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What to make of Kyle Anderson

He may have the Grizzlies in a proverbial pickle.

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NBA: Orlando Magic at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies have a good problem on their hands with the impending return of Dillon Brooks and the postseason approaching.

The team with the 2nd best record in terms of win percentage in the entire NBA is about to welcome back one of its top-5 players in Brooks, who has only logged 21 games this season for Memphis. His two-way capabilities will improve a defense that at times has struggled of late as the Grizzlies have gone 4-4 in their last 8 games, and an offense in the half-court that has been below average (23rd in the NBA at half-court points per play according to Cleaning The Glass) all season long. He won’t solve those issues entirely, but assuming they can re-integrate him in 10 or so games (a potentially big ask, given his usual usage rate) there’s no denying he will strengthen an already very good basketball team.

The domino effect, however, will be one to watch as the days and weeks unfold. Brooks may play a game or two off the bench as he gets his legs back under him, but as much as it may make hypothetical sense for Dillon to eventually be a sixth man off the bench it probably isn’t in the best interest of this version of the Grizzlies. DB is a very good defender that can be elite on the ball, and if part of the current “problem” is slowing the best scorers for opposing teams (see recent performances by CJ McCollum, Jayson Tatum, and even Kevin Porter Jr./Jalen Green) then him not beginning contests doesn’t make a ton of sense.

That would me a demotion for Ziaire Williams, the rookie who has shown real growth since his own return from injury. That’s not a major issue - Williams is young and still raw. His improvement to this stage is more than sufficient for a “project” such as him, and a lesser role wouldn’t impede his long view development. But being removed entirely from the rotation would at least stagnate that process...and that is possible when considering the likely minutes consolidation ahead.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Los Angeles Lakers Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In last season’s playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins implemented a nine-man rotation. Assuming this continues, there are seven names that are locks for this rotation (barring an injury or complete fall from grace) - Ja Morant, Desmond Bane, Dillon Brooks, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams, Tyus Jones, and Brandon Clarke. Beyond those seven, you’d imagine De’Anthony Melton - the long and versatile backcourt player who is statistically one of the best creators of defensive chaos (97th percentile among combo guards in steal percentage at 3%, 94th in block percentage) and also is an elite rebounder at his position (100th percentile in the percentage of defensive rebounds he grabbed off of missed shots by opponents - AKA fgDR%. He is also in the 94th percentile in fgOR% - for offensive rebounding) - would also figure to be in that mix. While certainly not elite offensively, his defensive impact negates his offensive woes (34th percentile in eFG%).

So, 8 men are in. No disrespect to John Konchar, but unless cleanup minutes are in line he likely is not longed for this playoff possibility (unless a Melton or someone else struggles immensely, or the team is having issues with rebounding specifically). So who is the 9th man - Kyle Anderson or Ziaire Williams?

The answer is not as clear as you think. And they leads to a potential dilemma for Taylor Jenkins as the postseason approaches.

The answer SHOULD be Kyle Anderson, and we all move on. It may well still be that, for the record - Anderson is one of the most veteran members of the Grizzlies, and he logged the 5th most minutes for Memphis in last year’s playoffs. Jenkins trusts him, and values the versatility he provides. He is still a defensive force, being arguably the 3rd best defender on the roster when it comes to steals and blocks (91st and 82nd percentiles, respectively) and is a very good rebounder at the forward position group per Cleaning the Glass (94th percentile in fgDR%, 58th in fgOR%). Offensively he is still a stout creator of offense for others as well at his position group - his assist percentage of 16.2% is in the 87th percentile for forwards. He is still doing the things he was brought here to do - defend multiple positions, and be a facilitator for scoring.

Why, then, are the Grizzlies better off in terms of efficiency differential when he’s off the floor? His -5.3 mark per Cleaning the Glass is worst on the Grizzlies among players that have logged at least 500 minutes this season, and only he and the aforementioned Konchar have negative differentials below -4 using that minutes mark (Xavier Tillman is a miserable -10.5, but he has only played 430 minutes this season). Anderson is continuing much of what he excels at, but it is not impacting winning as much as it once did.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Shooting regressions

Anderson is now essentially refusing to shoot threes. Last season, a bit of an offensive renaissance for Kyle, had Slo-Mo shooting 35% of his attempts overall from beyond the arc. He was hitting them at a 36% clip, which while still below average across the NBA (44th percentile among forwards) was better than he had done since the 2016-2017 season, and that was on a much smaller volume. He attempted 35 threes that 2016-2017 campaign, whereas in 2020-2021 he shot a whopping 258.

Fast forward to this season, and Kyle is...not doing that anymore. His accuracy overall has decreased (33%, 31st percentile) but what has really taken a drop are the attempts. Only 23% of his shots are threes now - 8th percentile on Cleaning the Glass among forwards - and only 10% of his attempts come from the corner three area, where he is actually doing quite well in terms of conversion (17 for 38 makes for a 45% shooter from the corners - 80th percentile - on far too small of a sample size).

