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Three Areas of Improvement for the Grizzlies Playoff Push

Once again, the Grizzlies are among the best regular season teams in the NBA. However, there are a few areas of needed improvement for them to truly contend for a title.

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Utah Jazz v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Grizzlies are officially at the half way point of their 2022-2023 season. And at 28-13, to the surprise of no one (ok, possibly a few) they again are near the top of the Western Conference and one of the best teams of the NBA. And with a few important dates coming up on the NBA Calendar (Trade Deadline, All-Star Break), Memphis is obviously preparing for a playoff push that they hope will turn into a true chance at a title run.

That is the one difference between this year and last season. A year ago, they had one of the best young or emerging cores in the game. This year, the Grizzlies clearly have the needed ingredients to cook up a championship campaign. They feature a top 10 player in the league (Ja Morant), arguably a top five shooter in the league (Desmond Bane), and two of the NBA’s best defenders (Jaren Jackson Jr. and Dillon Brooks.) Memphis’s defense has shown it can play at a championship level, while the offense has the potential to outscore any team in the NBA.

While the Grizzlies overall goal is to be a championship contender for several years, no time is better than the present for this franchise and roster to be all-in on winning a title this year.

And with an all-in mentality, that is not limited to the ideas of the Grizzlies potentially making a significant trade at the deadline or ensuring that Memphis’s best players are healthy once the playoffs arrive. It is consistently making improvements that will be critical to survive and thrive in the playoffs. Memphis did exactly that last season, especially in terms of three point shooting. Dialing it up from distance with confidence remains one area of improvement for the Grizzlies, but a few others exist as well. While there are plenty of elite traits about this roster, here a few areas of improvement that could really make them one of the title favorites this season.

Free Throw Shooting

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

If you ask Grizzlies fans what the most noticeable weakness of this roster is, many, without hesitation, will point to free throw shooting. And they would be absolutely correct. The Grizzlies are currently last in the NBA in FT%, nearly three full percentage points behind the second to last team in the league. In fact, over the past 15 years, only six teams have produced 25 or more wins through the halfway point of the season while shooting 71% or less from the line. Memphis’s 28 wins are the most in the first half of a season for a team who has shot 71% or less from the line since the Spurs had 31 wins in the 2005-2006 season.

One trait of the Grizzlies that helps to minimize the negative impact of their struggles from the charity stripe is that Memphis is 5th in the NBA in free throw attempts per game. But even at that frequency level, they still are below average in free throw production, ranking 20th in makes per game. The inconsistencies on free throws simply does not correlate well with advancing in the playoffs. Over the past five uninterrupted NBA seasons, only two of the 20 teams that have made the conference finals ranked lower than 17th in FT%

This roster weakness will obviously become most impactful in late-game situations during the home stretch of the season and in the playoffs. At that point, getting to the line more frequently likely will not matter as much as consistently hitting free throws in critical situations. Sure, Memphis could trade for a player who is a plus shooter from the line and lineups can be constructed so that the best free throw shooters our on the court. However, the Grizzlies roster has a whole must significantly improve from the free throw line to be at a comfortable level in high leverage playoff scenarios.

Shot Selection

San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Over the summer, the Grizzlies discussed improving their shot quality and three point shooting. Roster moves made by Memphis were made with these goals in mind as well. And early season success showed improvement in these exact areas. However, as regression occurred and Bane suffered a toe injury hey kept him out for six weeks, Memphis returned to familiar and less than ideal territory when it came to shot selection and quality. Currently, the Grizzlies rank 20th in effective field goal percentage and 24th in true shooting percentage. They also rank 25th in half-court offense, per Cleaning the Glass. In other words, as the game slows down and becomes more methodical and structured, the Grizzlies offense becomes less effective.

One fair point to make is that, per Cleaning the Glass, the Grizzlies run the second fewest plays in the half-court of all NBA teams. And from last year’s playoffs, that percentage did not drastically change for many teams in last year’s playoffs. However, this clearly indicates the Grizzlies are one of the teams that benefit the most from scoring before the defense is set. As Memphis faces better defenses over the home stretch and into the playoffs, they must become more consistent at scoring through strategy and smart shot selection. Over the past five uninterrupted NBA seasons, all 20 teams that have made the conference finals finished 15th or above in eFG% and TS% in their respective seasons.

A fully healthy Desmond Bane and a nearly healthy roster in general has proven to be one way for the Grizzlies to improve in these areas. On the season, the Grizzlies are 18th in 3P%, 13th in assists per game, and 14th in turnovers committed per game. Each of these areas impact shot quality and half-court performances. The Grizzlies improve in all these areas when Bane is playing at his normal level, and Memphis could add a piece that helps in these areas at the deadline. In other words, good health and a potential move at the trade deadline could give the Grizzlies a boost in needed areas to improve both their shot quality and selection.

One other encouraging factor is that just last year, the Grizzlies improved their eFG% and TS% as the season progressed. Their half-court offense also improved in the playoffs compared to the regular season. One key factor was being more consistent from beyond the arc. While the Grizzlies are unlikely to be among the NBA’s best when it comes to shot quality and selections this season, they have shown they can at least be average in these areas. If the Grizzlies can get back to that level, it could significantly increase their chances of making in further in the playoffs than they did last season.

Three Point Production

Memphis Grizzlies v New York Knicks Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

The one other area where Memphis must continue to see improvement is in terms of three point production. The Grizzlies are currently average when one combines both shooting and defending the three: 18th in both 3P% and 12th in OPP 3P%. However, the end result is Memphis having a -56 differential in the three pointers, which ranks 22nd in the NBA.

Once again, that level of differential does not have a positive correlation with the Grizzlies goal of advancing in the playoffs this year as a clear title contender. Over the past five uninterrupted seasons, only one of the 20 teams that made it to the conference finals finished below 13th in three point differential. Especially with overall offense rising to another level yet again the season, the Grizzlies must find success from beyond the arc. Furthermore, they must be consistent defending the three, as they are currently 3rd among NBA teams in OPP 3P% when playing at home but 27th among NBA teams in OPP 3P% when playing on the road. If the Grizzlies can consistently defend the three, that will go a long way in their defense winning a playoff series.

There are a few signs of potential improvement, even it may be slow and steady. Since the Grizzlies lost back to back games to Golden State and Phoenix due to allowing the depth of both teams to be highly successful from three, the Grizzlies are second in OPP 3P% during their current eight game winning streak. Memphis also knows what it takes to improve on their own 3P%, as just last year they showed significant improvement in the second half of the season and in the playoffs compared to the first half of the year.

Yes, the Grizzlies do have a few clear areas where improvement is critical for them to achieve the goals they have for this season. And yes, each of these are not likely to be resolved through a trade or unexpected internal improvement. But the key is simply for Memphis to either strengthen their rotation via a trade or making adjustments to be more productive in the aforementioned areas.

The Grizzlies should be considered among the five to seven teams in the NBA this year with legitimate championship aspirations. With that in mind, the franchise, coaching staff, and roster should continue doing all that can be done to improve in these areas as the season progresses and the postseason arrives.

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