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Shocking the system with cycles in Memphis

Cycles are a key component to the Grizzlies system, leading to hand-in-hand success between defense and offense

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New York Knicks v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Taylor Jenkins is a big fan of cycles — the process of turning defense into offense.

“Cycles, says that all the time,” Jackson said of Jenkins and cycles. “I’ve been hearing that word from him forever, like he loves saying that.”

Can you blame him?

The Memphis Grizzlies lead the league in blocks (6.5), steals (9.9), and fastbreak points (17.6). In addition, they’re one of 5 teams in the past decade to average at least 6 blocks and 9 steals per game — the Golden State Warriors (2014-15 and 2016-17), Denver Nuggets (2012-13), and Philadelphia 76ers (2020-21), per Stathead. All of these teams won over 68% over their games, but they had ranging playoff outcomes from first round exit to NBA championships. Nonetheless, it is great company to be a part of.

“Once we get in transition, we’re a very dangerous team,” Ja Morant said. “Our stops on the defensive end allow us to do that too.”

These cycles and the way they turn defense into offense has helped the Grizzlies put together a top-10 offense and defense, joining only the Miami Heat and Phoenix Suns in this group.

Cycles have become a vital part of the Grizzlies system. It fuels a top-10 offense, while serving as avenues to generate momentum that can lead to massive runs — sometimes swinging the game. They are a major key into what makes this team dangerous, and when the team gets going in them, Taylor Jenkins likens it to running turnover drills.

“We get stops, turnover, rebounds, whatever it is, we get out and run and a lot of guys can lead the break for us and push the tempo, Jenkins said “Whether it’s to get score or to kick ahead, we just feed off of each other. When our entire roaster embraces that, we’re really hard to guard.”

The team’s defensive playmaking plays a major factor into the execution of cycles. They have a plethora of guys capable of wreaking havoc defensively. Per Cleaning the Glass, 5 of their rotation players have a block percentage in the 80th percentile or higher among their positional archetype (Jaren Jackson Jr., De’Anthony Melton, Kyle Anderson, John Konchar, and Brandon Clarke), and 6 of them have a steal percentage in the 70th percentile or higher (Melton, Anderson, Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, and Jackson).

Building a system around defensive playmakers that are active and create turnovers is a great formula towards turning your defense into offense. And there’s variety that goes into it. There could be a big block that ignites the break, a deflection or jump into the passing lane, or the Grizzlies just swipe someone’s cookies for an easy fastbreak layup. Having a multitude of ways to generate these opportunities has been a key component for these cycles.

The individual components of this attack are quite compelling too. I touched on how Ziaire Williams is an asset in transition in my most recent player feature, as he’s in the 90th percentile in transition points per possession.

Two players that caught my eye here were Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton. They have a similar cycle skillset. Because of their length, they are both deft at creating havoc for turnovers, crashing the defensive glass for rebounds, and facilitating transition offense. When your team is looking to start cycles for defensive to offense, those are the players you want in the system.

And these two players in particular are a part of the first substitution lineup that’s demolishing opponents. Those two alongside Morant, Williams, and Steven Adams are blitzing their opposition with a +23.1 net rating in 255 total possessions, per Cleaning the Glass. Pairing two players with their skillsets with two guys that can run the floor and a glass-cleaning big man seems to be a good formula for a staggering lineup.

Desmond Bane is another player that shines in these spots. His growth has been deservingly covered here, there, and everywhere this season. He has also increased his comfort level in transition. Granted, his efficiency isn’t out of this world or anything — only totaling 1.18 points per transition possession, which falls in the 61st percentile in that category. Nonetheless though, what stands out in his evolution as a transition player is the different points in which he can attack the defense.

My favorite part of his arsenal is his transition drives. When he gets going with a clear lane, he transforms into a NFL All-Pro running back — utilizing a combination of physicality, gear-shifting, and good footwork when getting downhill.

As he’s embraced the “let it fly” mantra more, he’s been stopping on a dime in transition to fire from downtown. It’s paying off for him. He’s shooting 39-87 (44.8%) on 3’s above the break in transition, per Synergy.

Those two go hand-in-hand with his transition playmaking. As defenses are keying in on him more in the Grizzlies’ offense, that added attention opens up avenues for him to find his teammates for easier hoops.

Multiple transition initiators helps execute these cycles too, because it doesn't have to be just Ja Morant starting the break. As delightful as he is at doing so, it also unlocks him to be a weapon that’s running the lanes as well. To do this effectively, you need interchangeable players like Melton, Anderson, or Bane.

“We have a lot of guys capable of pushing the break for us,” Morant said. “It creates easy baskets for everyone. For me, I just run and try to make the best play possible.”

The brightest spot in these cycles is Ja Morant, the man some might call the greatest show in the NBA, or the hottest box-office ticket. He’s an absolute nightmare in transition, and you know you’re about to get your money’s worth when he’s flying down the court. As mentioned before, he’s a weapon as a lane-runner with someone else orchestrating the break. When he’s the deadliest is with the ball in his hands, we’ve seen what happens when he gets a runway.

A flight from Big 12 Airlines takes off.

It’s not just as a finisher either. The open floor gives him daylight to showcase his stellar floor vision, and it’s enhanced in these spots because he’s such a focal point of the offense.

The Grizzlies have a great formula for creating cycles. They have big men that can end the opposition’s plays with blocks or rebounds, perimeter players that create defensive events, secondary facilitators that can orchestrate transition offense, players that can pull-up for 3 in transition, and lane runners that can finish off plays. They also have a superstar point guard that’s a dynamite in transition with his passing and his finishing. The key ingredient to these cycles too is the coaching staff’s relentless emphasis on defensive activity and getting out and running.

“Our team is best when we get stops on the run when our pace is high is when our team is the best,” Brandon Clarke said. “I feel like the games we come out, we guard with it well, and we run have been the games we have played well this year.”

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The big question coming into the postseason stretch for the Memphis Grizzlies is around what happens when the game slows down, and they’re forced into halfcourt offense. The Grizzlies currently rank 23rd in halfcourt offense, as they score 92.6 points per 100 possessions in these situations, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s the lowest mark of any top-6 seed right now, and only the Cleveland Cavaliers join them as playoff teams outside the top-20 in this category.

With that said, cycles could be the path for the Grizzlies to get into their comfort zone offensively, offset their halfcourt woes, and ultimately take control of the game in playoff outings. After all, they do have a top-10 defense, and they rank 1st in steals and blocks. They’re bound to create defensive events at a solid capacity in the postseason.

If they can do that, not only will it help the Grizzlies control the flow of the game, but it’ll also serve as a momentum generator. That’s paramount in the postseason situation, especially with a ruckus crowd. It could end up getting demoralizing to the opposition.

“They come back down, and they’re a little deflated,” Jackson said. “We don’t want them to do it. When teams do it to us, we play a team with high pace, it’s like damn… we’re using a lot of energy exertion and all that type of stuff. That’s what a cycle is.”

Cycles are an instrumental component of their success, and it’s also a part of this evolution of Grit and Grind. Though the team is faster, scores a lot more points, throws more lobs, and fires a lot more 3’s, defensive activity remains a driving force into success in these areas. It’s pretty cool to see unfold.

And as this next generation of Grit and Grind is preparing for their 2nd postseason appearance together, we’re about to see just how far they can go by running cycles on their opposition.

Stats and film found on NBA.com/stats.

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