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Trending in Memphis: The up’s and down’s from the West Coast Trip

The Memphis Grizzlies finished .500 on their 4-game road trip. What stood out, and what fell flat?

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies went on their first long road trip of the season, venturing out to the West Coast for a 4-game stretch. The perfect metaphor for this trip is a mixed bag.

The Grizzlies cruised past the Sacramento Kings to start the trip out on the right foot. However, there was a bit of a storm in Utah with the Jazz — dropping a nail-biter last Saturday night, then suffering a rough blowout loss on Halloween. Finally, they closed the trip with a rock-solid victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hey, always good to end a road trip with a happy flight!

With all .500 stretches, there are good and bad takeaways. For the Grizzlies, there were some bright spots and sloppy ones.

So let’s bring back another installment of “Trending in Memphis” — a series originated from former Site Manager Joe Mullinax — to break down the Grizzlies’ West Coast trip.

The hottest trend in Memphis right now is...the Memphis Grizzlies’ backcourt

Ja Morant and Desmond Bane catapulted themselves into the top tier of NBA backcourts last season, and in the early going of this season, it looks like there’s a new gear to unlock.

That should be terrifying for the rest of the league.

The only downside with this backcourt on this trip was their availability in Utah. Ja Morant missed the first game against the Jazz due to a non-COVID illness, and Desmond Bane was absent from the second one with ankle soreness. As a result, the Grizzlies didn’t have their star backcourt together in Utah — where Memphis dropped both games.

However, both players were absolutely electric over this West Coast trip.

Let’s start with Desmond Bane — who averaged 30.7 points on 50.9% shooting from the field and 56% from 3 (on 8.3 attempts per game) in 3 games on this trip. He’s heading for another leap.

Two notable increases are his free throw and 3-point attempt rates. So far, his free throw attempt rate has risen from .141 to .291, while doubling his free throw attempts per game (2.0 to 5.3). Granted, it’s an early sample size, so we will need to see if he could continue building upon this trend. Nonetheless, his increased free throw rate is showing how comfortable he’s become attacking inside the arc and relishing contact in the paint.

Bane’s 3-point shooting has gone to another level. Before the season, I wrote about what Desmond Bane could do by letting it fly from downtown even more. And early in the season, he’s surged as a scorer with increased volume. He’s shooting 46.9% from 3 on 9.1 attempts per game — for reference, Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard are the only players in NBA history to shoot at least 40% from 3 on 9 or more attempts per game for an entire season.

Desmond Bane broke out of a shooting slump last Monday against the Nets, and this West Coast trip highlights how another leap is on the horizon.

Ja Morant’s fiery start from 3 didn’t stick during the West Coast trip, only connecting on 28.6% of his triples. Like it’s been for his entire career, it didn’t stop him from making a devastating impact offensively. In 3 games, he averaged 26.3 points on 49.1% shooting — 52.1% on 2’s — while getting to the free throw line for 9 attempts per game.

Against the Jazz, he relentlessly attacked the paint, leading to layups and to trips to the charity stripe (12-15 from the line). He methodically picked apart the Jazz with his downhill navigation — with or without a screen.

Against the Blazers, he struggled with his efficiency only connecting on 7 of his 19 field goal attempts — though, a rough 4th quarter ultimately tanked his field goal percentage. However, his offense helped the Grizzlies start the game strong. The Blazers looked to throw Morant off his rhythm by having Jerami Grant as his primary defender, while also going into a funky zone. Morant found his offense early by manipulating his way into the middle of the zone to float his way to a bucket.

While the offensive surge pops out, the impressive part of this road trip from their star backcourt is how they also did the dirty work as well. They contributed to the team’s rebounding efforts in a major way, both averaging at least 6 rebounds a game in this stretch. In addition, Morant’s defensive efforts shined in last night’s win against Portland.

The backcourt of Ja Morant and Desmond Bane will put up a ton of buckets, and there won’t be many other guard duos that match their scoring output. Nonetheless, their ability to impact winning basketball in a variety of ways — both with their shot portfolio and their non-scoring skills — is pivotal to the Grizzlies’ success. It could also solidify them as the best backcourt in the league.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Others Trending Up

  • “Villain” Brooks. Oh, buddy, I missed the villainous antics of Dillon Brooks. Obviously, there’s history with Brooks and Utah after the 2021 playoff series. The former Oregon Duck had Portland singing the boo-birds as well. Aside from serving as the perfect wrestling heel out West, Brooks has looked to settle in his role. His tenacity and shot-creation were important with Morant or Bane missing each of the Utah games, scoring 30 and 19 points in both outings. In addition, before a 4th-quarter explosion, his defense on Anfernee Simons was superb. More importantly, he’s living up to his goal of more efficient shots. Putting aside the late shot-clock grenades he was thrown, his shot selection was improved. He also attempted 13.8 field goals per game (45.5% shooting), while also drilling 50% of his 3’s (11-22) over the West Coast trip. Brooks showed his value with his laser-focused defense and his unwavering energy, and the offensive mindset flashed signs of evolution.
Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Not quite the downward spiral...the defense

The Memphis Grizzlies’ defense is not off to a strong start, as they rank 28th in Defensive Rating (117.9) so far this season. On this West Coast trip, their defensive struggles were amplified, especially from beyond the arc in Utah.

