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The Memphis Grizzlies frontcourt fits like a glove

The Memphis Grizzlies’ frontcourt has been impactful on both sides of the ball this season.

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New Orleans Pelicans v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

The Memphis Grizzlies made a lot of decisions centered around its frontcourt. They moved on from Kyle Anderson to rely on the development and evaluation on better shooters in Santi Aldama, Jake LaRavia, and David Roddy at the 4 spot. Zach Kleiman also extended Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke, two key players in the frontcourt that fit next to franchise cornerstone Jaren Jackson Jr.

Through those calls, there was some uncertainty too. It was unclear how much of Anderson’s production would be matched. Jackson was also set to miss time at the start of the season due to an offseason injury, leaving two rotation spots open to relatively inexperienced players.

Nonetheless, the Grizzlies have navigated through it wonderfully. Jaren Jackson Jr. is healthy, playing like an All-Star and a bonafide Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Steven Adams and Brandon Clarke have continued to add value with their efficiency and their ability to do the little things. Santi Aldama has solidified his place in the rotation.

The Grizzlies frontcourt is impactful and formidable, and it all fits like a glove.

Staggering Success

The Grizzlies have struck the right combination with their frontcourt, and the numbers back it up.

  • Jaren/Adams: 121.8 offensive rating/103.9 defensive rating/+17.9 net rating
  • Santi/Adams: 120.6/113.6/+7.0
  • Santi/Clarke: 111.9/108.1/+3.7
  • Jaren/Clarke: 115.3/101.8/+13.5
  • per Cleaning the Glass

Taylor Jenkins has often deployed this recipe where he’ll try to have 1 perimeter big (or a forward) and 1 paint big at all times. That’s why you’ll usually see Aldama start when Jackson is out, and Clarke when Adams is out.

It’s a formula that’s often worked for the Grizzlies.

Offensively, the paint big (Adams or Clarke) serves as a high post hub for screens, rolls, and dribble hand off’s, while the perimeter big spaces the floor and roams the perimeter off cuts or handoffs. There’s more diversity in this though. Adams is the best screener “in NBA history” — as Jackson described after Wednesday’s game — and Clarke is a lethal roller with his play-finishing. Jackson shows more creation juice and post-up abilities, while Aldama is a great catch-and-shoot or cutting option.

Defensively, there’s versatility in the coverages they can throw. Adams and Jackson are equipped to drop and defend in space. Clarke can guard wings and switch out onto guards, while using his pogo-stick hops to help protect the rim. Aldama has room to grow in this area, but he’s shown defensive potential with his size and mobility.

Taylor Jenkins has done a great job of architecting these combinations in the best ways to maximize their skillsets on both sides of the ball.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Santi’s Presence

Jaren Jackson Jr. is the anchor and the ceiling-raiser. Steven Adams is the rock and glue. Brandon Clarke is the energizer with the pop. Santi Aldama is the intriguing player that has helped fortify the Grizzlies’ frontcourt.

Seldom used in his rookie season, Aldama’s emergence has been the most fascinating development for this season. While his leap won’t catch the casual eye, he made the difficult jump from “fringe NBA player” to “rotation player on a good team.” In the process, the Grizzlies maintained their depth through uncertainty and roster turnover.

“His work ethic has been great,” Jenkins said. “He’s watching a ton of film; he’s in the gym a ton. It’s going to pay off in the long run with all the reps he’s getting in games, too.”

Prior to the season, Dillon Brooks said Santi Aldama was going to surprise us, and he’s lived up to it and more.

“I have been seeing it for a while because of practice, and the work he has been putting in has been great,” Jackson said of Aldama. “He just knows how to use his body, and the shooting is a cherry on top. Unreal. You can find different ways to have fun, he’s reverse dunking, doing these things. You can just tell he is having fun out there. I’m really happy for him.”

The shooting has stuck out in his emergence. I won’t go out on a limb and call him an upgrade over Kyle Anderson, who’s been awesome in Minnesota. However, Aldama fits more with what the Grizzlies wanted with his size and his outside shooting.

His size gives the Grizzlies a near 7-footer to keep its size advantage up front with Adams, or to provide help for a smaller big like Clarke. He’s also been a sneaky good shooting option for the Grizzlies as well — the goal for the next backup 4 this past offseason — as he’s shooting 38.6% from 3 on 3.5 attempts per game. What stands out with his outside shooting is his quick trigger. Often highlighted with his no-dip 3’s, there’s little hesitation on his catch-and-shoot 3’s, making a potent option in drive-and-kick situations.

