Tuesday November 17th, 2015

History likely will not look back kindly on the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies. In time, few outside of Memphis will recall their existence, let alone how special a place they occupied in the landscape of the current NBA. That’s what tends to happen to “also-ran” teams, even ones that consistently push their win total to 50 and beyond, as the Grizzlies have done in each of the last four seasons (they won the full-season equivalent of 51 games during the lockout-shortened 2011–12 season). 

Even while featuring Marc Gasol, owner of one of the most beautifully understated games of any big man in recent memory, the Grizzlies have employed a style that cannot be described as aesthetically pleasing. Watching their games often can be as much of a slog as playing in them. The sheer amount of work it takes for them to create an open shot is tiring, even from afar. 

They’ve also made things just as difficult, if not more so, for teams on the other end of the floor, with a brutal, physical, in-your-face defense that has been their calling card. In the five seasons they’ve employed Gasol, Zach Randolph, Tony Allen and Mike Conley, the Grizz have ranked eighth, seventh, second, eighth and fourth in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com. No NBA team over these last few years has more consistently bumped cutters off their path on the way through the lane, more aggressively dug down into the post for steals, more vigilantly ran opponents off the three-point line, or more happily knocked basket-goers on their hind parts.

In so many ways, these Grizz remind me of the team I grew up with, the one that made me fall in love with basketball in the first place: the 1990s New York Knicks. Those Knicks are remembered fondly by some (largely due to their rivalries with Michael Jordan’s Bulls, Reggie Miller’s Pacers and Pat Riley’s Heat), with the pangs of agony by others (largely due to the miserable John Starks-led failure in the 1994 NBA Finals against the Rockets), and not at all by still more. 

It’s not a perfect one-to-one comparison if you go up and down the roster and try to draw player-to-player parallels (though Z-Bo and Allen as the Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason of the Grizz fits nearly perfectly from an attitude and intimidation perspective), but from a style and identity standpoint, it works. And it’s that achingly-clear resemblance to a 1990s squad that, despite a high-scoring win over the Oklahoma City Thunder Monday night, lays bare the fact that the game seems on the verge of passing the Grizzlies by.

This still shot, from their game against the Clippers last week, encapsulates just how much the Grizzlies do not fit in the modern game. Randolph has just received a pass from Gasol, and he couldn’t possibly be more open just to the right of the top of the key, beyond the three-point arc. On nearly any other team in the league, this shot is going up. Even if it misses, there’s a palpable effect on floor spacing due to the willingness and ability to take it. But Z-Bo never even considered it. He was passing the ball to Conley, about to be tightly covered by Chris Paul, before he even fully received the pass. 

The play actually ended in a basket, as Conley navigated his way through tight creases and got to the rim for a scooped-in layup, but the fact that he needed to at all underscores the issue this team faces on every trip down the floor. For the entirety of their run, the Grizzlies have been able to overcome that deficiency with a combination of post-up brutality, smartly-timed cuts, and quick-trigger passing to score at somewhere around or slightly above NBA-average efficiency.

It was because that defense was so good that the Grizz needed only to eke out that league average offense to stack wins. But if that defense slips even a little — which it appears that it has, thanks in part to both the unrelenting realities of age, and the aggressiveness of opponents in scheming some of the better defenders off the floor (see: Allen) on the other end — the margin for error provided by its excellence thins. If the offense slips to the bottom third of the league, as it has so far this season, the margin disappears completely. 

For a few years now, people have bemoaned the Grizzlies as an anachronism, wondering if and when they’d fall back to the pack, paying the toll for playing such an anti-modern game. Through the early part of this season, it looks like the bill may finally have come due. Regardless of what happens the rest of this way (and it’s entirely possible, and still probably more likely than not, that they end up having a fairly typical good season), it seems that this will be the last season together for the current iteration of the Grizz. That is damn sad.

Let’s take a minute to talk about Karl-Anthony Towns, shall we? 

