Timeouts are when coaches get to play chess against each other. But instead of pawns and knights, coaches play with Xs and Os. They decide what’s working, what’s not, and how they can exploit the opposition’s defense during the next play after the timeout.
By every statistic, Taylor Jenkins is average at this ATO chess game. The NBA is a copycat league, where every team runs, for the most part, the same plays and actions to create quality, open looks. Opposing teams know what plays you have in your bag and are prepared to stop them, making the ATO one of the most highly strategic decisions that coaches have to make each game.
A good ATO comes down to creativity and execution. Since every team already knows your plays, coaches have to come up with creative ideas to disguise the actions that are being run. To disguise their plays, teams run misdirection to confuse the defense, running actions that are not directly related to the play but occupy the defense so they are not paying attention to the main action. Coaches don’t want to make their actions too complex, however, because it could confuse the offense as well as the defense and lead to the whole play falling apart. There is a balance between creativity and execution, and some teams find this balance better than others. This season, Michael Malone and the Nuggets have struck gold with their ATOs, averaging a scorching 1.39 PPP after timeouts. On the other side of the coin, Billy Donovan and the Bulls have really struggled out of the huddle with only 0.9 PPP on their ATO sets.
But what about the Grizzlies? The numbers aren’t exactly eye-popping. Taylor Jenkins has his team firmly in the middle of the pack for ATO scoring at 1.11 PPP, good for 15th in the league. On these plays, the Grizzlies are shooting just 41.4% from the field and 28.6% from three. Ja Morant has especially struggled, shooting 6/24 from the field and 0/6 from 3 out of the huddle. At the ⅓ mark of the season, sample sizes are still relatively small and I expect the percentages to normalize a bit as the season progresses, especially as the Grizzlies get healthier and can implement players such as Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane more often in these ATO sets.
The Grizzlies’ mediocre stats make sense considering that these ATO plays are in the halfcourt, where the Grizzlies have struggled in the last few years. This season, the Grizzlies rank 20th in halfcourt offense, a slight improvement over their 2021-22 campaign where they ranked 22nd per Cleaning the Glass. However, despite the poor shooting, Taylor Jenkins has come up with some creative sets to create good looks that are worthy of being analyzed.
One of the Grizzlies’ favorite plays is a lob play for a big man, usually Santi Aldama, that I’ve labeled “Elbow Rip”. The play begins with an entry pass to Steven Adams at the elbow for him to facilitate, a staple of the Grizzlies' offense in general. Then a guard (in both examples here it is Desmond Bane) will cut to the opposite elbow and set a rip screen for the big man up top to burst to the rim. It’s a great play to free up an alley-oop or establish deep post position for the cutting big. If the initial action is covered up by the help defense, usually the weakside corner will be open or the Grizzlies can flow into handoff action with the guard who just set the rip screen. This play is an excellent quick-hitter that can easily flow into standard offense and works especially well with shooters dotting the perimeter.
In the previous example, Desmond Bane is a major cog in the machine. His shooting ability gives him gravity that not only helps to get him open but his teammates as well. His absence recently has left a gaping hole in the offense and has especially harmed the Grizzlies’ ATO execution. With Desmond Bane on the court, the Grizzlies are averaging a whopping 1.45 PPP on ATO sets, which would rank 1st in the league. With him off the court, that number falls to 0.94 PPP, the 3rd-worst in the league. With him on the court, Bane can be used as a screener, a decoy, a passer, or obviously as a shooter in ATO sets.
Jenkins loves to run him off a set of staggered screens at the top of the key to get him free for a three. To begin, the ball enters into a guard in the post. Then some decoy screening actions will usually take place before Bane runs off two staggered screens. If he doesn’t spring open, the attention that he draws usually means that someone else will be open - such is the case in the clip against the Knicks. Bane is the key for not only ATO sets, but the Grizzlies' halfcourt offense in general. He is sorely missed and his production can’t be replaced by anyone on the roster, but that hasn’t stopped Taylor Jenkins from trying.
Taylor Jenkins has slotted Dillon Brooks into the Desmond Bane role as a movement shooter in ATO sets. Brooks certainly isn’t the shooter that Bane is, shooting 5/16 from three after timeouts, but is probably the next-best option. Brooks fills the Bane role in the exact same staggered screen set, and though he may not be as effective, we can see some of the ways that the Grizzlies run misdirection to cause confusion among the defense. Especially in the clip against the Pistons, the defense turns into chaos as they have no idea who is actually setting a screen or what the main action is, leaving Brooks wide open as the dust settles.
Perhaps my favorite action from the Grizzlies ATO sets is their use of exit screens to clear out the paint. While a high ballscreen is happening, a shooter will cut from the weakside to the strongside corner with a screen in the short corner as he cuts across. As the big man rolls after the ballscreen, the help defenders are caught up defending the exit screen instead of the main action and the rim is wide open for a dunk. If the help defenders recognize this and tag the roller, then the corner shooter will likely be open off the exit screen. It’s a gorgeous set that creates some of the most valuable shots in the game (layup/dunk and corner three) and can be disguised with different types of ballscreen action, such as the Spain action shown in the clip against the Pistons.
The Grizzlies still have some work to do to put themselves in the top tier of ATO execution - I would love to see them in the top 10 by the end of the season. The reintegration of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane upon his return from injury should bolster these numbers significantly. The Grizzlies have run some creative sets, though it is on the coaching staff to continue to innovate their plays after timeouts and improve execution on these plays. Their efficiency will be something to track as the season progresses as the Grizzlies pursue their dream of an NBA title.