After years of competing in the Western Conference on the strength of their bruising defense, could the grit-and-grind era be ending in Memphis?
After a surprising 12-5 start to the season, the Memphis Grizzlies looked as though they might take the Western Conference by storm this year. Since then, the wheels have come off, and the Grizz have fallen into the conference cellar and are riding a six-game losing streak.
Due to the unbelievably cramped Western standings, the 18-22 Grizzlies are just 5.5 games out of the fourth seed. However, the team is at a crossroads; should they try to solve their problems to recover their early season form, or give up their chances at contention and blow up the ‘grit-and-grind’ core.
FOX Sports Grizzlies (@GrizzliesOnFSSE) November 20, 2018
As has been the case during most of their recent history, the Memphis Grizzlies’ success is predicated on defense. During their 12-5 start, Memphis held their opponents under the 100-point mark eight times, and their defense was…
In the 23 games since (starting November 21st), the team has gone 6-17 and held their opponent under 100 points just five times. Over the 12-5 stretch, the team was second in the league in steals at 9.4 per game, just behind the Thunder’s 10.9. Memphis was forcing turnovers at an incredible (and league-leading) pace, causing opponents to cough the ball up on nearly 20% of their possessions.
Another major factor in the Grizzlies regression is the regression of their franchise player Marc Gasol. For the first month of the season, Memphis was playing fantastic ball, led by a rejuvenated Gasol, who was playing like an MVP candidate. Over the team’s scoring stretch, Gasol was averaging 17.0 points and 10.1 rebounds, while shooting the ball from behind the arc at a 39% clip. Since, he’s shooting 31.5% from deep, grabbing just 7.8 rebounds (including just 0.7 offensive boards), and 14.5 points. A combination of age and nagging injuries have caused Gasol’s effectiveness on both ends of the court to decline as the season wears on.
When speaking about Gasol, it is necessary to look at Memphis’ other franchise pillar, the perennial near-All-Star Mike Conley. Conley—like Gasol—led the squad on both sides of the ball, scoring 20.2 points per game, 6.1 assists and 1.1 steals in 33.4 minutes of action during the winning stretch, and his production has stayed consistent during the recent downturn. Defensively, he posted a 100.2 defensive rating and held his individual matchup to 38.2% shooting from the field. As the team’s defense has tailed off, so has Conley’s; since November 21st, he has allowed his matchup to shoot 44.5% and posted a 103.5 defensive rating. Though the regressions look small, they loom large for a team with so slender a margin of error as the Grizzlies.
20 & 10 - Mike Conley had his third 20 point and 10 assist game of the season, tied for the second most he has had in a single season in his career. General. pic.twitter.com/hrxTgKpKzQ— OptaLarry🏀 (@OptaLarry) January 8, 2019
Honestly, this regression should have been anticipated. The Grizzlies’ deficiencies have been glaring from the start; their defense could only remain impregnable and their offense carried by Gasol and Conley for so long. Their scoring and rebounding still remain in the NBA cellar. For the season, the Grizz are ranked 27th in field goals, last in field goal attempts, 26th in 3-point makes, 29th points. On the other hand, their defense has still been excellent; the team is eighth in defensive rating, fifth in opponents’ points per game, fifth in opponents’ turnovers and first in opponents’ field goals attempted. Their above-average defense has buoyed their putrid offense longer than could have been expected.
One of the biggest handicaps the Grizzlies have dealt with in recent memory has been the albatross contract handed out to Chandler Parsons. Since signing the deal, Memphis has been essentially forced to compete rather than reassess a rebuild. Even during their lost season last year, Parsons’ huge contract hamstrung the team, making contention their only option. The team could not effectively rebuild while hampered by such a contract; the best they could hope for would be that Parsons could return healthy as a significant rotation piece. Unfortunately for the team, this hasn’t been the case, and Memphis is now determined to part ways with Parsons.
NBA TV (@NBATV) January 6, 2019
But what’s next for Memphis? With an aging centerpiece in Marc Gasol and a young highly touted prospect in Jaren Jackson Jr., it would seem that it would be advisable to sell at the deadline and consider ending the grit-and-grind era. However, the Grizzlies’ front office appears to be going in the opposite direction, and pushing for the playoffs in the highly competitive Western Conference.
We are seeing the collegiate version of the 2016 Memphis Grizzlies.— All Auburn All Blue (@AllAuburnAllBlu) December 20, 2018
A point guard we need to score. A wing that is defense only (for now). A collection of mediums and bigs that fill roles that won’t emerge. #RIPGritAndGrind
With about a month still to be played before the trade deadline, Memphis has given no signs that they plan to sell (not counting their attempts to move Parsons). In fact, they’ve already traded for the Chicago Bulls’ 3-and-D forward Justin Holiday in an attempt to strike a balance between grit-and-grind defense with modern (read: 3-point launching) offense. In Chicago, Holiday shot the 3-ball at a 35.9% clip and held his defensive matchups to 47.9% shooting. The trade might not make a major splash, but it should be a small step toward increasing the team’s effectiveness from behind the arc, without sacrificing much defensive intensity.
The Memphis Grizzlies’ emotional team meeting after loss to Detroit tonight turned physical in an altercation between veterans Garrett Temple and Omri Casspi in locker room, league sources tell @TheAthleticNBA @WatchStadium.— Shams Charania (@ShamsCharania) January 3, 2019
In short, the Memphis Grizzlies’ slide could have been predicted. Their (near) league-worst offense has not improved, and their league-best defense has lost a step. Even in the best days during the 12-5 streak, Memphis only posted a +2.9 margin over their opponents. Since November 21st, the margin has fallen to -5.1 (24th in the league). For the team to seek out wins, they needed to have an elite defense to offset their many offensive deficiencies.
Unless Memphis buys some offensive pieces by the deadline or can jumpstart their sagging defense, the team could very well miss the playoffs for the second consecutive season.
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