What happens in the postseason, when teams will be game planning to stop Ja Morant and will also not have to worry about a Kyle Anderson shooter if he shares the floor with Steven Adams? It isn’t pretty - the one lineup that has featured Anderson and Adams together enough to measure among Cleaning the Glass’ possessions - one where Kyle plays the traditional “small forward position” alongside Desmond Bane, Ja Morant, and Jaren Jackson Jr. - is a miserable -19.5, “good” for 6th percentile in the entire NBA. According to he only plays small forward 10% of the time now, which is beneficial. But should he be seeing any time there moving forward...or should those minutes be given to Ziaire Williams, who shoots more threes (54% of his attempts come from range, 29% from the corner - 91st percentile among wings) at a similar 33% clip since January 1st of this year.

Ziaire may not be ready to defend all “4”s in the NBA. But depending on matchups, in terms of spacing if Anderson simply refuses to shoot threes it limits what the Grizzlies can do offensively.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

It goes beyond threes

Anderson isn’t just struggling to score from outside the arc. Inside it he is posting his worst shooting season since his rookie campaign. On all two point attempts Kyle is in the 19th percentile at 46.4%. He is having a career worst year at the rim (58%, 27th percentile) and is struggling mightily outside opportunities outside the rim as well (36%, 36th percentile on all midrange shots). He is near average between 4 and 14 feet (48th percentile at 39%) but is having major issues beyond 14 feet (25th percentile at 23%). When you compare these numbers to what he was doing last season, the difference is stark.

In 2020-2021, per Cleaning the Glass, Kyle shot...

  • 2% better at the rim (60%, was 36th percentile)
  • 15% better overall from midrange (51%, 95th percentile)
  • 13% better between 4-14 feet (52%, 95th percentile)
  • A staggering 25% better between 14 feet and the three point line (48%, 75th percentile)

Anderson was also a much better free throw shooter. His 78% overall mark last season was almost 16% better than what Kyle is posting now at 62.2%, with that number landing him in the 5th percentile among NBA forwards. Meanwhile, Ziaire Williams - while he needs to attack these areas more consistently - is shooting drastically better than Anderson. Williams is a whopping 82% at the rim (96th percentile, but only 24% of his shots come from there. 36% of Kyle Anderson’s shots are at the rim) and 46% on all midrange opportunities, compared to Kyle’s previously mentioned 36% (on again a smaller sample size - Anderson has shot many more midrange looks than Anderson).

Even beyond the scoring efficiency being drastically down, how he is scoring has also changed. He is relying more on assisted shots from the midrange especially to get his offense, not utilizing his handle to create for himself as often. He was assisted on only 43% of his shots from there last season, whereas that number now has risen to 56%. He remains very active in generating offense for others, but his own production is both more dependent on those around him (at least in the area he takes most of his shots - 41% of his attempts are midrange shots) and less effective than it was a year ago.

Should Kyle Anderson’s spot in the playoff rotation be in jeopardy? It’s a fair question. Anderson provides what he did when he was first signed by the Grizzlies - above average to great defense and effective offensive facilitation - while also continuing to be a sound rebounder. But his scoring productivity has fallen off considerably, and depending on lineups either he, or someone having a better season than him in terms of fit with the roster, is going to be unplayable. Steven Adams and Anderson together limits the Grizzlies offense far too much. Anderson and Brandon Clarke likely would not work together for similar reasons. And if Anderson is more of a big at this stage than he is a forward, he would be the 4th big behind Jaren Jackson Jr., Adams, and Clarke.

If the desire to stay around a 9 man rotation exists, the other minutes where Kyle was playing the 4 or even the 5 - again, literally 90% of his roughly 21 minutes a game are logged there now - can be redistributed across Ziaire Williams himself at 6’8” (depending on matchup), Brandon Clarke, and Jaren Jackson Jr. Williams provides the length and size that Kyle once did on the perimeter, as well as a more willing shooter and one that will improve with time and reps - at least, as he has to this point.

There are trade offs to be sure. Anderson makes shots easier for teammates to take and also has valuable mileage on his legs chasing around some of the NBA’s very best players. That means a lot more in the playoffs than it does in the regular season. And yet, the team still does better when he’s not on the floor - and their halfcourt offensive woes are even more pronounced with Anderson’s fall in terms of scoring efficiency. It is unlikely he will be able to fix those issues. Perhaps the ascending Ziaire Williams could.

Kyle Anderson has logged a lot of playoff minutes compared to the rest of the Grizzlies. That experience matters, and will likely weigh heavily on Taylor Jenkins’ eventual decision. The future of the franchise - and Ziaire in particular - would benefit from meaningful postseason experience for the young Williams. But the days ahead - including Anderson’s impending free agency - do not matter when in a seven game series. Jenkins must select his (likely) nine best. That list used to quite clearly include Kyle Anderson.

Now? That view is not nearly as clear.

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