It’d be remiss of me to not mention the flair he plays with. He has this fluidity and skill you don’t usually see from players his size, and he’s not afraid to show it off. You can count on at least 1 cool play from Aldama per game — whether it’s a saucy dime or a slick reverse dunk — and he adds a fun dose of pizzazz to the Grizzlies’ bench.

Santi Aldama has emerged into a key component for the Grizzlies’ frontcourt, and at just 22 years old, he leaves a lot of optimistic questions regarding how high his ceiling could be.

Memphis Grizzlies v New Orleans Pelicans Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Rim Protection

Jaren Jackson Jr. amplifies the Grizzlies defense and makes their paint defense borderline impossible to score in. However, Adams, Aldama, and Clarke all provide stellar rim protection.

Here are some interior defense numbers through The B-Ball Index:

Jackson’s defensive dominance is talked about ad nauseam. The Grizzlies have also put together some great combinations with him out in the frontcourt.

With Adams, they are just huge together. He’s not the quickest, twitchiest big man out there defensively, but his nimbleness and steadiness help him out in different coverages. With Clarke, he’s a springy forward that gives Grizzlies have two big men that can fly around the floor, switch, and protect the rim.

When those two players really get going defensively, it’s a ton of fun to watch them cause chaos defensively.

The size of Aldama and Jackson also place Clarke in the best situation to thrive defensively. The Grizzlies were getting torched in lineups with Clarke as the lone big man early in the season, sporting a -13.2 net rating in 376 possession — per Cleaning the Glass. Now, he’s in an advantageous space to properly utilize his defensive skillset as a switch and help defender.

“Playing with guys like that are great really, guys that are also good at defense and take it seriously,” Clarke said of Aldama and Jackson. “It’s nice having them knowing that they’re back there with me, and it makes our paint defense much better. Having them guard 5’s and me guard 4’s is a really good combo for our defense.”

And with Santi, again, he has room to grow defensively. However, he provides nice moments on shot-blocking off drives and off help defense spots.

When the interior defense is that good, it gives the perimeter players more confidence and an edge defensively.

“It makes me be physical and stay aggressive, knowing I have 1 of those guys back there to help me out,” Dillon Brooks said of his bigs. “It gives me confidence to try stuff out and be the ultimate aggressor on the defensive end. I know he’s going to be worried about me and then when he’s driving the rock, he has to worry about both of us — so I try to wall up, and wait for Trip, Steve-O or BC to get the easy block.”

The Grizzlies have emerged as the best defense in the league since Jaren Jackson Jr.’s defense. He’s the catalyst for the system, and he amplifies the strengths of his big men next to him on the floor.

Passing Chemistry

Passing is probably the area for the Grizzlies’ frontcourt to grow in. Adams has sweet passing chops, ranking in the 65th percentile among big men in assist percentage (10.8%), per Cleaning the Glass. The other 3 big men — Clarke (56th percentile), Aldama (34th), and Jackson (15th) — aren’t going to blow anyone away with their passing. However, they’ve shown some really cool big-to-big actions.

“It’s better when we move the ball that way, because I’m obviously a big target,” Aldama said. “If they can find those passes, then the defense starts taking them away, and we then have the corner open for easier shots. Leads to better looks.”

With big men operating at the hub, it opens up opportunities for them to hit cutters, and versatile bigs like Jackson and Aldama provide that optionality on the floor. In addition, Clarke’s pop as a roller gives ball-handlers a lob threat in dribble handoff’s — even from a big man.

It’s going to be interesting to see how it could continue to development, something Taylor Jenkins wants to tap into:

“That’s something we’re trying to develop. Obviously, we want to unlock that part of our big’s game, to be able to be playmakers, not just for our smalls. Teams are starting to switch a lot more. Obviously, we play typically big with Jaren [Jackson Jr.] at the four, Santi [Aldama] at the four. We’ve got to be able to punish teams and make them pay. It’s not always going to be the guards finding them but being able to have our bigs be able to play make, there is something that’s important for us. So, that’s chemistry that we’re still trying to develop. We’ve got a long way to go.

No one is expecting them to be Nikola Jokic or Domantas Sabonis, but they’ve shown the passing chops to sprinkle in some variability into the Grizzlies offense.

The Memphis Grizzlies have found their frontcourt, and Taylor Jenkins is “really excited about the depth that we have with those four guys.”

It all fits like a glove. The strengths of one can offset the weakness of his frontcourt partner, and they’ve been pivotal in the Grizzlies’ success so far this season.

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