The Grizzlies Have Fallen Defensively… And they Won’t Get Up

Posted: 12/31/2015 by levcohen in Basketball

Heading into this year, the Memphis Grizzlies had ranked comfortably inside the top-10 in points allowed per possession in each of the past five seasons. It isn’t a coincidence that the five year run has coincided with five consecutive playoff teams and five teams that have exemplified Memphis and the nickname of the stadium that the Grizz play in — the Grindhouse. This year, though, things have changed. Their rebound rate, above 50% in each of their last five years, is down to 48.7%, eighth-worst in the league. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; the Clippers and Hawks, two of the league’s better teams, are worse rebounders than the Grizzlies are. More importantly, Memphis’s defense, the thing they, the grinders, have hung their hat on over the past half decade, is bad this year. They’re giving up just 99.4 points per game, third best in the Western Conference (five teams are giving up fewer in the Eastern Conference), but that’s because they still play very slowly (although their pace has picked up). By points allowed per possession, the Grizzlies are tied with the Knicks for 17th at 1.03. And there’s no Atlanta or Los Angeles (well, the bad LA aside) lurking down there to give Memphis hope. Every team below them in defensive efficiency has a losing record, which makes the Grizzlies, at an inauspicious 18-16, look good. In fact, that record should certainly be worse. Despite playing at a slow pace, the Grizzlies are being outscored by 2.9 points per game, which suggests that they should be 13-21 instead of 18-16. As things stand, Memphis is the sixth seed in the West, four games up over #9 Portland, but they’d almost certainly be on the outside looking in had the conference been as strong as predicted. Now that the season is more than 40% over, this steep defensive decline (the offense, by the way, has also been worse this year and is currently sitting at 26th in overall efficiency. The difference is that Memphis’s offense was never particularly good, ranking in the top half of the league just once over the past five years, which is why I’m leading with the defensive struggles) can no longer be dismissed as a fluke.

If you look at most NBA teams from five seasons ago, you’ll find that the rosters have very little in common with the current team’s. For example, the 2010-11 Warriors were led in minutes by Monta Ellis, Dorell Wright, and David Lee, all of whom played a terrifying number of minutes. The 2010-11 Grizzlies are an exception. Yes, Rudy Gay was probably the leader of that team and has since been on multiple other teams, but Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph, and Tony Allen were all part of the core of that team and still are five years later. In fact, Gasol, Conley, and Randolph still lead the team in minutes per game, and the four core players have started 34, 34, 20, and 23 games. It must be said that the Grizzlies have done a terrible job of putting talent around those four players. I mean, Courtney Lee, Jeff Green, and Matt Barnes??? Is that really the best you can do? In that way, the team’s decline is not at all surprising. The key players have gotten older, and the team has held onto them, which is fine. What’s not fine is the fact that the Grizzlies have whiffed on a bunch of first round picks in a row and the fact that they’ve supported their stars with replacement-level role players. And yes, the four holdovers from the past five years have struggled, at least more than they have in the past. Gasol and Conley are each still very good players, with near-20 PERs and 41st and 68th ranked RPMs (Gasol’s a +2.85, with his value mostly coming defensively, while Conley’s a +1.37, with good offense more than offsetting poor defense). But with the exception of Matt Barnes, Gasol and Conley are the only players with positive RPMs on the entire team. Meanwhile, Randolph, in his 14th year in the NBA, has suddenly started to look his age. He’s averaging just 13.5 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, well below his Memphis career averages of 17.3 and 10.8, and he was demoted to the bench before picking up a start due to a Matt Barnes suspension. And if Randolph has been bad, then Allen, the heart of the team, has been much worse. Even recently one of the league’s best defenders, he’s still competent on that side of the floor, but his defensive ability can no longer offset his total offensive inefficiency. Allen ranks among the 25 worst offensive players in the league by RPM, and he increasingly leaves Memphis playing 4-on-5 offensively when he’s on the court.

When the core four has played together this year, they’ve compiled a -1.7 point differential in 13.2 minutes per game. Last year, they were a +3.3 in 14.9 minutes per game. The year before, they were a +1.2 in 9.6 minutes per game. You get the idea. The problem is that, because of Memphis’s poor roster construction (there’s no other way I can say it, I think), there’s no real way to fix it. Sure, you can start playing more Lee or Barnes or Green, and the Grizzlies have been doing that. But with the possible exception of Barnes, who’s kind of impressed me this season, those guys aren’t good enough to fix things. All of this leads me to believe that there’s no real chance for the Grizzlies to turn things around this season. I expect them to finish under .500 and make the playoffs only because there’s no reason to believe in any of the teams in the playoff hunt right now. But they’ll get drubbed by Golden State or San Antonio or Oklahoma City in the first round, and it’ll be considered a lost season.

Luckily for Memphis, things are looking better going forward. Unfortunately, Conley is a free agent (I think it’s too early to speculate whether he’ll come back), but so too are Green, Barnes, and Lee, which will free up cap space. And after next year, when Vince Carter, Randolph, and Allen come off the books, the Grizzlies will be fully able to build their next contender around Gasol and hopefully Conley. This is going to be a rough year, but hopefully it’s just a one or two year lull as the Grizzlies gear up to build their next contender.


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