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Defense is failing the Grizzlies

The Memphis Grizzlies have struggled, and structural changes may be needed to fix it.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I’m going to talk about the Memphis Grizzlies, but first, let me tell you about a place called Tony’s Tacos.

It’s this little taco place inside of a gas station between Piperton and Collierville in Memphis that’s run by a local family, and it’s got the best tacos you’ll ever eat in your life. They have the friendliest staff too; anyone who gives me free salsa is a friend of mine.

Anyway, there was this older man for the longest time whom I’d see every single time I was in there. He was always dressed in the same black t-shirt and faded-out jeans. Every single time I saw him, he would ask me the same question: “Do you enjoy racism?”

Now if you’ve reached this point in the article, you (along with likely my editors!) are probably starting to get a bit nervous. I know I was, since I had literally no idea why this man that I didn’t know from Adam kept asking me this disturbing question, especially as I continued to ignore him. So one day, I finally got tired of it, and I point-blank asked him in a moment of frustration why he kept asking me that.

He almost seemed hurt by the question. Then after a long pause, he pointed at his Jeff Gordon “24” hat on his head, and I almost laughed at the absurdity of it all. He had been asking me if I enjoyed racing, because it was simply his way of making conversation, and I had been misunderstanding him all this time.

Sometimes, the problem is not what you think it is.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

As the Memphis Grizzlies have been plagued with injuries to start this season, it is easy to assume that their problems so far and in the immediate future are a direct result of that reality. However, while they will obviously benefit from a fully healthy roster, it likely will not change what is severely ailing their defense — in such a way that I doubt even Jaren Jackson Jr. can fully fix it.

Over the last four seasons, the Grizzlies under Taylor Jenkins have employed an aggressive, “risk-reward” defensive scheme. They typically swarm opposing drivers and over-help, trusting that their length and athleticism will wreak constant chaos and havoc for the opposing offense. The “reward” in question is that the scheme is designed to create turnovers, which then lead to easy transition offense. The “risk” is that over-helping often leads to open threes, since the defense has to rotate rapidly to compensate if they are unable to force a turnover.

NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

To their credit, this scheme has empowered the Grizzlies to grow into one of the league’s best defenses over the last several years. They led the league in steals in each of the last two seasons, and they finished 8th in defensive efficiency during the 2020-21 season, and they were 3rd last year. They also really haven’t even suffered much from the supposed weaknesses of this scheme, as they ranked 11th in 3PT-defense last year (34.9%).

However, it’s all falling apart through 17 games this season. The Grizzlies currently rank 21st in defensive efficiency and 24th in three-point defense (36.9%). Even more worrisome, their aggressive brand of defense is no longer producing aggressive results, as they have fallen from 1st in steals last year to one of the worst this year at 24th (6.8).

Of course, some may optimistically point out that the Grizzlies got off to a similarly awful start on the defensive end last year. This is a valid point. At the end of November of last year, the Grizzlies ranked 28th in defensive efficiency, and opposing teams absolutely obliterated them from three. It’s also worth noting that Jaren Jackson Jr. — perhaps the league’s best defender — was present for those struggles last year, while he has mostly been out injured this year. So it’s fair to believe that this season’s Grizzlies team can rebound like last season’s team and again become one of the league’s best defensive teams, especially since Jaren has only recently come back.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Minnesota Timberwolves Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Yet there’s one major difference between their struggles this season and last season: context. While the Grizzlies definitely had issues to clean up at the start of last season, their defensive struggles were more a result of flukey, unsustainable opponent shooting than anything else. Opponents shot 42% from three and a flat-out insane, “turn your game system off”, 50% on off-the dribble threes during November; Grizzlies opponents collectively turned into Desmond Bane for a month. Memphis’ defensive approach, however, still functioned effectively. Their scheme still wreaked havoc, as they ranked 4th in steals during that time.

While the Grizzlies may be struggling defensively in a similar degree as last season, they are not struggling in the same way. Their struggles are more rooted in their schematic process, rather than just bad luck. Their scheme requires them to create constant turnovers to be successful, but they simply haven’t been able to do so.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Brooklyn Nets Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

And the most significant reason for that is they just simply don’t have the personnel to attack passing lanes at an elite level. They miss De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson, whose length and anticipation allowed them to average 3.7 stocks between the two of them. David Roddy and Jake LaRavia can grow into adequate defenders in time, but they just don’t have the foot speed or experience to replicate the defensive impact those two players had.

Now there’s still reason for optimism. Jaren Jackson Jr. alone can’t fix this issue, but he does cover a multitude of sins. Reinserting a 6’10 athletic wing in Ziaire Williams should also help the Grizzlies cause chaos in passing lanes. And all things considered, they are likely still a top-three team in the West when fully healthy, which they haven’t been this year.

NBA: Preseason-Miami Heat at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Still, it would be problematic for the Memphis Grizzlies to assume that their issues on the defensive end particularly are just because they haven’t been fully healthy this year. If they are to maximize this season, they should consider adjusting to a more conservative defensive scheme that emphasizes staying home on shooters rather than over-helping, while allowing arguably the league’s best rim-protector to clean up any messes behind them.

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