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The perplexing offense of the Memphis Grizzlies

The best offensive team in the NBA that also doesn’t appear to have a very good offense.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Allow me to stoke some PTSD from an earlier era of Grizzlies basketball, if you will.

During the 2003-2004 season, the Memphis Grizzlies appeared to be on a fast-track to contention. While being led by future Hall-of-Fame coach Hubie Brown, they were one of the youngest teams in the NBA while also becoming one of the best teams in the NBA. Not only were they good, but they were fun. They were led by their first true rising star in Pau Gasol, and they played an exciting, fast-paced brand of basketball that empowered them to finish in the top-7 in both pace and offensive efficiency.

They, of course, got swept in the first round by the San Antonio Spurs, which would only be the beginning of the Grizzlies’ postseason ineptitude during that era. And the most significant reason for why it happened is simple: they just couldn’t execute offensively at the level the Spurs could. They had been able to thrive by speeding up the pace during the regular season, but when they were able to do that against a methodical, slow-paced contender, they fell apart.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Now the 2022 NXT GEN Grizzlies are (probably) not going to end up like that Grizzlies team from 2004. This team possesses a moxie and swagger that team didn’t, and it’s also led by a bonafide superstar in Ja Morant (say what you want about Pau Gasol, he wasn’t that).

Morant in particular also sets the team apart in how they execute in clutch situations (games within 5 points with less than 5 minutes remaining), as he’s the Association’s third-leading scorer (4.3 points) during clutch-time. The Grizzlies have the league’s third best-record (15-6) in games that are decided during clutch-time, which is a massive improvement from what they went .500 (19-19) last year. When it’s winning time, it’s just incredibly hard to keep him away from the basket.

However, despite Morant’s seemingly endless heroics, a lack of consistently efficient half court offense is still a troubling parallel that this current Grizzlies team shares with its past counterpart. Or it may not be.

Let me explain.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond being arguably the NBA’s most electric team, the Grizzlies may very well also have the league’s most fascinating offense. Because they’re not particularly good offensively in most of the ways you normally associate with good offense, but that hasn’t stopped them from being good offensively.

Does that make sense? Probably not.

What we ultimately have is a perplexing paradox. The Grizzlies can’t shoot; they are 24th in eFG% (51.4), 24th in 3PT% (33.8), and 24th in 3PT attempts (32.8). They also struggle to efficiently execute half court offense, as they rank 21st in points per half court play (0.93.), per Cleaning the Glass. Yet they are 9th in offensive efficiency (108.8) and somehow manage to be 8th in points per half-court possession (1.1).

So what gives?

While there’s more factors involved, the distinction between a half court play and half court possession offers us a clue to our conundrum. There can be several “plays” on a single possession if a team is able to grab offensive rebounds. And when you look at the Grizzlies rebounding numbers, the waters become significantly less muddy. They are 1st in offensive rebounding (13.4), 2nd in OREB% (31.9), and 1st in second-chance points (17.5). They’ve managed to be successful offensively by maximizing the amount of opportunities that they have on each possession rather than the opportunities themselves.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

To put it simply, you can consistently shoot worse than your opponent as long as you usually create enough opportunities to offset that discrepancy.

And no one on the roster has been more impactful in creating more offensive opportunities than Steven Adams. His impact on the glass, especially on the offensive end, has been discussed ad nauseum, but that’s only because of how superb he is in that area. The Grizzlies rebound 6.7% more of their own misses when he’s on the court, which ranks him in the 98th percentile.

Beyond rebounding, the Grizzlies have also been able to find easy offense in transition. They lead the league in both steals (10.2) and blocks (6.4), which enables them to thrive in transition. From a certain amusing perspective, the team’s transition offense almost serves as a microcosm for their offensive success as a whole; they technically don’t have a “good” transition offense since they’re only 24th in points per transition possession (1.07), but the frenzied amount of turnovers they create gives them more transition possessions than anyone else in the league outside of the Charlotte Hornets. As a result, they’re third in the league in the transition points per game (23.0).

When it comes to the Grizzlies’ offense, over-compensation is the name of the game. They can’t shoot and often struggle to execute, but their other areas of strength more than make up for their weaknesses.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

However, in the interest of playing devil’s advocate, I question how sustainable this’ll all be in the postseason.

Say what you want about the recent stretch of success that the Dallas Mavericks have had against the Grizzlies, I do think Dallas plays a style of methodical offensive basketball that’s more reminiscent of what the Grizzlies will see in the playoffs. It’s fair to assume that the Grizzlies won’t be able to rely as heavily on transition offense when postseason basketball trends more heavily toward half-court execution.

Half court execution has, again, been a concern for them. Will they be able to offset their issues with half court offense by owning the offensive glass just like they have during the regular season? Maybe so, but it seems more likely than not that the Grizzlies will opt to reduce Steven Adams’ minutes and play Jaren Jackson Jr. more at the five against elite competition because of both the offensive versatility and defensive dominance he provides. Whether the greater shooting and scoring ability that Jaren provides would offensively compensate for Adams’ rebounding impact in the the postseason is debatable.

Of course, maybe it all doesn’t matter. Maybe Ja Morant is so transcendent that he will ultimately make these questions laughable. After three years of persistent over-achieving, it’s hard to bet against the Memphis Grizzlies.

In the meantime, it will be interesting to see how the season unfolds for perhaps the most entertaining—and unconventional—team in the NBA.

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