It is has been a little over two months since the Grizzlies 2021-2022 season ended with a second round loss to the eventual NBA champion Golden State Warriors. However, while plenty of action still remains possible with a few big names looking to find new homes via trade, the start of the next NBA season is still three months away. And though the Memphis Grizzlies could make another move or two before then, there are good indications the Grizzlies roster is pretty much in place heading into training camp.
Memphis has made plenty of interesting moves so far this offseason. Their continued investment in youth on draft night and the retention of Tyus Jones were highly interesting yet logical moves in terms of additions to the roster. Meanwhile, trading De’Anthony Melton and not re-signing Kyle Anderson were somewhat expected moves as the Grizzlies continue to evolve their roster for the long-term. While current players on the Grizzlies roster, plus the talent the Grizzlies drafted, makes it understandable why the Grizzlies front office felt Melton and Anderson were expandable, both players were significantly valuable during their time with the Grizzlies.
While both Melton and Anderson provided value in many ways whenever they were on the court together, it is hard to argue their biggest contributions came on the defensive side of the ball, especially in terms of defensive playmaking. It is no coincidence that with both players in the rotation over the past two years, the Grizzlies are tied for first in steals produced and are in the top ten of blocks produced and turnovers forced on a per game basis since the start of the 2020-2021 season.
The results Melton and Anderson produced were not just a byproduct of effective team defense. Among all NBA players who have played at least 3000 minutes over the past three seasons, Melton has produced the second-highest steal rate in the league. Among the 107 NBA guards who have played at least 3000 minutes over the past three seasons, Melton has produced the fourth-best block rate. Anderson is one of only seven players over the past five seasons who has played at least 7500 minutes and produced a steal rate above 2% and a block rate above 2%. Melton and Anderson have a proven track record as two of the better defensive playmakers in the league.
Along with the departures of Anderson and Melton, another highly significant difference between the start of next year for the Grizzlies and last year will be the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr.. While Jackson Jr. will likely be back some time during the holiday season or perhaps at the beginning of 2023, his presence will certainly be missed. Jackson Jr. led the NBA in total blocks and “stocks” (steals plus blocks) last season, finishing 5th in Defensive Player of the Year voting and made the All-Defensive First Team. He arguably was one of the biggest defensive difference makers in the league last year, and will be a big void to fill for a Grizzlies defense that was one of the best in the league.
Without Melton and Anderson moving forward, and Jackson Jr. to start the season, there is no doubt the Grizzlies are losing a lot of certainty and defensive production. For example, when Melton and Anderson were on the court together last year, the Grizzlies defense was in the 96th percentile of all NBA defensive lineups in terms of turnover production. The Grizzlies led the league with 9.8 steals and 6.5 blocks per game and were third in the league with 15.1 turnovers forced per game last season. The Grizzlies arguably being the best defensive playmaking team in the NBA last season is a big reason they had the second-most wins during the regular season.
Memphis’s consistent defensive playmaking is also a reason they were sixth in the NBA in Defensive Rating last year. The consistent ability of the Grizzlies to disrupt the offensive flow of their opposition was a major reason Memphis was able to keep winning even without some of their best talents for significant portions of the season.
Another reason why the defensive playmaking was important is because it created fast break opportunities. An offensive strength of the Grizzlies roster last year was creating advantages in the open court. By frequently creating turnovers, Memphis was able to score easy baskets many times during games. Similar to the defensive playmaking being a big reason for the Grizzlies defensive success, the fast break opportunities that were a byproduct of the Grizzlies’ defensive playmaking were a big reason for Memphis’s offensive success.
The turnovers and quick offensive possessions allowed the Grizzlies to be among the best in the NBA in gaining the possession advantage in games. The Grizzlies led the league in field goal attempts per game in both the regular season and postseason. The Grizzlies produced 5 or more shots than their opponents in 48 games during the regular season last year, and were 32-16 in those games. With Melton and Anderson coming off the bench, the Grizzlies defensive playmaking only got stronger when the best individual talents were out of the game. Memphis had its recipe for success, and produced better results than many expected.
The reason why the need for consistently creating a possession edge was so important for Memphis was because the Grizzlies remained below average when it came to producing threes. The Grizzlies were 23rd in three pointers made per game last season, and were 23-23 in the 46 games they made less threes than their opponents. The reason why Memphis was able to remain at .500 record when they made less threes than their opponent is due to creating extra opportunities that overcame the three point deficient. As a result, creating turnovers was a critical component to the Grizzlies’ success last season.
