In a league where plenty of NBA Media Days on Monday were defined more by controversy or negative narratives, the Memphis Grizzlies Media Day was full of fun and positivity. Coming off a playoff run and another year exceeding expectations plus a fully healthy roster, Zach Kleiman, Taylor Jenkins, and the Grizzlies roster are ready to get back to work and become fully focused on making the most of next season.
Much of the conversations centered on the team meeting NBA COVID-19 requirements, Jaren Jackson Jr. being fully healthy, and individual improvements. There was also a good amount of questions on how the Grizzlies will look to improve off of last season, and in some cases, sustain areas of success from last year as well. One main success story from last season the Grizzlies hope will remain consistent this year is a highly effective defense.
Two major reasons for the Grizzlies having a top-10 defense last year were Kyle Anderson and Dillon Brooks. Both Brooks and Anderson are healthy, hungry, and fully motivated to be one of the more effective defensive duos in the league once again. The arrival of Steven Adams as a rim presence and the overall defensive improvements of the Grizzlies young depth as last year progressed is also highly encouraging.
However, it is the return to full health of Jackson Jr. and a bigger perceived role for De’Anthony Melton that may be the most critical developments of all in the Grizzlies defense being even more effective consistently than it was last year. The reason being is that the defensive strengths of Jackson Jr. and Melton center on causing disruption and turnovers. Not only does that lead to defensive stops and gaining a possession advantage in games, it also allows the Grizzlies to create fast break opportunities, an aspect of the game where Memphis ranks among the best in the NBA.
During Melton’s media session on Monday, he spoke about his desire to continue expanding his offseason game as the focus of his offseason workouts. However, when I asked him about his defensive impact potentially being utilized and a more featured and expanded role this season, Melton confidently answered that is where his game is at his best and that he feels that is where the Grizzlies play at their best. Last year certainly suggests that Melton’s comments are accurate.
Last season, the Grizzlies finished tied for first in the league in steals per game and seventh in turnovers forced per game. However, in the first half of the season, the Grizzlies led the league with 16.8 turnovers forced per game. In the second half of the season, that number regressed to 13.3 turnovers forced per game, good for 18th in the league. A logical reason for the drop in production is roster fatigue due to a condensed schedule. With effective utilization of energy and effort being a major source of success creating turnovers, having less of both traits makes it harder to create havoc.
As many occasions have shown over the past two years, Melton is the Grizzlies best perimeter producer when it comes to turnovers. In fact, over the past two years, among NBA players who have played at least 2,000 minutes, only Matisse Thybulle has produced more steals per 100 possessions than Melton. Melton is the only player during his three years in the NBA to have a 3% steal percentage and 2% block percentage (min. 3000 min played.) Simply put, when Melton is on the court, he is one of the best in the league at producing turnovers.
According to Cleaning the Glass, Melton was in the 97th percentile among guards in terms of steals and in the 94th percentile in terms of blocks. For the Grizzlies with Melton On the Court, Memphis was in the 96th percentile in causing turnovers and 100th percentile in limiting offensive rebounds. Even more encouraging, with Melton on the court, the Grizzlies were clearly more effective in terms of half court defense last year than in 2019-2020.
Overall, the Grizzlies are 16-11 when Melton plays 20 or more minutes and produces two steals in a game. They are 8-3 in the 2021 calendar year. They are also 12-8 when Melton simply plays 25 or more minutes. The key is that Melton has only played 25 or more minutes in 20 games during his Grizzlies career. Numbers seem to support that if Melton could double or perhaps even triple that number this season, good results could follow for both he and the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have every reason to make this theory become a reality.
With Melton creating plenty of disruption on the perimeter, the Grizzlies can fortunately double down on the disruption with Jaren Jackson in the post. While Jackson Jr. did miss nearly all of last year and he struggled with his shot, other aspects of his game certainly looked strong. For instance, Jackson Jr. produced the best block and steal rates of his career. It was a small sample size, but 2.2 steals and 3.3 blocks per 100 possessions from a big is highly impressive.
While it may be hard to trust the jump in production in such a small sample size, Jaren’s first two years suggest the leap may not be that far fetched. In Jackson Jr’s first two years, among NBA players who played 3,000 or more minutes, he was one of six players to average at least 2.5 blocks and 1 steal per 100 possessions. The other six include Andre Drummond, Brook Lopez, Myles Turner, Anthony Davis, and Rudy Gobert. Overall, the Grizzlies are 20-13 when Jackson Jr. has at least two blocks and one steal in a game, including 14-6 over the past two seasons.
Due to different roles and various injuries, Jackson Jr. and Melton have not played that much together on the court. However, during the 2019-2020 season, the positive difference in the rate of creating turnovers when Jackson Jr. and Melton were on the court together for the Grizzlies compared to when they were not was in the 90th percentile. Furthermore, the positive differences in terms of the offensive production were in the 99th percentile.
A recurring theme in the aforementioned information is highly encouraging metrics and numbers in relatively small sample sizes. These numbers may not remain as impressive as Melton play more minutes and Jackson Jr. and Melton play more together. However, this is the exact opportunity the Grizzlies should take advantage of with their young roster this season. If there are highly encouraging results that have come from two or three main rotation players in the past, then now, with everyone healthy, the Grizzlies should do all they can to figure out which combos and lineups can sustain their production as they play more together.
If the Grizzlies are going to exceed expectations for the third season in a row, a big key will be their defensive consistency. As last season progressed, Memphis got better defending the three and in terms of general defense. However, with regular rest, a healthy roster, and Melton in a bigger role and Jackson Jr. healthy, the Grizzlies have every reason to be aggressive and opportunistic on defense. That is when they are most impactful. As mentioned above, it also allows for the Grizzlies to gain the possession advantage and be out on the fast break more often. This is how Memphis can remain competitive and win games against more talent teams.
While the exact roles for Jackson Jr., Melton, and the rest of the roster remain to be seen as training camp starts, there is plenty of confidence Taylor Jenkins and his staff will put players in positions to succeed. Hopefully, that includes Melton and Jackson Jr. playing in many high leverage situations together. If that occurs, there is a good chance Memphis will enjoy the results and the Grizzlies will be taken the next step forward for this year and beyond.