The Utah Jazz drilled 19 threes in each of their 2 games while converting on over 40% of their attempts. To put it frankly, the Grizzlies laid an egg defensively, and the Jazz left them scrambling with their ball movement.

There’s credit given where it’s due for the Jazz ball movement, but they also put on a shot-making clinic from deep. Where the Grizzlies were exposed came from their rotations. Probably more inexplicably, there were moments where the team just didn’t show efforts on closeouts. Like seriously, where’s the closeout on Kelly Olynyk (36.8% career 3-point shooter) on multiple instances?

In addition, their downhill and pick-and-roll defenses showed leaks in the coverage. They tend to over-help on the drive, and a system predicated on kicking out to shooters will carve them up there. On screen defense, there were too many times where they blitzed the ball-handler and left a shooter wide open — and others were simply left too much daylight for a rise-and-fire 3, again crediting the shot-making.

The defense was a lot better against Portland, only surrendering 106 points. However, Portland’s comeback efforts were fueled by hot 3-point shooting from Anfernee Simons and Jerami Grant. Though there was a bit of over-helping on the pick-and-roll ball-handler and on the inside, that stretch was fueled by great shot-making more than anything.

So I’m not going to throw out a negative while ignoring how it could be fixed. Everyone has pointed to last season’s 9-10 start with league-worst defense, before emerging as one of the NBA’s top defenses last season. Optimism for improvement? Yeah, sure.

But what’s the solution?

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return should help things quite a lot, an impact expected from 1st Team All-Defense players. His switchability adds more size on the perimeter, which bodes well for more potent rotations and for better contests on 3’s. He’ll also add more size to the bench frontcourt as the de facto backup 5.

Tactically, they could fix any over-helping issues by filtering the ball-handler towards the big man in drop coverage — avoiding any additional help from the perimeter. On screens, it comes down to a personnel standpoint. If the screener is a 3-point threat, it’s probably not best to double the ball-handler. If the ball-handler is a potent 3-point weapon, they could go over the screen. If he can pull up from 3 and drive to the basket, a switch may help. Switching on off-ball screens could prevent gaps in the defense.

They showed strong defensive fortitude against Sacramento and Portland, and hopefully Utah was a mirage.

From a personnel standpoint, I’ve already highlighted the Jaren Jackson element. A lot of it will boil down to growth from its young wings. There’s a bigger learning curve than last season, as the team struggled early but had proven perimeter defenders in Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton. Jake LaRavia and David Roddy have shown promise in the stocks department, a good foundation for eventual defensive success, but there are some mental lapses in coverage — expected from rookies. Ziaire Williams also flashed upside as a perimeter defender, so his return should help them defensively.

The defensive improvements will be something to monitor over the coming weeks. Are there going to be any tactical or mentality adjustments? Will Jaren Jackson’s return catapult them into the league’s elite on that side of the ball once again? Can the rookies continue to grow as the game slows down defensively? How will their defense impact their standing in the crowded Western Conference?

1 other minor downward trend

  • Inconsistent frontcourt play. While the backcourt and wings balled out on this trip, the frontcourt was a bit more up-and-down. Jake LaRavia only played 1 game due to a non-COVID illness, but he shined in his lone game against Sacramento (13 points and 9 rebounds, while shooting 5-6 from the field and 3-4 from deep). After a strong showing against Sacramento, Brandon Clarke was relatively quiet. His efficiency has held around 65%, but his shot volume (6.3 field goal attempts per game thus far). A “full-time backup 5” role exposes the Grizzlies’ lack of frontcourt size; Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return should help. Steven Adams was awesome against Portland (14 points, 11 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks), but Utah stretched him out with their 3-point shooting from Olynyk and Markkanen. David Roddy had 2 great games fueled by steady shooting, and the other 2 were kind of rough. Santi Aldama didn’t have his offensive flow, shooting only 37.9% from the field over those 4 games. He also struggled to contain Lauri Markkanen and Jerami Grant when spread out to the 3-point line, but he also flashed upside as a rim protector as well. Jaren Jackson Jr. will help shift people back to their ideal roles, which should translate to a bit more consistency on both sides of the ball.

The Memphis Grizzlies return home tomorrow, starting a stretch where they’ll play 7 of their next 11 games at the FedExForum. As the sample size builds, how will these trends shake out?

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