Two weeks into their season, the Memphis Grizzlies—fresh off a 55-win campaign that saw them make the second round of the playoffs and take a surprising 2–1 lead over the eventual champion Golden State Warriors—were 3–6 and had been outscored by 94 points, a figure topped at that point by only the decrepit Philadelphia 76ers.
For a core group that’s been together for five years now and is getting up there in age (when compared to most elite teams these days), it sure looks like the beginning of the end. “We took some hits,” head coach Dave Joerger recently said of the team’s early-season malaise. “But it’s a group that never pointed fingers. They’ve been together a long time and they like each other. If they didn’t, we’d have fallen apart. But they care about each other, they played hard for each other, we figured it out.”
What spurred the turnaround? “Losing. Badly,” Joerger said. And that does appear to have done the trick, at least on the surface. Memphis has been plugging along since the aforementioned horrid start, looking a whole lot like the team it’s been for the entirety of the Grit ’N Grind Era. The Grizzlies are 27–16 since their 3–6 start, the season-long equivalent of a 53-win pace. Their point differential over that period of time is one that would be expected to yield only 21.2 wins, though, indicating that they’ve been rather fortunate to win at the rate they have since mid-November.
Some of that can be attributed to experiencing a few more bumps along the way (they lost to the Spurs, Thunder and Hornets by 81 combined points in early December), while some of it is due to factors beyond their control. Take, for instance, the schedule. Through the end of December, the teams the Grizzlies had played sported a collective current (i.e. as of today) winning percentage of 0.521, the equivalent of playing a 43-win team every night. Since the calendar flipped to 2016, their opponents have had a collective winning percentage of 0.459, the equivalent of a 37-win unit. That six-win difference may not sound like a lot when it’s just one team over the course of a full year, but playing the equivalent of a clear mid-lottery team every night is far preferable to facing even lower-end playoff squads on the regular.
The Grizzlies have also had the fortune of playing only one of the league’s five best teams since the turn of the new year—they lost to the Thunder by 18 points on Jan. 6. In the season’s first two months, they played the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder, Clippers and Cavaliers a combined eight times and came away with a record of 1–7. In that time, Memphis was 16–9 against the other 24 teams in the league.
Joerger pointed to exactly this fact when asked how his team had compiled the NBA’s sixth-best record since the start of 2016. “We didn’t play Golden State twice after the first, didn’t play San Antonio twice. You know what I mean?” Joerger said. “I’m being a little bit facetious but those teams got us and they hit us pretty good.”
Joerger elaborated on the schedule point, noting that his team had also played 10 back-to-backs by Dec. 27 (it went 12–8 overall and 8–2 in the second half), but was getting ready to play its first since then on Feb. 5 and 6 against the Knicks and Mavs (it wound up going 1–1). More so than winning and losing those actual games, Joerger said the back-to-backs took a toll on the Grizzlies’ health and ability to practice, which was of particular importance as they were incorporating new players into the mix. A team known more than any in the league this side of San Antonio for the consistency of its core, the Grizzlies used seven different starting lineups by the end of December.
All that mixing and matching, coupled with the strength of their early schedule, screwed with Memphis’s mojo. “Early on in the season, we were getting our cues mixed up a little bit and that’s not normally what we’re used to,” point guard Mike Conley said. “And we had a tough schedule. We knew that going in and it didn’t help. We were playing against these good offensive teams, making us feel like we’re not that good defensively all of a sudden, and I think our confidence had dropped a little bit. In January, we got to have some space in between games and really practice to work on our coverages. That’s really helped out a lot.”
Conley specifically noted that stretch fours were giving the Grizzlies trouble early on, and that’s certainly true. Kevin Love had 17 points and 13 rebounds in the season opener. Draymond Green had 11 points, nine rebounds, eight assists and three blocks and was plus-41 in only 27 minutes during the first of Memphis’s two losses to the Warriors. Paul Millsap handed them 23 and 14. They even struggled to contain Frank Kaminsky (15–6–3) in that December blowout loss to Charlotte.
The Grizz have still had occasional issues with those types of players since January started—Danilo Gallinari had 29, eight and three; Ersan Ilyasova had 17 and nine; Karl-Anthony Towns had 14, nine and three; Kristaps Porzingis had 17, 10 and six blocks—but the difference is the performances by those players weren’t game-deciders. Memphis won all four of those games despite the success Gallo, Ersan, KAT and KP had against it. The Grizzlies just found a way to impose their defensive will in other areas, even while the stretch fours were getting the better of them in open space.