As a result, the losses of Melton and Anderson and the absence of Jackson Jr. for at least a third of the season will likely be felt next year. This trio was a big reason for the Grizzlies defensive and offensive success last season in terms of defensive playmaking and gaining the possession edge. Furthermore, in Melton and Jackson Jr., the Grizzlies will be without their second and third best producers from three. In general, the Grizzlies are losing two of their three best three point shooters. They also are losing three of their biggest contributors to overcoming their lack of three point production through causing turnovers. This seems to be a bit questionable for a team that wants build off arguably the best season in franchise history.
And it seems the Grizzlies are perfectly fine with this development.
Without a doubt, significant factors into the formula for the Grizzlies success last year are now gone. That likely will be felt to start next season for the reasons mentioned above. And yes, there is a good chance the Grizzlies may not lead the league in steals and blocks next year during the regular season. Furthermore, replacing the certainty that came with Melton and Anderson with rookies in the form of Jake LaRavia and David Roddy may not seem too logical if the Grizzlies want to remain a contender next year.
However, while these assessments may be true, last year’s playoffs provided an indicator as to why Memphis was okay moving forward with less certainty as to how they won last year to continue evolving the roster into what they ultimately want it to be.
In last year’s postseason, the Grizzlies three point production actually improved. They were fifth among all playoff teams in three pointers per game, and were 5-2 when they produced as many or more three pointers than their opponents. In the five games they did not produce more threes, they were 1-4. In the six games they produced more possessions than their opponents, they were 3-3. Furthermore, the Grizzlies improvement in three point production coincided with Melton and Anderson combining to go 14-56 (25%) from three during the playoffs.
The main takeaway from this is the Grizzlies have committed too all along: They remain committed to the long term in terms of the short term. Furthermore, they are committing to what will help them win in the postseason than the regular season.
The Grizzlies are confident their depth, development, and youth will get them to the postseason for years to come. Their focus moving forward is evolving their roster into one that can one in the postseason consistently. On draft night, Zach Kleiman discussed shot value being one of the biggest reasons for targeting Jake Laravia and David Roddy. The Grizzlies want to become better when it comes to shot selection. They know they can score in the paint, now they want to score from distance to balance the offense. If that means sacrificing a bit of regular season success next season, they seem okay with that due to their confidence their shot selection should improve in the long term.
In terms of the Grizzlies defense next season, it naturally will likely take a step back without Melton, Anderson, and Jackson Jr. That is simply a compliment to the value of each player. However, numbers suggest the Grizzlies defense will be ok. With Anderson and Melton off the court last year, the Grizzlies still were in the 90th percentile of defensive lineups in limiting the opposition’s points per possession. And that was without Dillon Brooks for much of the season. While the presence of Jackson Jr. was certainly a big reason for the defensive success last year, the Grizzlies should remain at least league average defensively with a healthy Dillon Brooks. Bigger roles for John Konchar and Ziaire Williams could also help, while Laravia and Roddy are not to shabby when it comes to contributing to defensive playmaking.
Overall, the Grizzlies may take a step backward in terms of producing turnovers and in general defensively to start next season. Again, that is the compliment to the value Melton, Anderson, and Jackson Jr. provided. However, the Grizzlies depth and talent should allow for them to remain in the playoff hunt until Jackson Jr. returns. And once he is back, not only could the defense be above average, but the rookies settling in could allow Memphis to be more balanced offensively, which could lead to better playoff success this year and beyond.
A step back to take two steps forward? Easier said than done for sure, especially coming off of last season. However, Memphis is still young enough to continue to take chances to evolve their roster in the best way they see fit. And their continued success in betting on youth, talent, and development should create trust in their approach.
Sure, Memphis may struggle to start the season next year. However, last year, the Grizzlies were 9-10 the Friday after Thanksgiving, and had just lost Ja Morant to a significant knee injury. They responded by going 47-16 the rest of the way. Even if Memphis is not the second seed in the West next year, with a healthy Jaren and Ja and perhaps more consistent shooting, they may be better suited for the playoffs.
And that not only comes into play next year, but for years to come as well.