The Memphis Grizzlies are one of the best defensive teams in the NBA — actually 0.1 points per 100 possessions away from tying the Cleveland Cavaliers for the claim of number 1. The perimeter/big duo of Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks plays a huge role in their elite defense. If Jackson is the Block Panther, then Brooks might be The Hulk — he can be a little bit out of control, but his fiery physicality and fortitude on defense can make this team downright unstoppable when he’s locked in.
Jackson rightfully deserves a bulk of the credit, as the team rose from a middling defense to the best with his return. Brooks is the tone-setter for this Grizzlies team on defense, as his relentless and fearlessness are traits his teammates pick up as well.
Where it all starts is with his defensive assignments. He takes on the toughest matchups each night, ranking in the 99th percentile in The B-Ball Index’s “matchup difficulty” metric. He doesn’t care who’s he in front of them; if they’re the best player on the opposing team, Dillon Brooks wants the challenge of guarding him.
I want the best player ever single night — if he’s 7’0”, a quick guard, 300 pounds, or if it’s Skeletor, I want the matchup every single night. I want to challenge myself every single night to get better.
Brooks backs up his remarks with his positional versatility. According to The B-Ball Index’s, he’s in the 94th percentile in defensive position versatility with only 11.5% split between his lowest matchup time and his highest:
- Point Guard: 17.4%
- Shooting Guard: 28.9%
- Small Forward: 24.5%
- Power Forward: 21.7%
There are several matchups within these archetypes where Brooks has really shined this year. It’d be remiss of me to not mention his work against Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Notice the outlier:
Yes, you probably noticed that 15-point outing against Memphis in a sea of scoring explosions. In the second battle, Gilgeous-Alexander tallied 26 points because of his tickets to the free throw line (17-19 from the line).
Brooks set a tone against the budding superstar by staying physical with him, fighting off screens, and making him work for his spots.
Similar to Gilgeous-Alexander, Siakam was in a zone before the Grizzlies and Raptors played on December 29th. He was averaging 38 points per game over 4 games, including a 52-point masterclass in the Garden. Siakam scored 25 points on 8-19 shooting in the loss to Memphis, while Brooks held him to 6-15 shooting as the primary defender.
Brooks bothered Siakam with his physicality, and it shined the most with his screen navigation and his contact absorption. Often times in screens, he’d either fight over it or he’ll have a soft-switch then recover. On Siakam’s drives, he used his chest to absorb the contact and derail his momentum, forcing spotty footwork and off-balanced shots.
The player with the Brooks has guarded the most this season is De’Aaron Fox in terms of matchup minutes (21:08), partial possessions (104.5), and field goal attempts (25) — per the NBA’s matchup data. Fox is 11-25 (44%) and has 5 turnovers against 4 assists with Brooks as the primary defender.
Brooks was great navigating through Fox’s shiftiness both with his dribbling and his footwork. He also made sure to provide an air-tight presence on closeout’s, while still giving him the landing room to avoid fouling.
Brooks’ performance on Khris Middleton will probably slide under the radar. Middleton is an All-Star talent, but he doesn’t pop in the same way as most players of his caliber. However, this one was just maddening. The Bucks All-Star wing only converted 1 of his 7 shot attempts with Brooks as the primary defender, while only scoring 3 points on 1-12 shooting for the entire game.
Brooks was air-tight on his jumpers and just made Middleton uncomfortable in this one to the point of uncharacteristic frustration.
Things got chippy between Khris Middleton and Dillon Brooks pic.twitter.com/KxHFoTpavT— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) December 16, 2022
The real eye-catcher is his defense on Zion Williamson — an absolute basketball anomaly, with an aura similar to that of Thanos, to stick with the Avengers references. It’s also a matchup we haven’t seen from Brooks. He usually takes on more perimeter-oriented players, as the most physical, “big” players he’s defended were Karl-Anthony Towns and Luka Doncic.
Brooks held Williamson to 0-5 shooting as the primary defender in a game where he scored 14 points on 12 shots and was a -32 on the floor.
That game had my curiosity, and then the New Year’s Eve game had my attention.
The Grizzlies designed an excellent scheme to slow down Zion Williamson — resulting in the All-Star forward to have 20 points on 6-16 shooting while coughing up 9 turnovers. The Grizzlies had Dillon Brooks at the point of attack, and then Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. “guarding” Jonas Valanciunas and Herb Jones to provide an incredibly difficult path to the bucket.
The rim protection from Jackson and Adams was absurd, combining for 13 stocks (8 blocks between the two). Brooks’ point of attack was important as well. He took advantage of the size differential between him and Zion to utilize his physicality — building a good center of gravity to absorb Zion’s backdown’s inside the post. As a result, he funneled them into the big men to make the finish window nearly shut.