That it’s been able to actually get some timely stops lately has saved the Memphis offense from having to operate under too much pressure, Conley said. Early in the season, he said the Grizzlies experienced a sort of snowball effect. Their usually stout defense was being torn apart, which caused them to play tight offensively because they knew that scoring on every single possession was of the utmost importance. Tight offensive possessions resulted in bad shots, which led to deficits growing ever larger.
“I think it can become to the point where, if we’re not stopping anybody defensively, it puts a lot of pressure on everything else,” Conley said. “That was a big issue with [the start of the year]. When we’re not stopping anybody, we know that every single pass, every single cut, every single screen meant so much more than just playing free and loose like we can. And it kind of got out of hand.”
The Memphis offense operates in a spacing crunch to begin with because of its lack of outside shooters. When the defense falls off, that makes things even tougher. “When we’re not playing our best,” Conley continued, “It feels like we’re having to exert too much energy just to get one good look—not even like turning down a couple good looks to get a better look. We’re not even getting to those opportunities. But when we’re playing well, the game becomes easier, guys are getting more open looks, and I think that’s what we’ve been doing lately.”
Center Marc Gasol credited a good deal of the Grizzlies’ offensive improvement—they’ve bumped their offensive efficiency ranking from 26th through the end of December to 13th from Jan. 1 on—to getting into their offense quicker so that they don’t have to take quite as many looks late in the shot clock. That’s something that Joerger has been preaching since he took over for Lionel Hollins in the summer of 2013, and Gasol stressed its importance.
“We’ve got to get things in the first part of the clock—the first 8–10 seconds of the clock. If we get something there, it really helps us,” he said. “Once they double team in the post, you have more seconds to find a good shot. Once you get the ball out of the post when somebody helps or double teams or triple teams, once you hit the outside guy, it’s a huge difference throwing the ball out with eight seconds and throwing the ball out with four seconds. If it’s four seconds, two rotations, it’s got to be a shot. With eight seconds, a lot of things can happen out of that. Obviously, the sooner you get it, the better.”
While the Grizzlies have been shooting in the early part of the clock at almost the same rate lately as they did early on (24% of their shots both before and after Dec. 31), they’ve done a far better job of turning those shots into points. The Grizz shot only 48.5% on attempts taken in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock through the end of December, but have made those shots at a 54% clip since the calendar flipped. Not only that, but they’ve seen a sharp decline in the percentage of their attempts that bump up against the shot clock buzzer. They’ve gone from taking nearly 11% of their shots in the last four seconds of the clock—the danger zone Gasol described—to just 8%. It’s not a huge difference, sure, but every little bit helps, especially when your margin for error offensively is as thin as it is for the Grizzlies.
As they move through the rest of their season, the Grizzlies will have to hope that improvement on offense sticks, because their defense still hasn’t quite been up to the typical Grit ’N Grind snuff. They’ve allowed 102.8 points per 100 possessions since the start of January, per NBA.com, the season-long equivalent of the 15th-best defense in the league. They’ve typically ranked inside the top five over the last few years, but they’re well short of that mark this season.
Can they get back to a top-five level on that side of the floor? Who knows, but things are going to be a whole lot tougher on them the rest of the way. After the All-Star break, the Grizzlies see the Warriors, Spurs, Clippers and Cavs a combined seven times, and they get the Raptors twice as well. That’s almost one-third of their post-break games against teams with a combined 0.767 winning percentage. They also have seven back-to-backs from Feb. 26 through the end of their season on April 13. Their season concludes with a Mavs-Warriors back-to-back followed by a Clippers-Warriors back-to-back. It’s brutal, and it’s the exact kind of schedule quirk that gave the Grizzlies so much trouble early in the year.
Despite their improved play, they still seem likely to be relegated to also-ran status when it’s all said and done. The truest mark of a contender is a top 10 ranking on both sides of the ball. Memphis has not come anywhere close to that during this era, with its offense topping out at basically league average. The Grizzlies have scored at a rate well beyond that over the last month or so, but without the return of the defense they’ve made their name on, it won’t much matter. And even if that comes around, the road through the rest of the West will likely be too much for this group to handle.