Is It Time to Hit the Panic Button on the Memphis Grizzlies?
While the rest of the NBA has been going small and buying into the new "pace and space" era over these last few years, the Memphis Grizzlies have stubbornly stayed big and stood undeterred from their "grit and grind" mantra. Three straight 50-plus-win seasons and five straight playoff appearances say that it's worked out just fine for them to continue zigging while the rest of the league has been zagging, but there's suddenly a crack in their grizzled armor to start the 2015-16 season.
Memphis is off to a 3-3 start, and while the record isn't particularly damning, there's plenty to be concerned about. The teams that they've won and lost against even make enough sense on paper. They've dropped games to both of last year's Finals participants in the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers and failed to beat a Portland Trail Blazers team that might actually be good last night. Meanwhile, they've beaten the Indiana Pacers, the Brooklyn Nets, and Sacramento Kings. That's losses to three teams in the top 12 of our NBA power rankings and wins against three in the bottom 11. Fine.
The problem is that those losses were by a combined 99 points: 30 to the Cavs, 50 (!) to the Warriors, and 19 to the Blazers. Despite the seemingly passable .500 record, the Grizz currently hold the fourth-worst average point differential in the whole Association at -11.0 per contest, mingling down among the struggling New Orleans Pelicans (-14.3) and the decidedly terrible Brooklyn Nets (-14.6), Philadelphia 76ers (-14.0), and Los Angeles Lakers (-10.0).
The team has been playing at a pace of 96.28 possessions per 48 minutes through six games, placing them 28th in the NBA -- right on par with their M.O. of the last several seasons. The 23rd-ranked Offensive Rating of 96.4 is a drop-off from last season's 13th-ranked finish at 103.1, but the big concern is how the bottom seems to have completely fallen out of their usually world-beating defense.
Up to this point in the season, Memphis has the fifth-worst Defensive Rating in the league at 107.9 points allowed per 100 possessions. They're letting opponents shoot a blistering Effective Field Goal Percentage (weighted twos and threes) of 54.0%, currently the fifth-worst mark in the league.
So, what gives?
Apart from new additions Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright, the rotation is pretty well the same as it was last year (and neither of them are exactly the worst defenders on the planet). The usual starting five of Mike Conley, Courtney Lee, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol is doing just fine, posting an Offensive Rating of 103.7, Defensive Rating of 99.9, and Net Rating of 3.8.
The next two most-used lineups, however, have Net Ratings of -11.7 and -30.4 respectively. The first is the all-bench lineup of Beno Udrih, Jeff Green, Matt Barnes, JaMychal Green, and Brandan Wright, which has posted a passable 103.3 Defensive Rating in 32 minutes together. The third most-used lineup -- the same as the starting lineup, but with Jeff Green in place of Tony Allen -- seems to be where the problem is, as they've posted a horrific Defensive Rating of 124.7 in 26 minutes. That unit started the first game of the season against the Cavaliers but may never do so again with those numbers.
Essentially, the Grizzlies are still the Grizzlies when their starting unit is out there, but things go off the rails when they turn to their bench. And without the consistency on the defensive end, in particular, the warts in their shooting percentages look that much uglier throughout the lineup.
Through six games, the team is shooting 41.4% from the field (21st in the league) and 26.3% from three-point range (28th). Every single one of their wing players (Lee, Allen, Green, Barnes, Vince Carter, Jordan Adams) is shooting below 40.0% from the field and 31.3% from deep, with the majority of their long range attempts coming from Barnes (5 for 28, 17.9%) and Lee (5 for 24, 20.8%). That won't get it done.
Memphis is reportedly in talks with the Miami Heat potentially to trade for Mario Chalmers, but it's hard to see how that will fix anything. Chalmers has played 88% of his career at point guard (where they're fine) and his career three-point mark of 36.1% is misleading, considering he's shot a mere 28.8% from long range over the last two years. On top of that, he's in the midst of a four-year trend of an increasing Defensive Rating (101, 104, 106, 107) and three years with a decreasing Steal Percentage (3.0, 2.9, 2.7). He's not likely to move the needle as Memphis tries to turn their season around because it's no longer really fair to consider him the three-and-D player he once was.
Thankfully for the Grizzlies, though, it's far from too late. Any and all NBA writing at this time of the year should have a big "small sample size" label on the cover image, and any talk of Memphis' demise is no exception. It has been a discouraging first week and a half of the season, no doubt, but there's bound to be some regression to the mean on the defensive end, where their bread is usually buttered. They won't become a good shooting team over night, but they've always won despite that deficiency anyway.
Despite the fact that they currently rank 22nd in our NBA power rankings, we're still projecting them as having a 82.5% chance of making the playoffs in the competitive Western Conference and even a 4.9% chance of winning it all.
We can probably pump the breaks on writing their obituary just yet. Their numbers so far do indicate a cause for concern, but there's still a lot of season left to be played before we can officially say that the NBA has outgrown the Memphis Grizzlies.