Like everything they do, the huge in-season transformation the Memphis Grizzlies have embarked on has mostly gone unnoticed. Dave Joerger has had Memphis playing small for the past five games. Zach Randolph is coming off the bench while Tony Allen is out with injury and might be relegated to a reserve spot once he returns.
As strange as it is to see the Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph duo broken up, it looks like the decision could pay off on both ends both in the short and long term, despite a 2-3 record so far.
The Grizzlies were scoring 99 points per 100 possessions while allowing a whopping 104.5 before the shakeup. Both numbers ranked in the bottom 10 in the league. The Warriors wrecked their stats early in the year, but 25 games into the season it was clear that Memphis just wasn’t a good team. They had an above .500 record, but their margin of victory suggested they were worse than that. Part of it was related to a slow start from both Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but change was needed.
Before going for the nuclear option, Joerger tried different combinations but finally decided to start Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes and Jeff Green alongside Gasol and Conley. The move hasn’t paid off in the win/loss column and it’s too soon to draw definitive conclusions, but it seems to be a step in the right direction, as Memphis has posted a much better point differential during the stretch.
The Grizzlies’ offense hasn’t improved greatly, but the defense has. Memphis has allowed 99 points per 100 possessions in the last five. It’s the sixth-best mark in the league in that span and the Grizzlies actually lost three games.
Three-point defense has been the biggest reason for the improvement. The Grizzlies are allowing almost two fewer three-pointers as a team and opponents are shooting under 32 percent on the ones they do take in the past five games. When the starters are in, it’s five fewer attempts and 20 percent shooting. Part of it is luck. Opponents have occasionally missed wide open shots they typically make. C.J. Miles is a good shooter and he missed this one:
No credit should go to the defense there, but the Grizzlies’s new go-to lineup is doing a good job of leaving the right shooters open most of the time. Goran Dragic, Monta Ellis and Garrett Temple — all sub-30 percent shooters — took multiple three-pointers against Memphis’ starters. They’re leaving them open to help elsewhere and they’re also getting back to their assignments to contest catch-and-shoot jumpers or, better yet, force opponents to put the ball on the floor:
Most players see a big drop-off in efficiency when they have to pull up, and that’s what Memphis is banking on.
While the defense has improved by leaps and bounds, the offense remains a work in progress. The Grizzlies aren’t likely to become an elite offensive team, even if they make the most out of going small. They lack that explosive wing creator most small-ball teams have, and they don’t have enough shooters. The new starting lineup is scoring just under 102 points per 100 possessions, a mediocre mark.
Yet they’re starting to realize that the things that used to work in the past work even better now. Marc Gasol in particular is picking defenses apart with his fantastic passing, averaging almost five assists per game since the new lineup was introduced. He’s finding cutters now that the paint isn’t clogged and hitting shooters from the low block or out of the pick-and-roll, now that he has more targets:
Courtney Lee has been the main beneficiary. He’s averaging almost three three-pointers since the change and shooting 50 percent. The new starters are prolific from beyond the arc, and as their minutes climb, so will Memphis’ attempts from there. It’s a shame Brandan Wright — one of the league’s best dive men — got hurt, but Memphis still has weapons enough weapons to be solid, if everyone regains their level.
Mike Conley in particular has to play better and Zach Randolph needs to continue being effective in a smaller role off the bench. Jeff Green is driving more to the rim and that needs to continue. If his outside shot improves, that would be a huge boon. For now, the ball is moving more in general and the team’s assists are up by two per game. Off-ball movement is creating openings, as well. That’s all very encouraging, and if the defense holds, there’s time to wait for everyone to get comfortable in their new roles.
Memphis was forced into changing by its poor play and Allen’s injury but, they might have found something that works. They don’t look like a contender, but they can see this as a transition year before reloading in the 2016 summer. Their grit-and-grind identity will be missed, but they can still hold on to the essence of it while playing a more modern game.
The Grizzlies are reinventing themselves on the fly, and while there’s plenty of room for improvement, the early results show they could have success playing differently than they have since 2009. That’s cause for optimism on a season that was looking bleak not long ago.
All stats via NBA.com/stats