What’s wrong with the Memphis Grizzlies?

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The Grizzlies have been run out of the FedEx Forum in two consecutive games and, in general, have been struggling since the All-Star Break. Fans and players alike are clawing at their heads in confusion and roaring in frustration. What exactly is wrong with the team that once displayed the grit and grind that made it one of the most feared teams in the league? Fans and pundits have been suggesting a myriad of things. Here are my takes on some of them.

1. Fool’s gold wins in the early part of the season

The schedule was fairly easy at the beginning and, even though the team was winning, there were plenty of things that made me reluctant to drink the Kool-Aid. These things include the struggle to beat inferior teams like Charlotte, an OKC team that had no Westbrook or Durant, losing to the Bucks, trailing by over 20 against the Kings and requiring an improbable comeback, etc. Wins over Golden State and San Antonio were slightly misleading due to the absence of Bogut and the health issues of Leonard and Parker. The second half of the season has given us arguably the hardest schedule (post-All Star Break) in the league to balance out the easiness of the first half. Since the break, the team has had to travel often and play back to backs or 5 games in 7 nights. The Grizzlies are not as bad as they are currently, but they are probably not so good as to consistently maintain a top 10 defensive and offensive efficiency.

2. Regression to the Mean

Some of the players were over-achieving at the beginning. Courtney Lee and Mike Conley were both flirting with the elite 50/40/90 shooting percentages. Nothing in their history would suggest that it was for real. Despite struggles by both players, their current numbers are in line with their career averages. Because their return to the norm was in a catastrophic fashion instead of a gradual descent, the Grizzlies quite often ended up with minimal offensive contributions from either player. Sub-par offensive performances from 40% of your starters is conducive to losing.

Marc Gasol was also putting up 20-30 point games and Zach Randolph had taken a back seat on offense. Ball movement was crisp and players were active. Since then, Gasol has returned to looking for his teammates and seems to have lost his early-season aggression, and Randolph is back to the those ball-stopping isolations where he performs the jab step, jab step, jab step, fade away jumper or the drive into a crowd while being guarded by a longer or more athletic player. The team as a whole has started to force feed the post and stand around watching a la the Hollins era (more on this in section 4).

3. Roster Limitations

Lack of passing ability, lack of ability to “get buckets”, lack of shooting. The limitations of the personnel are handcuffing the offense. You can’t replicate the offense of the Spurs, Mavs, or Warriors when your players can’t shoot (TA, Calathes), shoot inconsistently (Carter, Green), hesitate to shoot so they can defer to Randolph (Lee, Conley) struggle to finish at the rim, lack the ability to pass to moving targets, or rarely pass to cutters, which probably discourages cutting (as it does even in pick-up games). For the last 5 years, the team has been successful despite its limitations. As the league has turned its focus to players that are either some combination of athletic, efficient, perimeter oriented, versatile, multi-faceted, long-armed, or mobile, the Grizzlies have elected to stick with players that are limited or aging. The Grizzlies have won 50 games the past two seasons by sticking to its strengths, but it’s required a lot of (pardon me) “grit and grind” to win many of those games. Has the time come where the team’s weaknesses are finally clamping down on the Grizzlies themselves?

Side note: Some fans are still whining about the loss of James Johnson. Could James Johnson have helped? I’d say marginally. Outside of 10 feet, he doesn’t shoot well (this is an understatement) and he’s prone to turnovers and deviating from the game plan. Sure, he’s athletic and pretty good at the rim, but you can’t get to the rim (see Jeff Green) when the lane is clogged with Randolph/Gasol, their defenders, and all the defenders sagging off everyone else because they can’t shoot. He gets fancy blocks on jump shots and is a solid defender, but he doesn’t significantly solve the Grizzlies’ weaknesses. If he had remained with the Grizzlies, he would have to displace Tony Allen at small forward to be effective and it raises the same issue the insertion of Jeff Green did. Would the core struggle because they are more comfortable with Allen? That’s the argument people used against Jeff Green. What if he played back-up SF or even PF? Well, the 2nd unit is hurting for offense and he can’t provide the shooting Vince Carter can (even though this year has been disastrous for him). Johnson is also not significantly better than Green at getting to the rim, he’s a worse outside shooter, and a worse free throw shooter. He may be a better defender than both of them, but defense isn’t the glaring issue with the 2nd unit nor is energy. Is he better than Jon Leuer? Yes. Could he help this team? Arguably. Would he make a significant difference? Probably not.