Through the first 10 games of his career, Towns is averaging 15.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game. The last rookie to do that?

[tweet: https://twitter.com/NBAcom/status/666320844143087616/photo/1]

Yeah. That would be Tim Duncan, otherwise known as the greatest power forward of all time. We’re in historic territory here, folks. 

Towns is balling on both ends of the floor, already contributing at a well-above-average level. His post game, though not quite as lauded coming out of Kentucky as Jahlil Okafor’s was coming out of Duke, is already polished and proficient. 

He has a hook shot that he can work with both hands:

[youtube: https://youtu.be/M0yp1qPivC0]

He has both the vision and the passing ability to slip feeds into tight spaces:

[tweet: https://twitter.com/TheCauldron/status/666018782301847553]

He can face up or back down, get to the rim or shoot a jumper over his defender. He’s converting shots at an above-average rate from inside the restricted area and from mid-range and is only slightly below average from the back half of the paint, per NBA.com’s shot charts:

He seems almost impossibly smooth, nailing step-back jumpers off the dribble in a way that no player his size should be able to.

On the other end of the floor, he’s teaming with Ricky Rubio, Andrew Wiggins, Tayshaun Prince and Kevin Garnett to form what has so far been the stingiest five-man unit in the league. He’s picking up Steph Curry on switches. He’s holding opponents to 36.4 percent shooting in the post. (Among players that have defended at least 20 possessions than ended with a shot, turnovers or foul in the post, he’s been the fifth-most effective post defender so far.) He’s blocking Mike Conley off the dribble, avoiding fouls with excellent timing and body control. 

And all the while, he’s taking the best internship money can’t buy. In every Wolves game, you can see KG animatedly explaining the game to Towns whenever they’re on the bench together.

That is how you provide real value through veteran leadership. When a guy like KG truly takes someone like Towns under his wing, it’s special. And given how special a talent Towns appears to be, that’s pretty fitting. 

NBA.com’s SportVU database tracks a stat called Assist Points Created. It’s exactly what it sounds like: the number of points per game a player creates through assisted baskets. The top 25 is littered with point guards — 22 of them to be exact. Point guards also occupy nine spots in the top 10. The lone exception: Draymond Green. 

With his passes, Draymond is creating (This Week’s Number) 16.5 points per game, 8th most in the NBA (as of Monday afternoon) behind Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, John Wall, Ricky Rubio, Chris Paul, Ish Smith (!!!!) and Damian Lillard. 

It’s a testament not only to Green’s passing ability (he’s been especially good when pushing the ball in transition), but also Curry’s — and the Warriors coaching staff’s — trust in Green to make the right play upon receiving a pass out of pick-and-rolls, which he’s done so often this season. 

Three Things I Noticed on League Pass

1. Rodney Hood stretching his game: Hood is an emerging 3-and-D man who is not hitting a very high percentage of his triples this year. He has, however, shot much better from mid-range, especially on deep twos, indicating that his stroke is probably on point, and his deep tries will come around eventually. 

More encouraging is seeing Hood work off the dribble a bit more than he did last season. He’s had the ball in his hands 8.9 percent of the time he’s been on the floor this season, up slightly from 7.5 percent last year. He’s finishing 4.5 plays per game out of the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports, and shooting 44.1 percent on those plays, placing him in the 62nd percentile leaguewide. 

Much of Hood’s work on the ball has come in a secondary capacity after receiving a kickout pass, but that doesn’t make it less impressive:

[youtube: https://youtu.be/Co620GtPn60]

2. Festus Ezeli leveraging his assets: Festus Ezeli is not quite as skilled a player as Andrew Bogut. He’s not going to wow anyone with a gorgeous back-door pass. So rather than trying to replicate what Bogut does within Golden State’s starting lineup, Ezeli is using his skill set to do different things, arguably better than Bogut can. 

