While fans and pundits alike have been waiting for the Memphis Grizzlies’ “grit ‘n’ grind” magic to fade away for years, few expected Memphis to stumble so epically out of the gate this season. Through nine games, the Grizzlies are just 3-6 and 12th in the Western Conference. They’ve been outscored by more than 10 points per game. With no major injuries, what’s wrong with the Grizzlies?
Memphis has had a notably difficult schedule to start the 2015-16 season. While their wins over Indiana, Brooklyn and Sacramento are hardly impressive as a whole, the Grizzlies did secure each of those games by 10 points or more. Furthermore, the six ugly losses have come to a gauntlet of opponents: Cleveland, Golden State (twice), Portland, Utah and the Clippers. Memphis is playing poorly, but the schedule has hardly been their friend.
Take out the two losses to seemingly unbeatable Golden State — the first a rare 50-point blowout — and the Grizz have still been outscored by 12.2 points per loss. No matter how you slice it, good teams are beating the crap out of Memphis. With largely the same roster and coaching staff as last season, a franchise coming off four straight seasons of at least a 61 percent winning percentage looks like one of the NBA’s worst teams.
Going into Thursday night, the Grizzlies have a -11.1 net rating, second-worst in the entire NBA. While New Orleans, Brooklyn and the Lakers each only have one victory, they’ve played their opponents more closely than Memphis thus far. The Grizz are worst in the league offensively with a 93.4 offensive rating; they’re 1oth-worst defensively at 104.5 points per 100 possessions. Pretty much nothing is going right at the moment.
It’s no coincidence that the Warriors have directly contributed the most to Memphis’ malaise this season. In last year’s second round, the Grizzlies took a 2-1 lead on Golden State and briefly shook the unflappable champions’ confidence. With their pounding style and imposing size, the Grizzlies were temporarily able to take Stephen Curry out of his comfort zone and make the Warriors look like a mortal team. Steve Kerr saved the Warriors’ season by adjusting their defense to systematically ignore the threat of Tony Allen on offense. In doing so, Kerr both crippled Memphis’ stylistic advantage and provided a potential blueprint for the rest of the NBA to follow.
Typically, a defense will always give some semblance of attention to an open shooter on the wings. Allen, a perennial All-NBA defender, had previously fit well enough into the Grizzlies’ offense through a combination of ugly jumpers and cleverly timed — if slightly out of control — drives and cuts to the rim. By using Allen’s defender to double more viable offensive threats like Marc Gasol or Zach Randolph, teams can force Memphis to either play offense four-on-five or make Allen beat them.
Surprisingly, that tenuous equation hasn’t actually doomed the Grizzlies thus far. While Allen missed all six of his shots in just 12 minutes in their first matchup with the Warriors, he was a key factor in keeping the second matchup close for most of the game. With Tony Allen on the floor, the Grizzlies have an almost-respectable -1.5 net rating this season. When he sits, that number plummets to a disastrous -19.4 points per 100 possessions. It’s clear that Allen’s defensive prowess and offensive activity are still doing enough to keep Memphis competitive.
What must be alarming for the Grizzlies is that most defenses apparently haven’t even needed to try Kerr’s tactics. 65.6 percent of Tony Allen’s shots have been guarded either “very tightly” or “tightly”, per NBA.com. That number is down some from last season’s 72.3 percent, but opponents still have a proven adjustment in their back pocket to use against a Memphis team that’s already playing like a league doormat. Thus far, Memphis has a 100.6 offensive rating (about league average) with Allen on the floor versus a truly horrendous 87.3 when he sits. If teams start to respect Allen’s offense even less, the Grizzlies’ league-worst offense could be in even more trouble.
Zach Randolph is the only thing keeping the Memphis offense from dropping to unseen lows. When he plays, the Grizzlies have a 99.4 offensive rating. With Z-Bo on the bench, that number somehow drops all the way to 82.6. Memphis is being outscored by 25.8 points per 100 possessions with Randolph resting. At 34 and very clearly on the decline of his career, it’s a massive issue that the Memphis offense is almost entirely dependent on Randolph.
While Randolph is clearly still a good and important offensive piece, Memphis simply needs much more out of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. While Conley is matching his career standards with 6.3 assists per game, his 46.9 true shooting percentage on 22.2 percent usage of possessions has been brutal. Conley is shooting 35.2 percent overall and 27 percent from long distance. His true shooting hasn’t dipped below 54.5 percent for a full season since 2011-12. In his prime at 28 and approaching free agency, Conley should undoubtedly get his groove back.
Gasol’s drop-off has been more jarring. Coming off a fantastic 2014-15 and signing a big contract to stay in Memphis long term, Gasol’s game has slipped in every area. He’s making only 41 percent of his field goals, an alarmingly low percentage for a center with a career mark of 50.7 percent. Last season, more than 10 percent more of his shots came within three feet, where he converted on 69.9 percent of them. Despite the huge drop in attempts around the basket, Gasol’s shooting there has dipped down to 57.1 percent this year, far from his 69.5 percent career average. All the caveats about small samples most certainly apply here, but a decrease in effectiveness at the basket for a center in his 30s is far from unheard of.
Furthermore, the recent Defensive Player of the Year has failed to make his usual impact on that end as well. In his career, Gasol has averaged 0.9 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. Over the last six seasons, his “stocks” ranged from 2.3 to 2.9 a night. Through nine games, Gasol is averaging only 0.7 blocks and has forced two total steals — an average of just 0.9 “stocks.” If his ability to protect the rim and force turnovers has truly eroded, the Grizzlies have lost the defensive anchor of their team.
Of course, it would be foolish to bury Marc Gasol over nine bad games. It would also be shortsighted to ignore his poor start to the season and not wonder at all about the team’s future. Gasol is 30, a center, and the key cog that’s allowed Memphis to stay highly competitive in a pace-and-space league that defies their ground-pounding style. For the Grizzlies to get back on course for a playoff appearance, Gasol must play like the two-way anchor he’s been for a long time now.
The Grizzlies have a ton of issues and few obvious answers. Conley and Gasol should be able to match their career standards if both are generally healthy as presumed. But Memphis has been so catastrophically bad that other major flaws have been exposed. Zach Randolph is already playing through injury to keep the team’s offense from recessing into the pits of hell. Tony Allen has been the team’s second-most important player thus far, but opponents will surely continue to increasingly ignore his offense, making Memphis’ task even more difficult.
A softer schedule and regression to the mean should help Memphis at least temporarily right the ship and fight back into the bottom of the playoff standings. Still, the first two weeks of the season have shown that the days of Memphis being feared as a worthy, physical contender may be behind us. In today’s NBA, a juggernaut built on defense, mid-range shots and a grinding pace could just be a mirage.