4. Conservatism (no, I’m not talking about politics)

A lot of fans complain about the offense and wonder why Coach Dave Joerger seems to run the predictable plays of “throw it down low” despite demonstrating his penchant for drawing up creative plays out of time outs, his desire to install a more efficient and up-tempo offense, and his track record in the minor leagues. Might player resistance be an issue? Every game, he can be consistently heard yelling some variation of “let’s go”, “push it”, “go, go, go”, “swing it”, “move/cut” etc. What do the players do? Not whatever he’s yelling. Remember, he tried to construct an offense based on player and ball movement in his first season. The results were not pretty and the players (namely the core) requested to go back to Hollins-ball because it had worked in the past and was what they were comfortable with.

Whether Joerger felt the pressure to succeed immediately due to the controversial coaching change or was afraid of losing the team, he agreed to return the offense back to its archaic forms. What is touted as the team’s greatest strength (continuity and familiarity among its core) results in hesitation to stray from what has worked in the past and a resistance to change. Why try to do something different when there’s no guarantee the new method, which sputtered in the short-term, will better in the long-term? Why try changing it up when the old method has provided reasonably successful results?

Early this season, it seemed that the team had bought into Joerger’s vision and it seemed to be working as the Grizzlies sailed into uncharted waters of offensive efficiency. Again, I argue that most of the success was due to players performing uncharacteristically and that when players began to struggle or get “lazy”, they reverted back to Hollins-ball. Some fans have noted that the 2nd unit still shows flashes of the ball-movement and player movement (putting ball in the basket is a different story). Notice that the 2nd unit (and this may be cherry-picking) consists of players who did not play under Hollins and have a history of playing for coaches/systems predicated on either up-tempo offense (Kosta Koufos with George Karl in Denver) or ball-movement (Vince Carter with Rick Carlisle in Dallas, Beno Udrih with Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Jeff Green with Brad Stevens and Doc Rivers in Boston). Furthermore, there have been plenty of players that have looked at least serviceable on other teams but seem to be barely passable in the Grizzlies’ system.

Disclaimer: I am a bit of a Joerger apologist and could write another entire essay defending him and making conjectures on his thought process. Do I think he’s the second coming of the Messiah? No. Do I think he should escape all criticism? No. However, I do think his hands are somewhat tied given the roster construction, veteran influence, and fickleness of the fans.

There’s also the argument that Gasol and Randolph don’t get enough calls down low which restricts movement, prevents easy buckets, and limits free throw opportunities. I’d say this is a fair assessment. However, what’s unfair is us watching the game through Beale Street blue colored lenses and then crying woe is me. If we take of those glasses and break down the film objectively, it’s painfully obvious that Allen, Conley, and Calathes are generally allowed more leeway on defense. They grab, hold, and reach and, more often than not, it’s allowed. Randolph often gets away with pushing and grabbing during his rebounds.

These privileges are mostly the result of the reputation of being a defensive, physical, and tough team. However, not getting calls on the offensive end is the price you pay for receiving leniency to bruise and batter or scratch and claw on the defensive end. I refuse to blame the officials because: (1) the calls typically balance out in the end (2) as fans, we have the luxury of replay/better angles and often let our bias poison our ability to judge referees (3) fans are surprisingly ignorant of the rules  as is evident if you’ve ever played pick-up basketball or gone to see a game at any level (4) despite how awful we think the refs are, they are the best in the world and Joe Schmoe would not do a better job [see NFL replacement refs] (5) blaming officials deflects responsibility and is an easy way to avoid the harsh reality that there may be flaws in your team.

5. 3 point defense?