Brooks’ intensity into his defensive assignments is fascinating to watch. He’ll pick up his guys full court, and how he immediately lasers into his matchup after made buckets is something I haven’t seen too often at the NBA level. He fights through every screen, a byproduct of the Grizzlies’ strategy of sticking with their man. He’s just glued to his defender. He’s one of the league’s best screen navigators (ranks in the 93rd percentile in The B-Ball Index’s “ball screen navigation” metric) and off-ball chasers (97th percentile in the “off-ball chaser defense” metric) — stuff like that sets a tone.
It’s also parlayed into production in defensive metrics. Brooks falls in the 94th percentile at Defensive Real Plus Minus (+2.5), and he’s also 14th in Defensive RAPTOR (+3.3). He’s often not an analytics favorite, even defensively, because he fouls a lot and doesn’t generate counting stats. So, these increases are encouraging, as it backs up the importance of his defense.
When it comes to tone-setting, Brooks has also taken the young players under his wing. He seems like the perfect mentor for this team for this specific group of players with defensive upside: David Roddy, Ziaire Williams, Jake LaRavia, and Vince Williams. His energetic, tenacious tone is the premise of this feature, and a product within it is his film work. Over the past several years, Taylor Jenkins and his team have countlessly said how Brooks is a savant for film. With his intense approach to the game, both on and off the floor, he offers great perspective for the young guys on this team.
“Watching him you learn a lot — intricacies of the game,” Roddy said of the veteran. “He teaches me a lot in our shootarounds and in our walkthroughs, and everything like that. Watching film with him is really important, and matching his intensity is the biggest thing, so there’s no let-up or drop-off when I sub in. That’s what I try to do every game and bring that energy the way he does every game.”
Brooks provides feedback to them, and where does it start? Heart.
“It’s all about heart first. That’s what I try to instill in them and tell them. Defense is all about heart. When you get to this level, it’s about knowing who you’re guarding and knowing who you’re playing. It takes a lot of toll on your body, and that’s why you got to really study and really know who you’re guarding, so you don’t have to do extra extra stuff. Especially being disciplined, that’s the main thing coming in as a rookie. I had to learn the hard way on fouls, technicals, and all that. I just had try to find a way to be disciplined, and keep guys in front of you and make them shoot over you.
In Desmond Bane’s interview on today’s episode of Old Man and the Three, he praised Brooks as someone who brings it at all times — and in tough stretches (inferior opponents, 3 games in 4 nights, etc.):
“He’s the first guy in the facility everyday. He’s in the facility 7 days a week, off days, lockout days, regardless. 82 games, you can count on him guarding the other teams’ best player — point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward — it doesn’t matter. The edge and intensity he brings night in and night out just kind of wills our team.”
Brooks’ presence as a tone-setter on and off the floor is a big boost for this Memphis Grizzlies team. It shines the most on the defensive side of the floor.
Despite his presence defensively, Dillon Brooks is imperfect — and surely, you’ll bring up the offense, but I’m talking about the other side of the floor here. His competitiveness can get the best of him for bad fouls, and he fouls too often for most people’s liking. He may not generate the counting stats to garner attention in discussions for “best perimeter defenders” or “All-Defensive Team.” And perhaps his shot selection often overshadows his defensive importance to a portion of people.
Nonetheless, his impact is undeniable. He’s led the team in On/Off differential for 3 seasons now. This season, the Grizzlies are 11.8 points per 100 possessions with Brooks on the floor — per Cleaning the Glass. That mark is the best on the team by roughly 3 points per 100 possessions, and also is 18th among players that have played about 500 “non garbage time” minutes this season. He’s also 6th in points saved defensively among the previously selected criteria, as the Grizzlies give up 9.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
Dillon Brooks is often described as the “head of the snake” for this Grizzlies team, and it all starts with his relentless tone he sets on the defensive side of the ball. This season, with the attention the Grizzlies defense is getting (thanks to the brilliance of Jaren Jackson Jr.), people are taking notice of Brooks’ work on that side of the ball. Maybe it parlays into an All-Defense bid to give the Grizzlies 2 All-Defensive players for the first time since 2013?
“He’s our best defender, he’s been our best defender for a long time,” Jackson said of his teammates. “Honestly, best defender in the league for a long time, but people are getting to see it now because we’re on TV. People say he gets up for matchup, but he has a matchup every single night, because NBA teams are good. He does a lot for us. We don’t have to worry about him on screens, and we don’t have to worry about him in a lot of ways. He’s going to bring it each and every night.”
Dillon Brooks brings it each and every night. His tone defensively creates stout, smash-mouth defense on people’s favorite All-Stars — and into the Grizzlies’ spot within the Western Conference’s hierarchy.