That includes outrunning opposing big men down the floor for easy baskets, as he did to Andre Drummond and the aforementioned Towns last week. 

For a team as good offensively as the Warriors to get what essentially amount to free points from a player who contributes as relatively little to the half court offense as Ezeli is almost unfair. But it’s great to see Ezeli leverage his speed and athleticism into easy opportunities. That’s the kind of thing that will keep him in rotations for a long time. 

3. Brad Stevens’ unsurprisingly pretty baseline out-of-bounds play: Check this one out. There are a whole lot of options built in here and the Celtics follow all of them all the way through until R.J. Hunter winds up with an open jump shot. 

[youtube: https://youtu.be/hfC_VsalbWA]

He wasn’t directly talking about out-of-bounds sets, but there’s a reason Gregg Popovich had such high praise for Stevens (and admitted last season to cribbing from Stevens’ plays). 

Quote of the Week

Brent Barry, on the call for the Warriors-Timberwolves game, described the only acceptable strategy for guarding Stephen Curry: 

“You’ve got to pretend you’re Uber and pick Steph up at his house.”

I’m honestly not even sure that would work. 

League Pass Game of the Week: Pistons at T-wolves, Friday, 8 PM

Remember all those nice things we said about Karl-Anthony Towns up top? Well, if you don’t want to watch him play against the man-beast Andre Drummond and the Pistons on Friday after reading that, there might be something wrong with you. (Or you just have better things to do on a Friday night. One of the two. But if that’s the case, at least set your DVR!)

Drummond is doing obscene things this season. As friend of the program Fred Katz recently said, we need to be calling Drummond “Hindsight,” because he’s always 20–20 (not really, but he does have three 20–20 games and two 18–19’s, so he’s pretty good). He’s leading the league in offensive, defensive and total rebounds — in terms of pure rebounds and percentage of available rebounds when on the court — by a country mile. He’s making 66 percent of his shots within three feet of the basket and has shown massive improvement so far on shots between three and 10 feet away, creeping over 40 percent for the first time; he’s actually up in the mid-40s. His hook shot, drop step, and up-and-under moves all look so much smoother than ever before. 

And Towns-Drummond isn’t even the only intriguing matchup here, either. (And that’s before we get into whether or not they’ll spend much time guarding each other. It’s possible the Wolves use Kevin Garnett on Drummond and Towns on Ersan Ilyasova.) We’ve got Andrew Wiggins against Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and hopefully Ricky Rubio against Reggie Jackson, too (here’s hoping Rubio is back from his hamstring injury by then). 

Wiggins, after getting off to a slow start, has looked terrific over the last week-plus. He’s making the “can he really create for himself off the dribble?” concerns that surrounded him coming out of college seem pretty silly. His spin move, which he can execute moving in either direction, is deadly (as discussed last week), and he’s been working the pull-up jumper game with regularity, as well. 

Caldwell-Pope isn’t shooting all that well (especially not from outside), but he’s doing a really nice job using his length on defense for a Pistons squad that looks poised to move out of the bottom half of the league in defensive efficiency for the first time in recent memory. Just watch that Pistons-Warriors game from last week and check out his work on Stephen Curry. He made Steph work harder for his buckets than pretty much anybody else this season. 

Watching Jackson, an emerging pick-and-roll maestro, go toe-to-toe with Rubio, one of the NBA’s best defenders at the point guard spot, should be as fun as anything that’s on non-national TV all week. Not only that, but how Jackson handles the challenge of guarding a savant-level passer whose shot has looked better than ever this year should prove fascinating on the other end. 

The Wolves are probably still more fun than good. This Pistons might be, too, but they’re a bit farther along in the process of trying to flip that equation on its head. Good teams take care of business against the “more fun than good” types, so if the Pistons want to be for real, this is the kind of game they need to control from start to finish. They can’t be dropping games to the Kings, Lakers and T-Pups, even on the road.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.