The Grizzlies have ridden to the top on the back of their gritty defense. This year, the defense has slid a bit and fans are especially concerned about the opponents three point percentage; however, the Grizzlies are not noticeably worse at defending the three this season. According to ESPN (see link at bottom of post), the Grizzlies’ opponent 3P% and 3PA for the last 5 seasons are as follows:

SEASON                              3P%                                      3PA

2014-15                               34.9                                       23.8

2013-14                               35.5                                       21.1

2012-13                               33.8                                       18.2

2011-12                               34.5                                       18.3

2010-11                               36.9                                       19.4

The increase in 3PA is most likely due to the league-wide movement in pursuing the three point shot more aggressively (a movement that the Grizzlies have not joined).

The relative rankings in 3P% do change on a season to season basis (for example, the Grizzlies are 17th in 3P% this year and were 2nd in 2012-13), but in terms of absolute %, there isn’t much change from year to year. One might note the 2012-13 season, in which the Grizzlies had the fewest 3PA allowed and the lowest opp 3P%, was the year they went to the conference finals.

Side note: I’d argue that year was probably the worst thing for fans’ expectations. They beat a Clippers team that was “coached” by Vinny del Negro, a coach that some argued was the only coach less competent than Lionel Hollins in the playoffs. Whether or not del Negro is actually worse than Hollins is a point of contention, but there seems to be a consensus that del Negro is a sub-par coach. The Grizzlies also beat a Thunder team that had no Westbrook and had to depend on Kendrick Perkins, Thabo Sefolosha, Derek Fisher, and Reggie Jackson for offense. Perkins and Sefolosha don’t require any more words dedicated to their offensive prowess, Fisher was old and couldn’t do much more than spot up from three, and Jackson was inexperienced. Sure, it was nice to reach the WCF despite being swept by the Spurs, but I believe that the playoff results were the result of a bit of luck and inflated the capabilities and expectations of the team.

The Grizzlies’ defense appears to be based on limiting paint points and not too overly concerned with three point shooting probably because: 1) layups and 3 foot hooks are higher percentage than threes and 2) personnel strengths and weaknesses.

Marc Gasol’s greatest strength on defense is his ability to call out the opponent’s plays, see the floor, predict the next move, push teammates into proper position, and essentially “quarterback” the defense. His brother from another mother, Zach Randolph, struggles in the pick and roll and often gets in his own teammates way on the perimeter. However, he is a solid post defender due to his mass and lower body strength and is an excellent rebounder. It makes little sense for the big guys to be out on the perimeter often when it negates their strengths and displays their weaknesses. As such, you often see Randolph’s hesitancy to contest stretch 4’s.

If the team opts for a different scheme that is more aggressive on the perimeter (Bear with me, I know I have greatly simplified this), such as switching on pick and rolls or hedging more from the bigs, it may result in the big guys away from the rim which decreases rim protection/lane congestion and results in the three perimeter players, who are often already outmatched in either height, body width/strength, and jumping ability at their own positions, trying to box out big men. In the few instances I’ve seen Randolph try to hedge, he usually ends up setting a screen on Conley or Lee which completely negates the purpose of hedging.

Could it be as simple as telling the perimeter players to “stay home”? The three main big men are solid enough 1-on-1 post defenders and rarely require help. So why do the perimeter players continually sag off their men? I think part of it is team philosophy and part of it player preference. The defensive philosophy that has gotten them this far to begin with has been to prevent points in the paint and to let teams take long distance shots which are lower% and less efficient in the case of long 2’s. Many of the players are also known for their ability to generate steals, and I think they have a hard time resisting the temptation to snag away the ball from an unassuming post-player.

Staying home doesn’t solve the issue of Tony Allen consistently losing track of his man when he doesn’t have the ball nor does it help with off-ball screens to free up shooters. The perimeter players typically do a decent job fighting through screens, but multiple screens spanning across the width of the court sometimes require the big men to step out which they seem hesitant to do either due to laziness, lack of foot speed, or their sense of duty to protect the paint and prevent offensive rebounds.

Admittedly, the defense in general has been a concern of mine. It just seems out of sync and players have been ball watching and look old and slow. Defense has been the Grizzlies’ calling card in the past, and many players talk about how they need to tighten up on defense. However, I think the lack of offense is still the biggest problem. If they had a semi-functional offense (lack that in the earlier parts of the season), a couple of defensive lapses won’t put the game completely out of reach as it has done recently. Furthermore, I’d argue that if the Grizzlies could make ~8 3 pointers per game, the 3P% defense would be less of an issue. If I recall correctly, the Grizzlies have a phenomenal record when they make as many or more threes than their opponent.

