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The Dillon Brooks effect

It’s like the Butterfly Effect, but with a duck.

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Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

From different accounts, the Memphis Grizzlies may not be doing anything groundbreaking in the NBA as the trade deadline approaches.

Earlier this month, Adrian Wojnarowski stated that the Grizzlies love this roster and would only do anything if there was a “unique opportunity” presented itself (note: there won’t be), and he threw some hints about stuff around the margins. In his Substack, longtime NBA reporter Marc Stein mentioned that the Grizzlies are looking to bolster wing depth to help its playoff ceiling, but they don’t want to alter its flexibility for their offseason plans. Then, on a recent Fastbreak Breakfast podcast, rising NBA reporter Jake Fischer — of Bleacher Report, and the author of “Built to Lose” — shared similar sentiment of them looking around the margins and seeing how this team performs this postseason.

To sum up the intel — the Grizzlies are looking for marginal moves, if any. This could mean Jarrett Culver and draft capital are on the move; at most, it could mean Kyle Anderson or De’Anthony Melton are on the move. Ultimately though, they want to take advantage of having 3 picks, $20M in cap space, and roughly $35M in expiring contacts in the 2022-23 season.

That’s fair enough. After all, if nothing’s broke, don’t fix it. That saying goes for the Memphis Grizzlies, who are a top-3 team in the NBA right now with one of the youngest rosters in the league.

With that saying, there are tweaks and improvements the Grizzlies could make to bolster its chances in a playoff series or two. Their offense has been iffy here lately, riding on a stellar defense in this Western Conference surge. They could use more perimeter scoring from a 3-point shooting and creation standpoint.

One player that looms in all of this — perhaps the player that checks these boxes — is Dillon Brooks.

Dallas Mavericks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

From an availability standpoint, this season has been rough for Brooks. He missed the first 10 games of the season due to an offseason hand injury, then another 7 games due to 2 different trips to the health and safety protocols, and now he’s missed the past 10 games with a sprained ankle.

When he’s played, he’s been good. He’s averaging 18.4 points on 52.1% True Shooting percentage — his highest mark since his rookie season — while reaching career-best marks in counting averages like rebounds per game (3.3), assists per game (2.7) and steals per game (1.3). These strides in those areas also reflect to the advanced metrics as well, as Brooks is posting career-high’s in assist percentage (15.4%) and in steal percentage (2.2%).

Statistical reasons aside, Dillon Brooks fits the mold that the Grizzlies — and those that cover and follow the team — want at the trade deadline. He’s a big wing that can create his own offense, defend multiple positions, and check the opposing team’s best player. And he also fits the team’s culture, which has been valuable to this season’s surge, as he’s often been referred to as the cultural leader for this team.

While Brooks has been here since he started his career in 2017, he could still fall in line as the “mid-season acquisition” — as cliché as that sounds, and that line gives me Toney Douglas PTSD. He hasn’t played many minutes with this version of the Memphis Grizzlies — like the one with Ja Morant at an All-NBA level, Desmond Bane as a high-quality starting 2, and Jaren Jackson Jr. as an All-Defensive team candidate.

So far, the early returns are great. The starting lineup of Morant, Bane, Brooks, Jackson, and Steven Adams boast a net rating of +18.0, including a blistering 96.8 Defensive Rating. The sample is quite small, as they’ve only played 74 minutes and 156 possessions across 8 games together. In addition, when he plays with Morant and Jackson, the Grizzlies outscore their opponents by 16.2 points and limit them to 96.8 points per 100 possessions — per Cleaning the Glass.

While his fit in the starting lineup and the cornerstones is incredibly productive, the reinsertion of Dillon Brooks should also translate to better lineup staggering. Usually, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane are the first starters out of the game. Then, they return towards the end of the 1st quarter or at the start of the 2nd period, while Ja Morant is resting. So, when Brooks is back, they could have him join Jackson as one of the first starters out, which would also leave Bane in longer with Morant in the opening period. Taylor Jenkins has done something like this this season, as the trio of Brooks, Clarke, and Jackson (without Morant) have a net rating of +28.0 in 111 possessions togetherper Cleaning the Glass.

