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The Grizzlies snapping out of their slump starts at the core

The Memphis Grizzlies is in the midst of their biggest storm together. Snapping out of it starts at their core.

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Sacramento Kings v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies are closing an amazing 2022 with something they haven’t had to go through this calendar year: a slump. Last season, Jaren Jackson Jr. coined the clever phrase “don’t weather the storm, be the storm.” This past week and half poses the biggest storm this team has seen together thus far.

Losing 4 of their past 5 games, the Grizzlies just feel flat and are straying away from the brand of basketball that’s catapulted them to the upper echelon of the league. The offense has stagnated as they possess a 105.2 offensive rating over the past 5 games. That mark is dead-last in the league and is a staggering 4 points worse than the second-lowest rating, from the Charlotte Hornets. They seemingly can’t find any sort of touch from deep, shooting 25.2% from 3 (another wide margin between them and the second-lowest percentage in this span) and connecting on only 8.2 three’s per game.

It’s bleeding into their defense, particularly their 3-point defense. Their defensive rating isn’t terrible, sporting a 110.1 Defensive Rating over the past 5 games — 6th-best in the NBA. Their 3-point defense though has been shredded. Teams are shooting 40.1% from 3 in this span, and hitting 14.6 triples per game.

It’s been rough. The team looks discombobulated on both sides of the ball. Reserves, not role players, are cooking the Grizzlies from deep. Duane Washington Jr., Christian Braun, Anthony Lamb, and Ty Jerome are all making names for themselves against the Grizzlies.

You can pit a bunch of different things to it. The 3-point variance is a factor, as the scoring gap from deep between the Grizzlies and their opponents swings games. They haven’t gotten enough shooting, as wings Ziaire Williams and John Konchar have stuck out as perimeter shooters not providing enough 3-point firepower off the bench. Rotations could stick out, as Taylor Jenkins’ foul management tends to put the Grizzlies at a disadvantage in early deficits.

What stands out in this slump is the performance of the Grizzlies’ core players. Ja Morant is largely exempt from this conversation, as he feels like the only source of offense over the past week. If there’s anything to nitpick with him, it’d be his engagement on the defensive end. However, his offense is more than making up for it.

Aside from the Phoenix game on the road, Jaren Jackson Jr., Dillon Brooks, and Desmond Bane all aren’t playing up to their standards.

The Grizzlies won’t win many games with those 3 players not at their better basketball, as the margin of error becomes much smaller in these situations.

Bane deserves slack. He's returning from his toe injury, and rust was expected. He’s only connected on 2 of his 19 three-point attempts in his return. He also hasn’t provided much secondary playmaking juice, only generating 2 assists total since his return. Bane will shoot better and reemerge as one of the best shooters in the world — reminder he did struggle offensively to start the season then rattled off a near 25-5-5 stretch in his first 12 games. Whether it’s rush or lingering discomfort will determine how long this slump continues for Bane.

It’d be harsh to pit this on Bane, as he’s coming back from injury — and did so a bit ahead of schedule. This stretch is showing how reliant the Grizzlies are on his supernova 3-point shooting. It opens up a whole new world for the Bane and the Grizzlies, clearing out the floor for him to take as a secondary playmaker/shot-creator, as well as driving lanes for the rest of the team. Also if Bane’s outside shooting isn’t clicking, then the team is one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in basketball. He’s going to bounce back, and once he does, the Grizzlies will become more formidable from 3.

With Jaren Jackson Jr., it’s not as much about his overall performance, though that 2-12 shooting night against Phoenix was a stinker. It’s about his availability and involvement. His defense has been great from the event creation standpoint (3.8 stocks in the past 5 games), but his fouling minimizes his impact. In the games against Denver and Golden State, he tallied 5 fouls in each contest, and it messes with his flow about the game.