6. Locker room issues? Mental fatigue? Complacency?

My previous arguments are based on some assumptions, but I believe I have some ground to stand on and could provide evidence if I had the necessary tools at my disposal (although one could argue that my evidence is cherry-picked, too simplistic, plagued by confirmation bias, and flawed due to my lack of professional training in basketball). The following is purely speculative and much of it are thoughts created by my own paranoia.

Could it be that Gasol is fed up of being hung out to dry on defense? You have Allen and Calathes gambling for steals, Randolph who struggles to play defense in situations that aren’t one-on-one post-ups, etc. The result is Gasol consistently trying to cover up for these mistakes and leaving his man open and everyone else neglecting to move over to stop his man from getting dunks. Is he tired of being criticized for his rebounding numbers and lack of aggression? He clearly doesn’t care about his stats as he often allows teammates to grab the rebounds and opts to pass so that his teammates can get theirs, but many fans are begging to see him put up more gaudy numbers and take more shots. Is he not taking shots because he feels Randolph tends to lose focus on defense when he doesn’t get touches? Does he no longer believe in his team and is already thinking about leaving? For the sake of my happiness and the team, I hope not.

Has Tony Allen’s attitude finally had a negative effect? He was suspended for an altercation with Calathes and was speculated to pout when was asked to come off the bench. Is his obsession with “First Team” and getting credit for steals and tip-ins rubbing teammates the wrong way? Are they tired of him gambling or losing his man and him missing layups and killing fast breaks?

Or is it something as simple as fatigue and complacency? The lack of aggression of Marc Gasol, the seemingly never-ending bout of turnovers, and the inconsistency in defensive cohesiveness scream of mental fatigue and lack of communication among the players. Is it possible the team is just bored of the regular season and just want to get to the playoffs? After all, they know they’re guaranteed a spot in the post-season and the goal is to win a ring. Why bother exerting effort when these wins no longer put them closer to their goal?

How far will this team go in the playoffs?

I’d argue that it’s not unreasonable to expect a conference finals berth if Dallas is the first-round match-up. Dallas has struggled since the acquisition of Rajon Rondo and the Grizzlies seem equipped to handle them especially if Tyson Chandler gets into foul trouble. In a possible second round match-up, it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Grizzlies beat Houston or San Antonio; however, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see a 2nd round exit either. Essentially, I think it’s a toss-up with maybe a slight Memphis advantage against Houston. Beyond that? Well…let’s just say that I would hesitate to bet on the Grizzlies against Golden State or Cleveland (and not just because of the recency effect).

There’s no doubt that this team is capable of more than what they’re currently putting on display, and I still believe they could put up a fight against any of the heavy favorites. However, the team must return to the early season form of basketball where ball and player movement were commonplace, Gasol was more willing to take his shots, Randolph and Allen were mostly cleaning up garbage and flexing their muscles, the perimeter shots were falling, and the defense was communicative and synchronized. They must bear down and get hungry again.

If they don’t snap out of their current funk and end up with a longer summer vacation, the worse that could happen is the loss of Gasol in free agency, possibly the blowing up of the team, a return to the cellar for a long time (2 first round picks are still owed for the Jon Leuer and Jeff Green trades), and the death of grit and grind as we know it.

Are they a good team? Yes. Could they be successful in the postseason? Yes. Is it within the realm of possibility to win the title? Yes. Do they have concerning issues that may prevent them from succeeding in the playoffs? Yes. Is the sky really falling on Grizz Nation? I don’t know, but I’m bracing myself for the worst and hoping for the best. Are my observations valid and my arguments supported? …I like to think so, but I’ve been known to have delusions of grandeur.

I have so many thoughts on the team that gives me so much joy and has recently caused me to lose sleep (my obsession with basketball is unhealthy), but I’ve pontificated enough as it is.

______________________________________________________________

1. ESPN Statistics: http://espn.go.com/nba/statistics/team/_/stat/defense-per-game/sort/threePointFieldGoalPctOpponent

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