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Deciphering the Grizzlies starting lineup

The Memphis Grizzlies’ starting lineup is up in there, but we may have an idea of what factors are in play and how it could shape out.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies are going to enter the 2021-22 season with a new-look starting lineup. With Jonas Valanciunas out of Memphis, and with a healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. in the fold, Taylor Jenkins and his coaching staff will have a tough decision to make.

“I don’t think the style of play changes much,” head coach Taylor Jenkins sad. “Lineups are still being discussed frequently amongst the staff. Obviously with camp, we got to roll out some lineups tomorrow. We got 6 preseason games to see which combination makes sense. We talked about that a lot over the course over the summer.”

There are numerous right answers for the Grizzlies starting lineup, though there isn’t exactly a clear-cut answer to what the starting lineup should look like. If they wanted to keep it easy and just have Steven Adams take Jonas Valanciunas’ spot, that’s totally logical and effective. They have numerous young players off the bench like Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke, or Xavier Tillman that could compete for a starting spot, and it wouldn’t — or shouldn’t — cause an outcry.

That luxury, yet tough decision, is a product of the team’s depth. Despite losing two players that started the majority of the games, the Grizzlies are still in a good spot with its depth, and will likely lead to more tough calls on the rotation.

“With the team that we have, it’s very good,” Ja Morant said of a potential starting lineup. “We have a lot of talent across the board.”

Taylor Jenkins and his coaching staff are once again excited about the team’s depth, though it’ll lead to some tough calls. Based on some stuff we’ve heard from the Grizzlies at yesterday’s media day, what could we decipher from that and use it to build an idea of a starting lineup?

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Where to slot Jaren Jackson Jr.

When it comes down to a starting lineup, everything will be based around where Jaren Jackson Jr. is slotted.

Taylor Jenkins talked about how this offseason’s moves are going to lead to big developmental opportunities for many players on this team. However, Jaren Jackson is going to be the major beneficiary.

Obviously, it’s going to mean more touches, as whoever takes Valanciunas’ starting spot won’t command 10-12 shots a game, and the remaining ones likely go to Jackson. However, what could it mean for the possibility of him switching to become a full-time 5?

The Grizzlies have tested Jackson at the 5 since he set foot in Memphis. His biggest test came this past postseason, where he played 130 of his 378 non garbage-time possessions (per Cleaning the Glass), against Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors — the best defensive center duo in the league. It was a great measuring stick for him as he progresses towards heavier minutes at the 5.

If the Grizzlies wanted to place Jackson at the 5 in the starting lineup, it’d pose a lot of mismatches. More traditional big men will be assigned to him, and he can use his shooting to stretch them away from the basket, while also using his mobility and budding ball-handling abilities to take them off the dribble towards a more open path to the basket. In addition, they could slot in an additional playmaker and floor-spacer alongside the quartet of Jackson, Ja Morant, Dillon Brooks, and Kyle Anderson. Having 4 shooters with Ja Morant sounds like a recipe for a potent offense, as it gives their franchise guard plenty of spacing to attack from inside the arc and with his passing.

Nonetheless though, there’s still optimism around Steven Adams and what he brings to the table.

“With Steven, he has a lot of game that we’ve dug into and understood what he’s done over the course of his career,” Jenkins said. “He’s got uniqueness in that he has complementary things that Jonas did for us that we’re going to rely on, but he’s also got different things and aspects of his game that’s going to elevate our offense. Defensively, his versatility is something we’re really excited about.”

It’s not far-fetched to just slot Adams into this spot. After all, the Grizzlies have experienced positive contributions from their starting lineups when it’s been Jackson and a traditional center.

  • 2020-21: Morant-Brooks-Anderson-Jackson-Valanciunas, +19.3 point differential per 100 possessions in 104 total possessions.
  • 2019-20: Morant-Brooks-Crowder-Jackson-Valanciunas, +5.4 per 100 possessions in 882 total possessions
  • 2018-19: Conley-Temple-Anderson-Jackson-Gasol,+9.4 per 100 possessions in 915 total possessions.

So there’s a good enough sample size that the Grizzlies could go with the Jackson at the 4 next to a traditional big man like Adams. However, there’s good evidence too that they could be good with Jackson at the 5. They possessed a +1.4 rating at the 5 this past postseason, and they achieved great success with him at the 5 his sophomore year as well.

