The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Over the last four years, the Memphis Grizzlies have transformed into a legitimate glamor franchise characterized by swagger and star-power. Gone are the days of sublime Marc Gasol high-low passes and bruising Zach Randolph post-ups; the time of electric Ja Morant dunks and ferocious Jaren Jackson Jr. blocks has arrived.
Yet for all the acclaim and attention they now receive in ways that they never did so in the past, the Memphis Grizzlies still cannot shoot. The grass withers, and the flower fades, but the Grizzlies seem to be destined to always build houses with an ever-increasing supply of bricks.
Of course, that’s not to say the Grizzlies aren’t an elite basketball team; I have zero doubt that someone who reads this column will accuse me of nitpicking one of the best and youngest teams in the NBA. They are 2nd in defensive rating (109.3) and 3rd in overall net rating (4.7). They are currently tied for first in the Western Conference standings, and I predict that they’ll end up finishing there, as they have the 7th easiest remaining schedule by opponent winning percentage, per Tankathon.
But after already finishing with the second-best record in the entire league last season, the Grizzlies should have higher ambitions than just being the first seed in the West. Even with the front office refusing to go all-in for a championship, they can still hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in June. They just have two related flaws— half-court offense and shooting — that they will likely need to address in order to do so. They are currently 22nd in 3PT% (34.1) and 23rd in half-court offense (0.94 points per play, per Cleaning the Glass). Some may claim that this is a result of Desmond Bane missing extended time, but they faced the same problem last season, as they were 17th in 3PT% (35.3) and 22nd in half-court offense (0.93).
To be clear, the Grizzlies are thriving without being even decent in these areas, and they’re dominant enough in other ways that they don’t even need to be great in these areas to win the title. As I broke down last year, they manage to be a good offensive team, because they give themselves extra possessions by dominating the offensive glass. They also create turnovers and thrive in transition. All of this together usually compensates for their relatively anemic shooting and half-court offense woes in the regular season.
However, this is historically not a recipe to win a championship. You don’t have to necessarily be a great shooting team to win a title; the 2019-20 Lakers ranked 21st in 3PT%. But you do have to be able to execute in the half-court; since 2010, every NBA champion has ranked at least 15th or higher in half-court offense.
Half-court execution is crucial in the playoffs because teams place greater emphasis on limiting easy baskets in transition, and the game slows down. Teams also dissect each other’s tendencies and weaknesses in greater detail over a longer period of time than they do in a single regular season game, so it becomes harder to thrive in the same ways you did during the regular season. The Grizzlies offense has thrived over the last two seasons on the extra opportunities that Steven Adams’ offensive rebounding has created, but they found out the hard way during last year’s playoffs that they couldn’t rely on him to the same degree when opposing teams targeted him defensively in space.
When examining why the Grizzlies struggle in half-court offense, it may seem perplexing at first glance. They have a superstar point guard in Ja Morant who is an elite table-setter for his teammates. They boast one of the best shooters in the world in Desmond Bane who continues to progress as a three-level scorer and playmaker. And then they round out their starting lineup with two decent shooting forwards in Dillon Brooks and Jaren Jackson Jr. who can both create their own offense along with a superb center in Steven Adams who easily possesses the best offensive rating on the team (118.3) partly because of his screening and passing. This is all not even to mention that they may have the best backup point guard in the league in Tyus Jones.
Yet Memphis’ offensive woes in the half-court are not due to the fact that they lack overall offensive talent; they just simply don’t have enough shooting. Since Desmond Bane hasn’t played enough games, the Grizzlies currently only have three qualifying players— Tyus Jones, John Konchar, and Santi Aldama —that are shooting above league average (35.1%) from beyond the arc. And even they only average a combined 10.4 attempted threes per game, which for the sake of context, also happens to be the exact same number that Klay Thompson alone attempts. The team is simply too dependent on Bane for offensive firepower, who has been in a shooting slump since returning from injury.
If the Memphis Grizzlies are going to win the NBA Finals this year, they will have to address the issue of their half-court offense. Adding Danny Green, a career 40% 3PT shooter, into the lineup once he becomes healthy may help, but it likely won’t be enough. If I were Zach Kleiman, the first call I would make would be to the Utah Jazz’s Danny Ainge about Jordan Clarkson or Malik Beasley, who are both under contract through 2024. If the Grizzlies desire a short-term solution at a lower cost, Detroit’s Bojan Bogdanovic, who is under contract for just the rest of this season, could also be an option.
Of course, it appears unlikely that the Grizzlies will make such a deal. They haven’t made a mid-season trade since 2020, and the current front office has never made a deal where they have traded long-term assets for the sake of improving the team’s short-term prospects. They will always prioritize the future over the present.
However, the future of the Grizzlies has become their present. There’s no reason to hang on to all of their future first round picks when A) there is already a roster crunch of young prospects to develop on the roster, and B) it appears increasingly unlikely that they will be able to use their future assets for a disgruntled star, especially considering that New Orleans and Oklahoma City can outbid them for anyone they want. They could hypothetically trade 2 first round picks along with complementary salary for Jordan Clarkson — who has produced at a borderline all-star level this year — and still maintain much of their future flexibility.
Regardless, the Memphis Grizzlies are and will remain an elite team even if they do nothing in the near future. But if they want to make the leap from elite to immortal, they will have to address their most significant flaw, likely by trading for an extra dose of shot creation.