When I was in college, I really thought I was the Union University-equivalent of Kyrie Irving (minus the nonsensical opinions) on the intramural basketball court, especially during my sophomore year. Now my team was objectively bad, considering that we went 1-4 through our first five games. But there’s no such thing as an “empty stats” player in intramural basketball. Whether my team won or lost (probably the latter), I was going to get mine and hopefully look good while doing it!
However, I had a humbling experience once my team was in the playoffs. I came down with a stomach bug and wasn’t able to play. Yet my team managed to beat a really good team without me. And let me tell you: I put on a good face because I felt like I had to, but the fact they played better without me than they ever had before with me bothered me.
So I’d like to think I at least have a little bit of an idea on an infinitely smaller scale of why Ja Morant was so apparently frustrated by some ridiculous fan comments earlier this year. The Grizzlies went 10-2 when he was injured during the first half of the season, and they proceeded to lose to a terrible Oklahoma City team in his first game back. That’ll naturally get to you a bit as a competitor.
Morant, of course, soon erased any doubt about his value to the team by leading the Grizzlies on an 11-game winning streak while playing at an MVP level. Yet the team’s bizarre propensity to play like, well, the best team in NBA history without him has remained a topic of conversation, as the Grizzlies are now 18-2 (?!) without him. In those games, the Grizzlies lead the league in almost every single statistical category.
Best win percentage in NBA history:— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 27, 2022
.878 — 1996 Bulls
.890 — 2016 Warriors
.895 — Grizzlies without Ja pic.twitter.com/gAUOPvqIhH
Unless you’re trying to be rejected by polite society, there’s no case to be made that the Grizzlies are better without a bonafide superstar point guard. Still, the team’s prolific success without him has gone well beyond small sample size theatre, and it deserves investigation.
Here’s a few possible explanations:
The Ewing Theory
I discussed this phenomenon a few years back, but I’ll give a refresher.
Back when he worked at Grantland for ESPN, the Ringer’s Bill Simmons and his friend Dave Cirilli coined the “Ewing Theory.” As supposed conspiracy theories go, this one was pretty plausible: it was based upon the notion that both Georgetown and the New York Knicks played better whenever Patrick Ewing was hurt or otherwise unavailable. Their suspicions appeared to have been confirmed when the Knicks somehow made the 1999 NBA Finals in spite of Ewing being out hurt during the East Finals.
I detailed a few other examples from sports history (i.e. the Celtics almost making the Finals without Kyrie Irving in 2018, the ‘98 Volunteers winning a national title without Peyton Manning, etc.), but the thesis behind the theory is simple: Teams often seem to inexplicably thrive without their star player, especially when said player has yet to lead his team to significant accomplishments.
However, as fun as this theory is, I don’t think it adequately answers the question. To put it simply, people are focusing too much energy on the alleged issues with Morant in this conversation rather than the excellence of the team around him.
Is Ja an unnecessary weight that’s holding back other key players on the team? Or have the Grizzlies under Taylor Jenkins simply established a culture that not only develops talented players into all that they can be, but also empowers them to be even more than that when they need to be—such as when the face of the franchise is out of commission?
Any reasonable person will believe that it’s the latter and that Jenkins should be one of the frontrunners for Coach of the Year. And they’ll also recognize other context that’s been a factor, such as:
A Relatively Soft Schedule
In this conversation, the teams that the Grizzlies have played is important. Because while they deserve credit for merely beating the teams in front of them, they’ve generally played a soft schedule without Ja Morant.
The Grizzlies are 18-2 without Ja.— StatMuse (@statmuse) March 29, 2022
FYI, these are the teams they beat:
Thunder without SGA
Clippers without PG
Mavs without Luka
Heat without Bam
Sixers without Embiid
Bucks without Jrue
Warriors without Big 3 pic.twitter.com/dR8vn9QcDZ
So in the 20 games they’ve played without him, the Grizzlies have played:
- 10 games against teams not currently in the playoff picture
- Hardly a single game against a playoff team or even title contender at full strength, with the possible exception of a road win in Toronto back in December (their wins against the Nets and Bucks were their two best wins without Morant, but even they were missing significant pieces of their rosters).
The Grizzlies are an extremely deep team; they can and should still be expected to beat inferior and injured teams, even without their superstar. They can’t do anything other than play the teams in front of them, but it would be foolish to ignore the context of whom they’ve played in this conversation.
However, we can’t attribute the team’s success without Ja to entirely circumstantial reasons. The culture of the organization has empowered players to succeed, but there’s some evidence that their empowerment can be partially—even if indirectly—attributed to his absence.
Beneficial Shooting Variance
A curious factor in the team’s success without Ja Morant is that seemingly everyone on the roster turns into a flamethrower from deep as soon he exits the lineup. For the season as a whole, the Grizzlies have 34.9% from three, but they have shot 39.3% in 20 games without him.
Now you can certainly chalk this up to fluky shot variance. Since Ja has the ball significantly more than anyone else and does most of his damage inside the paint, it makes sense that the Grizzlies rely more heavily on threes without him. In their current stretch with Morant absent, they’ve attempted 36.2 threes per game, up from 32.6 for the year. So the combination of increased volume along with a random uptick in efficiency enables to the Grizzlies to remain elite offensively.
Is it really a fluke though? Sure, I’m fairly confident in saying that De’Anthony Melton is not going to continue to be the best shooter to ever live like he has the last 5 games (60.5% from three on 8.6 attempts). But I do think there’s an argument to be made that the Grizzlies function in such a way without Ja that more effectively empowers their shooters.
Even the best of shooters need to find a rhythm to perform at their best level. And when you don’t touch the ball as much, it’s harder to find a rhythm. Ja has a usage rate of 33%, which is 3rd among qualified players. It’s possible that a more egalitarian offensive approach that the Grizzlies must embrace in his absence often leads to greater offensive rhythm.
It’s also true that Ja hasn’t advanced much as a playmaker since his rookie season. And that’s fine; he’s become far more Allen Iverson than Chris Paul. Still, his AST% has declined since his rookie season, and he’s averaging the fewest assists of his career despite dominating the ball more than he ever has. When Tyus Jones is the starter, he more actively looks to get others involved, which may also lead to greater offensive rhythm.
Speaking of Tyus Jones...
Tyus Jones has developed into an extremely good defender. From my column last week: The Grizzlies are 6.1 points better defensively when he’s on the court, and both the eye test as well as the numbers (1.8 STL%, 90th percentile) confirm how impactful he’s been off-the-ball defensively.
Ja Morant, on the other hand, is still growing in that area. The Grizzlies are 6.9 points worse defensively when he’s on the court, which ranks him in the 6th percentile. While he has improved according to the eye test and in terms of generating turnovers, he still struggles to get through physical screens.
To put it bluntly, the Grizzlies boast a better team defense without Ja, and it helps them to overcome the loss of his offensive firepower in his absence.
When the playoffs arrive, everyone will know how desperately needed Ja Morant is for the Grizzlies to survive and advance. What the Grizzlies have been able to accomplish without him has been undeniably incredible, but when push comes to shove, stars win in the playoffs.
Even so, what the Memphis Grizzlies have done over the course of this season is a testament to the overall talent of the roster as well as the organizational culture that has been established.