There won’t be a wrong answer here, but it’ll have a strong effect on the rest of the starting lineup.

Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz - Game Five Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Kyle Anderson at the 3 or the 4? Starting or off the bench?

Last season, Kyle Anderson excelled at the 4 spot, as the Grizzlies outscored opponents by 2.5 points per 100 possessions with him taking that playmaking 4 role, per Cleaning the Glass.

A healthy Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams in the fold makes things interesting for Anderson here. Though there’s that evidence that he’s probably best suited at the 4, he might end up at 3. In past years, his limited shooting made that a bit problematic, especially when there would be traditional, non-shooting big man in those units. However, his improvements from the perimeter make it work, as he could be reliable from the corners.

In addition, there’s evidence above that those lineups with Anderson and Jackson at the 3 and 4 do work, primarily because of the size and defensive prowess in the frontcourt.

Whatever Jenkins decides, Anderson is ready for whichever role comes his way this season.

I just like being on the floor. I think I can play every position on the court really. I have that confidence in myself. So if Coach asks me to come off the bench, or play the 3, play the 4, it’s whatever really. Come off the bench at the 4, come off the bench at the 3 whatever it is, I like just being out there on the court and playing well and playing well for my team.”

There will be time to experiment with which lineups work with Anderson at either position, as Taylor Jenkins alluded to in yesterday’s media availability after training camp. The decision here will likely come down to sticking to the status quo, or opening a developmental opportunity for Desmond Bane or De’Anthony Melton.

All things considered, Kyle Anderson is one of the 4 best players on this team — alongside Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Dillon Brooks. Most teams want to start their 5 best players, with the potential exceptions of fit or seeking microwave offense off the bench. His impact, and how they want to maximize it, will be a factor into this decision.

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

A developmental opportunity underway

If the Grizzlies don’t simply slot Steven Adams into Jonas Valanciunas’ spot, it means they’re wanting to give a developmental opportunity for one of the young guys.

And the main beneficiary here could be Desmond Bane.

“Des getting more opportunities is something we’re excited about going in to the year,” Taylor Jenkins said in Monday’s Media Day.

What does that look like? It could be a heavier emphasis off the bench with go-to scoring and playmaking responsibilities. Even then, that’d be a smidge difference than his role last season. Ample opportunities — those that are a step up from last year — while coming off the bench would need to involve drastic decisions to the bench backcourt.

Is that opportunity as a starter?

If they decide to go with Jackson at the 5 and Adams off the bench, Bane makes the most sense to move into the first unit. He has more size than Melton, and he’s more polished than Ziaire Williams. In addition, if they want to go with Anderson at the 4, then that’ll scratch Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman from the picture.

Bane is also the one who could raise the ceiling of that starting lineup.

Taylor Jenkins liked having a shooter to play off Ja Morant in the starting lineup for early offense, hence his call to start Grayson Allen. Desmond Bane was one of the league’s elite 3-point shooters, even as a rookie, last year. With his budding playmaking, he can shift Morant off the ball for some possessions, while expanding the horizons of his live-dribble game.

And again... for my day-dreamers out there... Ja Morant driving to the basket, defense collapses, and he can kick it out to Jaren Jackson, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, or Kyle Anderson in the corner. Offensive paradise.

If the Grizzlies want to mix things up and really put one of their young players in a test to aid their development, Desmond Bane may be one of the first players to receive that this season. If it hits how the coaching staff envisions, then it could unlock a new dynamic to the Grizzlies’ offense.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies-Media Day Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The starting lineup conversation will be a heavy feature in training camp headlines. It’s like that for most teams, especially ones where the status of that is up in the air.

It’s also important to remember that these lineups aren’t in Sharpie for the entire season.

Injuries are a part of sports. Sometimes, lineups just don’t work. Teams get in funks, and the coaching staff needs to shake things up. On a more positive note, there may be a starter-bench combination that’s lighting it up, and they need that in a more prominent, earlier sample size.

However, based on what was said in Monday’s media day, it’s easy to speculate that the starting lineup will be 1 of these 3 units:

  • Morant, Brooks, Anderson, Jackson, Adams
  • Morant, Bane, Brooks, Anderson, Jackson
  • Morant, Bane, Brooks, Jackson, Adams

There will be experimentation. We may see any of these 3, or a completely different starting lineup, over the course of the preseason. Nonetheless though, given Memphis’ depth, it’ll be hard to find a starting lineup worth fretting over.

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