When the calendar flipped to 2014, the Memphis Grizzlies were not a very good basketball team. They were 13-17. They sat in last place in the Southwest division. Marc Gasol was still on the shelf indefinitely with a knee injury, and the team appeared to be drowning on both ends without their lynchpin. With new coach Dave Joerger on the bench, it seemed the Grizz had lost the identity that made them so special.
As of today, the Grizzlies are right in the middle of the playoff conversation. They’re 26-21. They’re grinding teams to a pulp. They’re roaring once again.
What’s happening down in Graceland?
Marc my Words
On January 10th, Memphis was in a rough place. In our rankings, they sat at just a 44.1 nERD ranking - 18th overall - and had an 11.1 percent chance at securing one of the eight playoff spots out West. That’s pretty bleak.
A few days after that, on January 14th, Gasol came back to the lineup. From that point, Memphis has returned to the terrifying defensive form that helped carry them to the Western Conference Finals last season, making them one of the worst playoff matchups for any team.
In an 11-game stretch that’s seen the Grizz go 9-2, Memphis has had the top-rated defense in the Association, per NBA.com. In that stretch, they’ve shut teams down with a defensive rating of 94.3, which would be tops in the league by nearly three points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. Funny thing when you add the reigning Defensive Player of the Year back into the mix, eh?
In our most recent team rankings, Memphis has risen to 14th in the team nERD ranking, jumping nearly 10 points to 52.2. Their playoff odds are still relatively low, but that reflects their tough schedule and the rough-and-tumble conference they play in more than how strong they’ve been over the past few weeks.
Gasol’s return shifted Ed Davis and Kosta Koufos, two solid defenders, back into lesser reserve roles. Both have been very good in defending the rim, allowing opponents to hit just 38.7 and 45.5 percent of attempts there, respectively, per NBA.com’s SportVU data.
While Gasol is allowing opponents to hit 50 percent of attempts at the rim, he’s still below league average in the category. Obviously his role on the defense goes beyond just what he does in protecting the hoop, as he acts as the quarterback for the unit. That shows up when you look at the 25-game stretch he missed, where the Grizzlies posted a defensive rating of 106 (per NBA.com), below league average. Despite missing over a quarter of the season, Gasol still has posted 0.9 defensive win shares, tied for fifth on the team.
Drop the Mike
While he didn’t garner quite as much outrage as some other snubs from the All-Star Game, Mike Conley has been playing at a near-All-Star level all season. The point guard ranks 20th in our nERD rankings at 7.8, an impressive feat considering all that he had to do for the team in Gasol’s absence.
Per NBA.com’s player tracking, Conley is creating 12.7 assist opportunities for his teammates a game, of which they’re converting about half (6.3 assists per game). Both of those numbers are right on par with Goran Dragic, another point guard who very much deserved some All-Star shine. Here’s the catch: Phoenix plays at the sixth-fastest pace in the league, at 96.5 possessions per 48 minutes. Memphis, on the contrary, sits dead last in the category at just 89.8.
Perhaps Conley’s greatest feat is what he did for the Memphis offense with Gasol out of the lineup. In the stretch without their best player, from November 22nd (the date Gasol was injured) through January 14th, Memphis posted an offensive rating of 104, ranking them 14th in the Association over that span, per NBA.com. That is nothing short of miraculous. Only two other players on the roster - Nick Calathes, who until now was a sparingly used backup point guard, and James Johnson - have an assist rate (the estimation of the percentage of baskets a player assists on while on the court) above 20 percent, while Conley sits at 31.4.
Conley is also the only real penetrator Memphis has. According to NBA.com’s player tracking, he drives the ball to the hoop 8.0 times per game, ninth highest in the league. James Johnson is the only other member of the Grizz in the top 100. That ability to get to the rim and suck in defenders is crucial to Memphis’ spacing, of which they have very little, as he gives their lackluster options from deep - the team shoots just 35.5 percent on three-pointers - a little bit of room to breathe.
Of course, that’s not even getting into Conley’s scoring, where he averages a team- and career-best (by far) 18 points per game. He’s up to 41.8 percent on above-the-break three-pointers after hitting right around 35 percent on those shots over the previous four seasons, as well as 37 percent overall from long range. He’s also converting his forays to the rim at 59.8 percent, per NBA.com, the highest of his career, and has a true shooting percentage of 55.4, another career high.
Unfortunately, Conley suffered a sprained ankle this past Friday and is expected to miss at least a week. If there’s ever a time where losing your star point guard is palatable, having it happen with Gasol, a wizard at creating from elbow, hitting his stride makes the injury something the Grizz will likely be able to survive.