This staggering will especially help in the playoff when the rotations are crunched down. The Grizzlies will be upgrading their wing rotation to a quite solid Bane, Brooks, and Melton platoon — giving Jenkins the ability to leave at least 1 of Bane and Brooks in for all 48 minutes of a playoff game.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

We also know that Brooks is built for the postseason. Will he likely average 25 points a game in the playoffs again? Probably not, especially with how the team dynamics have shifted. However, he’s going to be crucial to this postseason when it comes down to halfcourt offense, shot creation, physicality, and slowing down the league’s elite in a 7-game series. He’s really the only wing on the team with the size, physicality, and track record to check star wings like Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, and LeBron James — and their ability to contain them is crucial to their postseason advancement.

Potential obstacles come with Dillon Brooks’ impending return. Over the past 3 seasons, Brooks has ranked in the 85th percentile or higher in Usage Rate, per Cleaning the Glass. In the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons, he led the team in field goal attempts per game, averaging 15 shots a game over those 2 seasons. With the team dynamics shifting the way they have, what will the shot distribution look like, especially with Brooks?

An easy solution would be shifting him to the bench, but his defense is too valuable to do such a thing, especially since he’s tasked with stopping the other team’s best perimeter defender. He has a pathway to thriving in a lower usage situation as a starter. His hand injury has caused his 3-point percentages to dip a bit:

  • 38.6% to 35.8% on catch-and-shoot 3’s
  • 54% to 39% on corner 3’s
  • 34.4% to 32.7% on 3-point field goals

Trending towards his percentages on catch-and-shoot and corner 3’s will help him gel in such a situation, and cutting down on pull-up 3’s could help him get closer to 36% ballpark he shot in his first 3 seasons.

He shouldn’t shift away from shot creation in the mid-range, as that’s an asset in halfcourt situations, and he’s really the only wing with size that can stop and pop for those jumpers. He should also get easier pathways to those spots, given how the weapons around him have grown this season. Lineup staggering where he could run the ship in bench-heavy units could also help the touches “issue” as well.

In addition, while that starting 5 has produced, the Grizzlies are 3-5 in the games with Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks playing together. That’s not encouraging, but his return after the All-Star break could help them find the successful formula to keep this surge going with a fully healthy rotation. Having this sort of cushion for the 3rd seed in the Western Conference, and the league’s easiest remaining schedule, plays in their favor to do so.

Memphis Grizzlies v Portland Trail Blazers Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Like the intel reported, the Memphis Grizzlies shouldn’t do anything too big at the trade deadline. You can say because of the immaculate vibes, and yes if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. You can say offseason flexibility, and yes — to be honest, hearing prominent reporters like Adrian Wojnarowski and Marc Stein bring that up is incredibly tantalizing. One of the reasons is seeing what a fully-healthy roster looks like once Dillon Brooks is back in the fold.

Like a deadline acquisition, there are going to be stuff to figure out with integrating Brooks back into the fold, similar to a higher-usage player entering a different team dynamic through a trade. Probably more than any realistic target on the trade market though, one that wouldn’t require too many assets that is, Brooks raises the ceiling of this team. A 6’7” wing that does a great job defending the league’s elite, scores in a variety of ways, and has positional versatility is good. From an intangible standpoint, time and time again, he’s been referred to as the “spirit leader” and the “head of the snake” for this team. Having that sort of guy in the mix is crucial for a playoff series, or 2 or 3.

His return makes a trip to the Western Conference Finals more of a reality.

Brooks’ return also gives Zach Kleiman another shot at a more honest assessment of this team in the postseason, so they can figure out what they really need. And a lot could ride on Dillon Brooks, especially given his contract decision coming in the next 18 months (a discussion for another time).

If you want to see a few improvements from this team, or want to maintain the immaculate vibes, the return of Dillon Brooks is your best pathway for that happening.

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