players will ultimately take on bigger responsibilities will all be determined in time. Yet, one strength that clearly remains for the Grizzlies is depth. This depth is not just defined simply by a plethora of talent that can step on the court for a few minutes each game. Memphis features a roster with more than 10 players who sensibly can add value on both ends of the court on any given night.
One truth from last season is that with the departure of Allen and Valanciunas, the starting lineup will look a bit different. Last season, the Grizzlies starting lineup of Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, Valanciunas and either Allen or Desmond Bane was advantageous for Memphis a good bit of the time. This season, it is likely that Morant, Brooks, Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. will be starters. This quartet was productive together at the end of last season when Jackson Jr. returned from injury. It will be interesting to see how they look when he hopefully is close to full form this season.
While it is yet to be determined whether Steven Adams, De’Anthony Melton, or Bane will be starting as well, one big benefit for Memphis will be their bench returning and maintaining top form next season. They were among the top reserve units in the league during the 2019-2020 season and were among the best for much of last season. However, as individual players began to struggle due to fatigue or other factors from last year’s condensed schedule (which is completely understandable), the unit as a whole became less effective. Fortunately, the starting lineup remained advantageous to allow the Grizzlies to make a playoff push.
This season, the starting lineup will hopefully remain productive. However, support from the bench will be needed more than ever. Despite simply scoring, one other intriguing aspect of the Grizzlies’ reserves is their versatility on both ends of the court. If each player simply plays to his potential along with the unit as a whole playing together with good chemistry, it is very likely advantages will be consistently created. Here is how:
A Return to Normalcy Will Help Offensive Consistency
It was a story of two stretches for the Grizzlies bench last season. Through March, among NBA reserve units, Memphis ranked 4th in PPG, 7th in FG%, and 4th in 3P%. From April 1st through the end of the season, the Grizzlies reserves ranked 14th in PPG, 20th in FG%, and 20th in 3P%. As mentioned above, Memphis played a lot of games in a short period of time that they likely will not have to encounter again (pandemic-permitting). As a result, with regular rest, there is plenty of shooting and scoring potential within this group.
In February and March, the duo of Desmond Bane and De’Anthony Melton were among the best three point shooting reserves in the league. Regression hit both players toward the end of the season; however, with more rest and expanded and more defined roles this year, the hope is that their shooting strokes will be in place all season long. Another huge development would be Tyus Jones and Brandon Clarke returning to their excellent scoring forms from the 2019-2020 season. Hopefully, health and hot starts next season will provide a needed boost for both players to do just that.
Overall, there is plenty of scoring balance, both in the paint and from distance, that should allow for the Grizzlies bench to create an advantage against nearly all of the other reserve units across the league. With a normal schedule and increased motivation to prove themselves in bigger roles, the offensive potential of the Grizzlies’ bench is among the best in the league.
Facilitation from Everyone
As is the case in general, the Grizzlies’ bench has arguably been the best passing reserve unit in the league since Taylor Jenkins arrived. Memphis finished first in bench assists in 2019-2020 and then second in 2020-2021. Obviously, a big reason for that production is the historic passing efficiency of Jones. However, one key area of improvement for the Grizzlies could be facilitation from multiple members of the bench.
When both Morant and Jones were off the court last season, the Grizzlies offense was abysmal. However, there is plenty of reason for optimism that will improve this season. The duo of Bane and Xavier Tillman are a big reason why. As GBB’s own Justin Lewis (Bane) and Parker Fleming (Tillman) wonderfully illustrated last week, a big area of expected growth for both second-year players is their ability as playmakers. Both Bane and Tillman showed improved playmaking in the second half of their rookie seasons and showed expanded resourcefulness as facilitators in the NBA Summer League.
If the Grizzlies can find more individual sources of playmaking and facilitating, it can make the offense more consistent. It can allow for lineups to collectively move the ball better, as well as creating more high percentage looks from distance. This especially goes for Jones, who has certainly shot the ball well in catch-and-shoot situations in the past. If the Grizzlies bench can find different ways for multiple playmakers to support each other in time, it could be a big reason why Memphis’s young supporting cast continues to develop both individually and as a unit.
Dialing up the Defense
Another area where the Grizzlies’ bench unit makes a bigger impact than most NBA benches is defensively. In each of the past two seasons, the Grizzlies have led NBA reserve groups in steals per game. They also finished 5th in blocks per game among NBA reserves units last season. The significance of the Grizzlies’ reserves producing steals and blocks is the ability it creates for them to produce in transition on offense.
As more Grizzlies’ reserves played together in lineups last year, their reliance on succeeding in transition increased. Some of their most productive lineups in transition were rotations that featured four or more reserves. The reason why is due to the ability of these lineup combinations to create turnovers and then get out on the run with Jones at the point and convert fast break opportunities into points. As structure becomes less consistent when starters sit, the opportunistic nature of the Grizzlies’ bench has a great opportunity to create advantages.
As can be seen, the Grizzlies bench can certainly make an impact when called upon. When Memphis’s reserves are at their best, they can compete with anyone. When they struggle, it really shows as the offense tends to stall with multiple starters, especially Morant, off the court. The keys for the Grizzlies’ bench are to stay consistent with their facilitation through multiple sources of playmaking on offense and remain opportunistic on defense. This creates high percentage looks through both half court and transition possessions, a huge advantage for any reserve unit in a game.
More often than not, the Grizzlies’ reserves have been among the best in the league over the past two seasons under Taylor Jenkins. This season, the Beale Street Bench could become the benchmark all other NBA reserve units are measured by.