Through 26 games this season, the Memphis Grizzlies, once an identity-driven organization surrounding their Grit & Grind, are now the paradigm for an NBA franchise that has failed to conform to the ever-changing nature of the league.
The Grizzlies currently reside sixth in the Western Conference with a 14-12 record, although they are sporting the 24th best point differential. They’re currently in the playoff race by technicality, but this team has been flat out bad. Memphis is in the bottom six of both offensive and defensive efficiency – a good indication of being one of the worst teams in the league.
In a league consumed with playing smaller and shooting more three-pointers, the Grizzlies are an outlier. Whenever granted the ability to alter the complexion of their roster in free agency, they have repeatedly chosen to remain status quo with their core players and identity. Portland made Nic Batum available before draft night and he was eventually traded to the Charlotte Hornets. How nice of a fit would he be on this team?
Every player on the Grizzlies seems to have regressed from last season, but if you dig deeper you find that their struggles are mainly a product of the team’s invariable lineups. For starters, through the first 24 games of the season Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have been the definitive starting front-line for Memphis.
There are numerous different ways to play basketball in the NBA, and a head coach’s job is to employ lineups that suit the player’s strengths.
“Play more like the Warriors” is an extremely cliché term and in reality is impossible for most NBA teams. The Warriors are the Warriors because of their all-world players and their incredibly perfect fit together. The Grizzlies do not have the personnel to start manufacturing Golden State-like lineups. Offensive comfort is a meticulous process and this team has clearly been seasoned to play big and dominate that way. It just so happens that their players are no longer as dominate playing a big-mans game in a small-mans league, and they’re getting destroyed for it.
At this point, the Grizzlies are Butch Coolidge listening to Marsellus Wallace tell him about the unrealistic ones who think it gets better with age.
I like to think Marsellus is talking about how the ground and pound style will age in this NBA.
You can’t blame Joerger for sticking with his high-low duo. Their success playing big is a proven and familiar style to these players, but the spacing crunch and the offensive regression of Zach Randolph has finally taken a lot of the successful aspects out of the offense. Z-Bo was delegated to a role off of the bench two games ago, and hopefully this gives their starting lineup some juice. Randolph can theoretically serve as a solid hub for the Grizzlies second units on offense.
Mike Conley has been struggling from the field, but I expect him to right the ship. His struggles are mostly indicative of the terrible spacing on most of their offensive possessions.
Watch how far back Gobert is dropping on this Conley-Gasol pick and roll. Also notice how Favors is standing in the lane, completely ignoring Randolph at the top of the key, and clogging Conley’s driving lane.
Here Mozgov ignores Randolph to neuter Conley’s drive off of this curl screen. Randolph isn’t as inept a shooter as this insinuates though. He’s shooting 45% from the midrange this season, way up from the 37% mark he shot last season. Randolph’s midrange shooting is really the only thing working right now, as his game on the block has not been as effective.
Teams haven’t really been sending any help on Randolph post-ups, letting him go 1-on-1 and living with the results.
It’s hard for Randolph to go to work when every single defender is one step in the paint.
Opposing teams feel confident leaving the Grizzlies' wings alone while their defenders crash down and muck up any activity on the block. Memphis as a team is shooting the third least three-point attempts, and they are converting their threes at the second worst rate in the league. Their most effective long-range threat this season has been Mike Conley, but it seems that the burden of a volume outside shooter hasn’t fared well for other parts of his game. Other guys on this team need to start hitting their threes to ease the burden for everybody else. Guys like Courtney Lee, Matt Barnes, Jeff Green, and Mario Chalmers.
Up until two games ago, at least three of those four three-point threats were coming off of the bench, leaving the starting lineup completely starved for spacing. Their starting lineup featuring Gasol, Randolph, and Tony Allen has a -22.6 net rating. When they insert Courtney Lee in with the starters they have played a little better, but Lee has been slumping this season too, only shooting 27% on threes. Defenders will help off of him until he can make them pay.
Marc Gasol has too felt the spacing crunch. Last season he shot 68% in the restricted area, this season he is shooting 51%. Nothing seems to be working right now in Memphis, and this will continue until their wings start to hit their threes.
Check out this post-up for Gasol. You can see the horrific spacing immediately, as every single Spurs player has a foot in the paint.
Acquiring Matt Barnes in the offseason was a smart and cost-effective move in theory but he hasn’t performed, shooting 30 percent from three-point land.
I just can’t help but feel like they haven’t done enough to bolster their shooting woes. Jared Dudley was traded for next to nothing to Washington, and Gerald Green signed for the minimum in Miami. Missing on these cheap, effective role players are the marginal errors that a small-market team with championship aspirations cannot afford to make.
Memphis sustained success in the past with their ground and pound game, but after years of the league evolving and the Grizzlies refusing to innovate, teams seem to have snuffed them out. I expect them to improve their efficiency from the three-point line because no team has shot 30% from the three-point arc since the 1992 Bulls, but the offense has looked pretty terrible so far and I’m not sure how much room for improvement there is with their roster of players.