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The possibilities of a Ja Morant and Tyus Jones backcourt

There’s something there

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Memphis Grizzlies v Golden State Warriors Photo by Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Ja Morant and Tyus Jones sharing the floor together has been something the two floor generals have talked about over the past 3 seasons.

If you brought that up with the context of last year’s data, you’d probably squirm a bit at the idea, as the Grizzlies were outscored by 19.8 points per 100 possessions in 160 total possessions — per Cleaning the Glass. This year, it’s an entirely different story.

This season, the Grizzlies are outscoring their opponents by 15 points per 100 possessions in 253 total possessions, when Morant and Jones are on the floor together.

What’s been the byproduct of this positive development?

First, we need to acknowledge the individual leaps these two have taken on both sides of the ball. Both players are scoring the ball at career-best clips, though on varying degrees. Nonetheless, there’s also a distinct difference in their assertiveness to attack.

The biggest tie between this season and last has been their improvement as outside shooters. Both Jones and Morant were below the league-average in 3-point percentage, as the former shot 32.1% and the latter shot 30.3% from 3. Fast-forward to this season, and they’re both shooting at career-best clips from beyond the arc — Jones is shooting 38.6% from 3, and Morant is shooting 35% from 3. That surely helps with lineup spacing.

Defensively, Jones has been a slightly-above defender by the metrics over the past 5 seasons. Morant is approaching neutral levels of defense as well. It’s translating to blistering defensive numbers with these lineups. When these two share the floor, the Grizzlies possess a defensive rating of 98.8, and they’re forcing turnovers on 19.5% of their defensive possessions — both falling within the 99th percentile in lineup data, per Cleaning the Glass.

And that side of the floor is where these lineups are finding the most success.

The Grizzlies defensive success in these groupings also ties to how Morant and Jones are linked with the other 3 players alongside them. Most of the time, they’re sharing the floor with at least 2 rangy wing defenders. It’s usually a combination Kyle Anderson, Desmond Bane, John Konchar, Killian Tillie and Ziaire Williams; though their defensive abilities vary, the extra size — especially in Ziaire’s case — helps in these lineups. Then, you can count on 1 or 2-man combinations of Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams, Brandon Clarke, and Xavier Tillman on the floor as well.

So with these combinations, you’re bound to have at least 3 switchable defenders out on the floor, while Morant and Jones can cover ground with their speed. When you combine their speed and the sizable switching going on, you’re bound to create turnovers in (good) swarming situations.

The Grizzlies faring well in these lineups, especially defensively, are important for the rotation decisions and in-game situations they’ll face over the next couple months.

2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies Media Day Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

As Ja Morant is evolving into an MVP-level scoring threat, teams are going to key into him, especially in the postseason. We already saw that happen against Golden State this year, when the Warriors adjusted to bring in Gary Payton II to pick up Morant all 94 feet of the court. Things clicked when they brought in Jones, as he was able to facilitate the offense and get Morant working off the ball, while also spacing the floor for 5 three-pointers.

To unlock both the go-to scoring and the playmaking elements of Morant’s game, you need him to share the floor with players capable of facilitating the offense. We’ve seen Desmond Bane do that, as well as De’Anthony Melton on a lower level. Tyus Jones provides that as someone that’s elite at taking care of the ball, great at facilitating the offense, and good shooting outside jumpers.

This level of production we’ve seen this year leads to an interesting playoff situation. Last year, Morant averaged 40.6 minutes, while Jones averaged 9.4 minutes per game, in the series against the Utah Jazz. If you want to utilize (arguably) the best backup point guard in the NBA for more than 10 minutes in a playoff series, they could look at more Morant-Jones lineups for sure.

However, it’s still going to be matchup-dependent. Though they’ve provided a good punch on both sides of the ball, they will still be at a size disadvantage defensively. Teams could look to generate mismatches by getting Memphis into switch situations to get Morant or Jones onto a larger player.

They probably won’t be able to get away with it in a Dallas Mavericks matchup, as they’re pretty massive, and Luka Doncic is deft at generating mismatches. The Lakers backcourt isn’t too big — as their current rotation is Russell Westbrook, Avery Bradley, Malik Monk, and Talen Horton-Tucker — so these lineups are possible in this potential matchup. Like Luka though, LeBron James will also hunt for these switches into mismatches. Phoenix doesn’t have many mismatch-hunters to this degree, though Devin Booker can find them into the mid-post, but the only time a Morant-Jones lineup may work best is whenever Cam Payne and Chris Paul share the floor. Desmond Bane or Dillon Brooks should mirror Booker minute for minute.

Now, there are several matchups in the Western Conference where they can deploy these matchups more often. A potential Golden State Warriors matchup would be the best time to tap into a Morant-Jones lineup more often, as they’ll see a lot of minutes where Steph Curry, Jordan Poole, and/or Gary Payton II share the floor together. The Utah Jazz posed a tough challenge last year for the Grizzlies with their outside shooting, but their small backcourt rotation of Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, and Jordan Clarkson makes these lineups more possible. As the Denver Nuggets get Jamal Murray back, they may deploy lineups with him and Monte Morris. And one thing these teams have in common is the lack of a legitimate mismatch hunter on the wing, which bodes well for any unit consisting of Ja Morant and Tyus Jones.

One thing that’s nice with these combinations is the offensive pop that could come, especially in the postseason when the rotation shrinks. They could share the floor with a wing (Bane or Brooks), and then two bigs (a combination of Jackson, Adams, Clarke, or Anderson), and it’d give them a great spread attack with a roller, popper, and two shooters. They could also go small with Bane, Brooks, and Jackson on the floor with them to provide a lot of spacing and 5 players capable of attacking downhill.

While all those things are nice, and though the defense has been promising this season, the issues mentioned here are valid — especially as the postseason game slows down and falls within the half-court more often than regular season action. Nonetheless though, playing Tyus Jones more minutes with Ja Morant could be an avenue to utilize him more often in a playoff setting.

New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Both Ja Morant and Tyus Jones are enjoying career years, and their individual success is also translating to great production when these two share the floor.

As we inch closer to the postseason, how often will these lineups be deployed? De’Anthony Melton’s play over the next two months will have a lot of say into this, as he provides more of a defensive pop with his instincts and 6’9” wingspan. Brandon Clarke won’t — or shouldn’t — be getting 0 minutes a game in a playoff series this year. Kyle Anderson is also too good to be in a DNP-CD spot as well.

Taylor Jenkins and his coaching staff will have their hands full distributing these minutes and building out a playoff rotation. And for all we know, Jenkins may fall more in line with the defensive issues I’ve outlined about more opportunities to be put at a matchup disadvantage, and we may not see many minutes of Morant and Jones sharing the lineup together. After all, the 3 players I just mentioned are playoff rotation players as well.

However, the success of these lineups — as well as their individual performances — will at least make the idea more of a possibility come playoff time. How it runs is a “wait and see” deal with a balanced list of pro’s and con’s.

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