People can debate and hate on Taylor Jenkins for his foul management on Jaren Jackson Jr., and it’s warranted. Over this rough stretch, he’s let Jackson play freely regardless of fouls when it was frankly too late. However, it’s year 5 and the silly fouls linger with Jackson. Improved screen-setting would cut down at least 1 foul per game. He also tends to unnecessarily reach into the cookie jar for ticky-tack fouls. It’s far-fetched to ask any basketball player to simply have 0-1 fouls per game, especially when someone takes on as many defensive responsibilities as Jackson. Cutting down on the fouls in bunches will go a long way for mitigating this issue.

In addition, his availability due to foul trouble has cut down his involvement. He’s only tallied double-digit shot attempts in 2 of the past 5 games. He tortured Phoenix in last Friday’s contest for a superb 24-point, 10-rebound performance — though they got their payback Tuesday night. In the other games, they haven’t gone to him as much as they needed to. People clamor to feed Jackson in the hand in the post, and while that’s a right move, it doesn’t capture his offensive repertoire. They need to look at running screen actions — whether it’s for him directly, or him screening and popping (but also, back to improved screens) — so Jackson can find clean looks from 3, or a clear advantage to drive to the hoop.

Nonetheless, as long as Jackson can’t stay on the floor, it’s tougher for the Grizzlies to win because of the dynamic he provides for the frontcourt offensively and defensively.

Dillon Brooks’ performance lately boils down to the same conversation with Jaren Jackson Jr. Ever since he shut the water off on Khris Middleton, his fouling has outweighed his defensive stopping over the past week and a half, totaling 5 fouls in 3 of the past 4 games. Though he’s admitted that he’s going to use his fouls, it’s detrimental to the defense when his physicality weighs heavier in the foul department over the stopping area.

JJ Redick started a fascinating discussion on the fouling woes of Jackson and Brooks, and how it impacts the Grizzlies’ defense — a very valid gripe for the ceiling of this team.

Offensively, his shot selection and efficiency hasn’t been there. He’s shooting 43.2% from the field in the past 4 games — as the 7-9 shooting night in the Phoenix boosts his efficiency — and he’s only connected on 3 of his 13 three-point attempts in this span.

The road game against Phoenix serves as a good base of how he should be within the Grizzlies’ offense. He won’t shoot 7-9 every night, but he played within the offense and took what the defense gave him. He’s often forced a lot of shots too, and he’s 2nd in field goal attempts per game over this slump — 13.6 per game. Bane and Jackson need to be featured more offensively, and Brooks needs to slide into a role where he fits alongside them and takes what the defense gives him. He should also look at cutting down his 2-point shots and seeking more catch-and-shoot opportunities from downtown.

Memphis Grizzlies v Denver Nuggets Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images

I bring up the performance of these 3 players, because in today’s NBA, your best players are the needle-movers for winning basketball. Role players will go through ebbs and flows, and they will (and need to be) better. The shooting variance will normalize — as the Grizzlies won’t shoot 25% from 3 for the rest of the season, and role players won’t look like prime Reggie Miller every night. Nonetheless, it’s possible to overcome those specific woes when your best players are playing close to their standard of basketball. When they’re not, the margin of error becomes mighty thin, and that’s what’s happening to the Memphis Grizzlies right now.

No trade, improved play from their 9th or 10th men, or rotation fix will matter if the Grizzlies aren’t getting their best basketball from their best players.

I tie in the performance of these 3 players, because it’ll go a long way into snapping out of this cold spell. There’s also too much evidence that Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Dillon Brooks will bounce back from this stretch. Bane is one of the best shooters in the world. Jackson and Brooks collectively rank among the best perimeter-big defensive duos in the NBA, as long as they stay on the floor.

If those players bounce back, the Memphis Grizzlies will pass their biggest test of this era and will look like themselves again as a well-oiled, two-way machine. Teams will go as far as their best players will take them. Ja Morant is doing what he can to get the Grizzlies to wins. Whenever Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., and Dillon Brooks provide some healthy, consistent combination of their best basketball alongside Morant, they’ll back up their superstar’s claims of being fine in the Western Conference.

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