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Pressing On: Lineup Considerations For The Grizzlies In A Post-Rudy Gay World

When the Rudy Gay trade was initially announced, many Memphis Grizzlies fans instantly lost their confidence in the direction of their franchise. A season that was once filled with unbridled enthusiasm had now given rise to forecasts of “doom and gloom” on the horizon.

Following the completion of the trade, the Grizzlies struggled mightily, dropping three of four, with the one win coming against the Wizards at home. The resulting backlash from Lionel Hollins gave the media much ammunition. Justifiably, the internal tension between the coach and front office, coupled with the aforementioned three decisive defeats, failed to instill confidence and rightfully caused many to doubt the wisdom of the moves in the short-term.

Speculation ensued amongst many.

Was Zach Randolph next on the chopping block because Hollins refused to play front office darling Ed Davis? Is Hollins definitely gone next season after voicing his considerable displeasure with the moves? There was some truth to both of these lines of questioning.

Since that point in time, however, the front office has done an excellent job of assuaging these concerns, promising that Randolph will not be traded and verbalizing Hollins’ importance to the franchise. It also helps that the Grizzlies began winning again. After dropping three of four, they have since won three in a row, including a victory against Western Conference rival Golden State. While it is still a bit premature to assess the merits of the Rudy Gay trade, the front office has done its best to mollify some concerns in the interim and ensure fans that the franchise is moving forward.

With this in mind, the operative question then is, how should the Grizzlies move forward?  A fair starting point should involve identifying what made this team successful in the past. And, in doing this, it is important not to jump to rash conclusions concerning the current state of the Grizzlies. One must consider that the new players are not even a month into their tenure with the team. If previous additions are any indication, it is likely going to take some time before they can adjust to Hollins’ system and build chemistry with their new teammates. After all, it took the Grizzlies’ previous starting five a couple of seasons to gel.

With the front office and coaching staff vehemently disagreeing on what made the Grizzlies a potential contender, and so many members of the media entrenched in their stance on the trade, how can we sift through these competing agendas and determine how to move forward? Given the scenario at hand, it is necessary to objectively examine team production. And what better way to do this than to turn to statistics to discover and evaluate lineup trends?

Evan Zamir’s newly-devised NBA WOWY tool provides us with the means of shedding light on many questions regarding team chemistry. According to Mr. Zamir, NBA WOWY allows one to “see which players do better or worse given any arbitrary pairing of his teammates being on or off, with the hope of being able to ‘explain’ why certain combinations of players worked better than others.” After all, what better tool is there for discerning what is/was happening on the floor, than one that allows us to consider different lineups and their net effect on offensive and defensive output?

One notion that I sought to dispel coming in is the idea that inserting Tony Allen into the game crippled the Grizzlies’ offensive output and was a driving force behind many of his team’s offensive droughts. While I was always well aware that Tony Allen’s outside shooting left a lot to be desired, I felt that these claims that he would almost single handedly stagnate the offense were exaggerated to an extent. So, I decided to compare a Grizzlies starting backcourt lineup featuring Tony Allen, Mike Conley Jr. and Rudy Gay on the floor and Pondexter out of the game, to one where Pondexter replaced Allen. In the first scenario, which occurred on a healthy sample size of 1,464 possessions, the Grizzlies shot a 51.0% True Shooting Percentage. On the other hand, a lineup featuring Pondexter, Conley Jr., and Rudy Gay (which had 325 incidences) shot a 54.1% TS%, a fairly substantial improvement. Further, the Grizzlies posted a 101.4 Offensive Rating with Allen in the game compared to a 118.8 Offensive Rating with Pondexter substituted for him. This differential is certainly worth noting and suggests the opposite of my initial impression- that when holding the rest of the starting backcourt constant, inserting Pondexter into the game for Allen substantially improved the Grizzlies’ offensive efficiency. (not for the reasons that one might think though) With that said, other considerations could have factored in as well. For instance, many theories had arisen regarding the fact that Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay did not exactly complement each other, something which I will address later on in this piece. Because this analysis does not necessarily suggest that Randolph and Gay were always on the floor at the same time, additional chemistry considerations may have factored in.

Nevertheless, when Randolph and Marc Gasol were both added to the mix, the Grizzlies posted a 110.5 Offensive Rating and a 51.6% TS% with Pondexter replacing Allen as a starter. When these big men were added to the lineup alongside Allen, these offensive metrics remained virtually identical. This is due to the fact that when the starting backcourt was on the floor together, they were paired with both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph nearly 80% of the time. Given both sets of results, it is safe to say that these findings corroborate the position that adding Pondexter to the Grizzlies’ previous starting lineup would have bolstered the offense.   