The Grizzlies have few options to run the point over the next few games. New addition Courtney Lee was thrust into ball-handling duties in the game Conley got injured, but he’s far from a point guard. His career assist rate is just 9.1 percent, lower than his turnover rate (10.1 percent), so that’s a non-starter.
That leaves rookie Calathes, who is totally unproven to this point, averaging just over 13 minutes per game. He did go for 22 points in his first game as starter, so there’s obviously hope that he can be a viable option. He’s still averaging just 9.6 points and 6 assists per 36 minutes, his shooting numbers leave much to be desired, and the offense craters when he’s on the floor - he has an offensive rating of just 92.
To a Halt
The biggest beneficiary of Memphis scrapping their early attempts at upping their pace is probably Zach Randolph. Slowing the game down gives the not-so-fleet Z-Bo plenty of opportunity work his way to position in the post, both to overpower defenders and to snag rebounds. As the season has worn on, his rebounding has steadily increased, from 9.3 rebounds per game in November, 11 in December and up to 11.8 in January. He’s pulling down 24.9 percent of available defensive rebounds when he’s on the floor and 18.2 percent of total rebounds, both a shade below last season but still very solid marks. Additionally, over 40 percent of the 10.6 rebounds per game Randolph averages come in traffic, according to NBA.com’s player tracking.
Despite his rebounding prowess, Randolph’s value could easily be questioned on the court. His nERD of 0.2 suggests that he wouldn’t be able to carry a team to much better than a .500 record, no surprise as he’s up past 30 years old. He’s a more or less a net wash on the court, with an offensive rating of 104 and a defensive rating of 105. While he has a reputation for getting easy buckets - he is second behind Conley on the team at 17.5 points per game.
However, Z-Bo just isn’t getting those easy scores like he has in the past. His true shooting percentage is down to just 49.7, his lowest in seven seasons, while his effective field goal percentage (44.8) is his lowest in eight. He’s converting just 53.4 percent at the rim and 39 percent from mid-range (slightly up from a year ago). So, while he keeps cranking out points for a team that desperately needs them, he’s definitely not doing it in an efficient manner.
The Grizzlies desperately needed a spark after Gasol went down, and Jerryd Bayless wasn’t cutting it coming off the bench. About a month ago, Memphis swapped Bayless out for Lee, and so far the results have been very positive.
Bayless was far below average for Memphis, putting up a PER of just 11.5 in 31 games. In the 13 games Lee has played for the Grizz, he’s has put up a PER of 17.7 (league average is 15), while already having contributed 1.2 offensive win shares. At 44.1 percent on 3-pointers, a scorching 64.7 TS% and 59.4 eFG%, he’s provided the kind of shooting that Memphis had been searching for since Quincy Pondexter went down with a season-ending injury. Lee has given Memphis a solid off-the-bounce option, as he’s hitting 54.1 percent of the 2.5 pull-up jumpers he takes a game, per NBA.com’s player tracking. He’s also been one of their most reliable catch-and-shoot players, with an eFG% of 56.5 on about four attempts per game.
The Grizzlies also plucked a gem off of the scrap heap earlier this year, signing James Johnson out of the D-League. The former first rounder, cast off by four teams since being drafted in 2009, has provided some full-court terror for Memphis. He’s a rangy defender at 6-foot-9 and is as good of an athlete as you’ll find in the league. Tales of his mixed martial arts training and skills are at the level where you don’t quite believe them when you read them.
On a team with a reputation for suffocating defense, he’s been one of the best individual defenders on the squad. He leads the team in blocks at 1.6 per game, stuffing a whopping 6 percent of shots when he’s on the floor, picking them up in every fashion imaginable: as a help defender, running out on shooters, chase downs, you name it. He's posting a ridiculous defensive rating of 99, by far the best on the team. In just 23 games since being signed, he’s already contributed 0.9 defensive win shares; at that rate, he’d be leading the team if he’d been in Memphis all season.
While Johnson doesn’t do any one thing particularly well offensively, he’s a bit of a broke man’s LeBron in that he can do a little bit of everything. He’s shown he’s very comfortable bringing the ball up the court, either after ripping down a rebound (7.3 per 36 minutes) or after taking an outlet pass. He’s shown his chops as a playmaker, with his strong assist rate, and is third on the team in assists per 36 minutes at 4.6. He’s second on the team in drives per game, per SportsVU. His TS% and eFG% are both at career high levels (51.8 and 49.1), but his hyper-activity all over the floor provides just as much value as his scoring ability.