There’s been much debate over who needs to start at the 5 moving forward for the Memphis Grizzlies in their 2nd round playoff series against the Golden State Warriors entering Game 4. Xavier Tillman Sr. has drawn the assignment throughout much of the playoffs once it became clear that Steven Adams was going to be limited in the Minnesota Timberwolves series because of Karl-Anthony Towns’ skill set. Tillman Sr. can switch on the perimeter and defend guards/wings for stretches. Xavier has the ability to hit a three point shot, which Adam doesn’t just not possess - he doesn’t want to possess it. He has attempted 14 threes in his entire career. X had the combination of versatility and slightly more offensive unpredictability to make him a better choice.
But that decision has continued in to the Warriors series. This is in part because Steven Adams was in COVID protocols and was not available the first two games against Golden State in Memphis. But Game 3 was a different story - Adams possessed a clean bill of health, and yet did not play. Taylor Jenkins postgame said it was a “basketball decision” - Adams’ lack of lateral mobility and reliance on drop coverage probably played a role. But still, Adams logged nearly 2,000 minutes of playing time this past season, roughly 1,300 minutes more than Tillman, and helped Memphis much more in securing the 2nd best record in the NBA.
Memphis has struggled with rebounding. Adams is elite at that - especially on the offensive glass (99th percentile, per Cleaning the Glass). The Grizzlies have had issues with screening, especially to initiate offense. Steve-O checks that box as well (tied for 2nd in the NBA in screen assists per game in the regular season). While Jenkins and his staff have prioritized going small, the big lineup that got Memphis home court in this series originally has gone to the side. Concerns about being attacked by Golden State in the pick and roll are fair - but Memphis just gave up 142 points in Game 3. The prior defensive scheme wasn’t working. Perhaps shaking things up and going back to the Adams front court presence makes sense.
So, X or Steve? The answer is neither.
The starter at center should be Jaren Jackson Jr.
If there was ever a time to hand the keys to the kingdom to Jaren and see how he responds, it would be this moment in this series. Ja Morant is likely out for Game 4. He is the Grizzlies best player entering the game - especially if Desmond Bane continues to be limited by his back ailment. He is also, conveniently, the biggest player that consistently gets minutes in this series. At nearly 7 feet tall and roughly 240 pounds, only Kevon Looney (6’9” 222 pounds) is close physically to what Jaren is able to do in terms of size. But JJJ is a much better athlete that Looney - a reserve - which also helps us sure up our bench in terms of the front court.
Steven Adams can play the minutes that Looney is out there, bringing back his strength and size to help on the boards for 14-16 minutes per game. And Jaren - 10th in the NBA in defensive rating and win shares, 1st in total blocks Jaren - can go be the big man responsible for manning the middle and making his teammates right off of dribble penetration.
The primary defensive assignment for Jaren Jackson Jr.? Draymond Green - a player that shot fewer attempts per game this past season than any before it except for his rookie year. Per 100 possessions it was the 2nd fewest attempts aside from last season. Green is an elite facilitator from his front court positioning, but he does not want to shoot the basketball. He really doesn’t want to shoot the three ball - 2 per 100 possessions, which is more than Steven Adams but still painfully low.
The key for Memphis is to get Jaren responsible for forcing Green to be aggressive offensively as a scorer. Treating Draymond as if he is not a scoring threat (because for Golden State he’s not meant to be one) and sagging off of him to help hedge on screens for Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jordan Poole would enable Jaren to disrupt the timing and lines of sight to the basket for these true offensive weapons. From there, help defenders can cut off a rolling Draymond and force, say, Jonathan Kuminga (33.6% from three on the season) or some other lesser threat than the “Splash Brothers/Poole Party” to beat you.
That’s not to say Golden State isn’t capable of doing so. Otto Porter Jr. has played well in this series. Andrew Wiggins was very strong offensively in Game 3. The Warriors have the ability to take and pick apart whatever an opposing defense tries to do. But if Jaren is indeed your best defender, this would enable him to be in a better spot to help. Yes, foul concerns are fair here as well - both from an aggressive Green trying to bait Jaren in to mistakes on dribble penetration and the help defense on cuts to the lane from the Warriors.
Still, Memphis is down 2-1 in the series. The Grizzlies are likely without their best player. It’s time to go in on who is your next best weapon and see what he does when the moment arrives.
Offensively, you force the hand of Golden State. Jaren becomes the initial screener and can roll to the basket (again, he is much larger than the Warriors front court) to get paint or low block positioning, or he can pop out on the perimeter for three. Who defends Jaren among the starting five if, say, Kyle Anderson becomes the starting 4 and Tillman Sr. and Adams - less offensively versatile players than Kyle - are not out there? Green? Wiggins? Kuminga? All three are undersized, all three have limitations keeping Jaren from getting to his spots either at the rim or beyond the arc. If Jaren can game plan in to his process that passing isn’t a bad thing off his own dribble penetration (his 5.8% assist rate is 21st percentile) and find cutters/divers to the basket, just one or two extra pass can make the difference between winning and losing.
Imagine a Tyus Jones (or Ja Morant, of course, if healthy)/Desmond Bane/Dillon Brooks/Kyle Anderson/Jaren Jackson Jr. starting 5. It should be necessary to imagine it - they only played 3 minutes together this entire season. Then, De’Anthony Melton, Ziaire Williams, and Brandon Clarke are your 3 main reserves off the bench. Splash in 12-14 Steven Adams minutes with Xavier Tillman as a “break in case of emergency” option, and you get the chance to both play small while also still playing the largest player in the series not named Steven Adams. Memphis gets additional size in the front court with Kyle Anderson (Anderson grabbed almost an entire rebound more per 100 possessions than Xavier Tillman) with more offensive tools. Jaren receives another facilitator to play alongside and interact with in screen sets. Defensively switchability can still rule without losing length or build. The Kyle/Jaren pairing has a +26.3 rating in just 27 minutes together in the playoffs.
That time needs to go up.
You also then have Brandon Clarke as the first sub in for Kyle, leading Memphis to the vaunted Clarke/Jackson Jr. defensive pairing. Jackson/Clarke together are a +10.8 with a 102.7 defensive rating in 116 minutes in the postseason. Meanwhile, when Kyle and Brandon are on the floor together, they’re a paltry -8.4. That’s the worst net rating of any pairing that has played more than 90 minutes together. A good way to separate these two is to start one of them. Between Kyle’s tools offensively and Brandon’s energy, super sub Clarke and starter Slo-Mo makes sense.
Jaren Jackson Jr.’s time is coming. Our Brandon Abraham said as much this week - all that Brandon outlined there still is very much for the taking for the Memphis unicorn. But it is time to grow up a bit and bet the player these Grizzlies need him to be. If he fails, he does so while being put in a position to lead as a learning experience. If he succeeds? Memphis could shock the world and turn this series around, even without Ja Morant. The defense is going to be better. How much better depends on how the best Grizzlies defensive weapon is utilized.
The answer to what ails the Memphis front court is simple. Play your best players. Jaren Jackson Jr. leads that charge - they do not have the combination of size and speed to stop him on either end consistently. With Kyle Anderson and Brandon Clarke at his side in the front court (and perhaps a sprinkling of Ziaire Williams or Dillon Brooks depending on matchup), the only person that can stop Jaren is Jaren.
Sink or swim. Rise or fall.
Bet on your best talent, and go all-in.