On a more micro level, there was a case to be made for the fact that Tony Allen’s lack of outside shooting created a logjam in the paint and hindered the Grizzlies’ ability to score from four feet to nine feet from the rim. Overall, substituting Pondexter for Allen resulted in little change in the Grizzlies’ ability to score from three feet in. However, putting Pondexter in for Allen tended to open up the game for Gay to score baskets at the rim, as Rudy shot about 14% more of his shots from this distance playing alongside Pondexter. He also connected on a higher percentage of his attempts with Pondexter in the game, hitting 60.0% compared to 53.9%. On the other hand, Mike Conley Jr. shot 42.9% around the rim with Pondexter in the game, as opposed to 57.1% with Allen in the game. A likely explanation for this could be that Allen moves more without the ball, whereas Pondexter tends to camp out on the perimeter in halfcourt sets. With more players converged on the perimeter, it may have been more difficult for Conley to penetrate to the rim. The most obvious explanation for this discrepancy, though, is that the defensive threat of Allen and improved defensive rebounding capabilities with him on the floor helped create transition opportunities for Conley. Just outside of three feet, the Grizzlies tended to have more success with Pondexter in the game, shooting about 8% higher from four to nine feet out.

With that said, the notion that substituting Tony Allen for Quincy Pondexter would have resulted in greater gains from beyond the three point line is a myth. The Grizzlies’ starting lineup actually shot a higher percentage from beyond the arc with Allen in the game. However, in both instances, three point shooting accounted for less than 17% of the team’s shot selection, meaning that the long ball was not a central part of the Grizzlies’ offensive attack with the starters in the game. The Grizzlies also shot a higher percentage from the midrange with Allen in the game, so it does not appear that Pondexter’s shooting ability actually enabled the Grizzlies to shoot a higher percentage from the perimeter. While this is somewhat counterintuitive, Pondexter shot well below his average as a part of the starting lineup, likely due to spacing issues.

So why were the Grizzlies a more efficient offensive team with Pondexter on the floor with the starters?  The answer is that every single player in the lineup tended to get to the line more frequently when Pondexter replaced Allen. This was particularly evident for Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay, whose free throw rates climbed, likely due to the paint opening up and better spacing all around. Rudy Gay tended to get to the rim more often, and both Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay had higher usage with Pondexter on the floor.    

On the defensive end, the usual starting lineup held opposing teams to 50.5% TS% and a 92.4 Offensive Rating, compared to the 52.6% TS% and 102.1 Offensive Rating that occurred when Pondexter replaced Tony Allen on the floor. As one might have guessed, team defensive metrics for the pre-trade starting lineup point to Tony Allen’s strong defensive impact on the game. These findings suggest that substituting Pondexter for Allen in the starting lineup was more of an offense-for-defense tradeoff.  

Aside from the offensive chemistry concerns with Tony Allen, other questions abound. Was the Rudy Gay trade necessary because of Gay’s incompatibility with Zach Randolph? To address this issue, I decided to examine the statistics of the starting lineup with Rudy Gay and without Gay prior to the trade. The results were actually fairly surprising. With Rudy Gay removed from the lineup, the Grizzlies posted an Offensive Rating of 111.2 on 152 possessions, while shooting a 50.3% True Shooting %. This was substantially higher than the starting lineups’ 101.4 Offensive Rating, as alluded to earlier. However, their opponents shot a 61.8% TS% and posted a 109.9 Offensive Rating with Gay out of the lineup. Compared to the starting lineups’ previous job of holding teams to a 92.4 Offensive Rating, this differential is dramatic and suggests that Gay had a strong value to the Grizzlies’ starting unit from a defensive perspective. While it says nothing about the fair value that the Grizzlies received in return in the Gay trade, this analysis suggests that the front office may have taken this on/off knowledge into consideration when trading for Prince, who should help fill the defensive void left by Gay.  As for chemistry concerns, I had noticed that Randolph received many easy looks this year as a result of Gay’s penetration to the basket. Randolph posted a 50.7% TS% with Gay in the lineup and a 45.8% TS% without him there. This suggests that Randolph was more efficient shooting the basketball with Gay in the game, and that chemistry issues in the starting lineup were not as evident given this season’s data.

Looking ahead, there is not enough of a sample size to make a determination as to the strength of new lineup combinations. However, early indications are that the starting lineups’ offensive production has declined, turnovers remain virtually identical, and the team defense is also weaker. Still, it is way too soon after to assess whether or not this trade was a success, as there has not been enough time for the new starting unit to develop team chemistry. Moving forward, I believe that the Grizzlies should look for a spot up shooter to bolster their offensive output and a mobile shot blocker off the bench who is versatile enough to keep defenses honest from the midrange. The front office is hopeful that with increased usage, Randolph might be able to replicate his performance in 2011 and replace Rudy Gay’s offensive output. For the Grizzlies’ sake, I hope this is the case.

 

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