Memphis Grizzlies: Return of the Grit 'n' Grind? Or an evolution into something more?

The Memphis Grizzlies have succeeded by doing the opposite of what the rest of the league is doing - slowing the game down and playing strong defense. Is this a return of the Grit ‘n’ Grind Grizzlies of old?

The Memphis Grizzlies, coming off of a disastrous 2017-18 campaign in which they went 22-60, have made a quick turnaround back to being a playoff contender. The Grizzlies currently sit at 16-13 and seventh in Western Conference and are just three games back of the first-place Denver Nuggets. So, how have they done it? Is it a return of the early 2010’s Grit ‘n’ Grind Memphis teams? Or is there more to it than that? The short answer: it’s both. 

In a new era of fast-paced, no defense basketball the Grizzlies have succeeded by doing just the opposite, with the team slowing down the place and playing lockdown defense. While 73.3 percent of the league is averaging over 100 possessions per game, the Grizzlies sit comfortably in 30th, averaging just 96.44 possessions per game. Memphis also ranks sixth in league in defensive rating, but just 26th in team offense. In fact, the Grizzlies team stats on offense, defense and pace are remarkably similar to when the team won a franchise-record 56 games in the 2012-13 season. 

During that season, the Memphis Grizzlies ranked 30th in pace, 17th in offensive rating and second in defensive rating. Sound familiar? It should, but these are not the old-school Grizzlies who wore their opponents down by pounding the ball down low (67.4 percent of points off two’s). This year’s team has embraced a new offensive philosophy while remaining true to the Grit ‘n’ Grind teams of old. In 2012-13, the Grizzlies took 83.4 percent (!) of their shots from inside the arc (46.1 percent in the paint and 21.3 percent mid-range), but this year they have flipped the script. The 2018-19 Grizz are scoring 66.8 percent of their points from inside the arc (league average 64.7) and 28.6 percent of their points off threes, compared to just 15 percent in 2012-13. 

It’s easy to dismiss Memphis’ slow play-style as a by-product of an aging roster (though that certainly plays a role) or that their success is just dumb luck, but in actuality, it’s part of a concerted effort by Grizzlies Head Coach J.B. Bickerstaff to throw opposing teams off balance when they play Memphis. 

 “We want to bring people to the mud and see how comfortable they are in that type of fight,” Bickerstaff told ESPN in November, “There’s not a ton of practice time anymore, so the games are coming and everybody is playing one way and then all of a sudden you play us and it’s a completely different game. How do you handle that?”

And he’s right, teams struggle to effectively run their offense when they’re suddenly forced to run more out of half-court sets, rather than pushing the ball up and down the floor at a blistering pace (looking at you, De’Aaron Fox). That’s exactly why Memphis has been able to win even though they’re going against the grain - teams can’t adjust. 

Of course, the NBA is a completely different league today than it was in the 2012-13 season, especially when it comes to pace and three-pointers. While the Grizzlies sit at 30th in the league in pace this season, their 96.44 possessions per game would have ranked second in the league in 2012-13. Their 21st ranked percent of points off threes in 2018 would also have ranked second in the league in 2012-13. 

This is something we can do this with every stat, but it’s already abundantly clear that the pace and space offense has completely taken over the league. Because of this, the Grizzlies won’t ever fully return to that Grit ‘n’ Grind play style they had earlier this decade, but that’s not for lack of trying. This year’s team is as close to Grit ‘n’ Grind as you can get in 2018, but 2018’s game won’t allow for a true return to that style of play. Of course, that’s certainly not a bad thing as the Grizz’s 15 early season wins can attest to. 

Focusing just on the teams' stats, however, neglects just how well their players have performed. For starters, Marc Gasol has continued to play at a First Team All-Defense-level and could be a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Gasol is averaging 1.4 steals and 1.4 blocks, while also posting a defensive box-plus/minus of 3.5 and has 1.7 defensive win shares on the season. 

There’s also the Grizzlies' prized rookie in Jaren Jackson Jr., who was my favorite player in this year’s draft. If it wasn’t for Luka Doncic’s extremely high-level of play, JJJ might be the favorite for Rookie of the Year. On the season, JJJ is averaging 13.0 points, 4.5 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.8 blocks per game in 25 minutes a night. The only other players averaging those numbers this season? Anthony Davis and…that’s it. Since 2010, only four players have hit those benchmarks and Anthony Davis is the only rookie in NBA history to average those numbers for an entire season. 

There’s also the strong play of Mike Conley, who leads the Grizzlies with 20.2 points per game, as well as the solid play of JaMychal Green, Garrett Temple, and Kyle Anderson which has propelled Memphis to this early season success. 

The big question for the organization, Grizzlies fans and the rest of the league, however, is whether or not they can keep this up. The Grizzlies have dropped six of their last nine games, but with all but one of those losses coming against playoff teams. Still, you can see the conversation around the Grizzlies start to change, should they start to panic? Maybe go into tank mode? If you asked Coach Bickerstaff, he’d say no, but it makes you wonder if the Grizzlies anti-pace and high-powered offense play-style can actually be successful in today’s NBA. 

Memphis is heading into an important home-stand before heading back out for a brutal road-stretch that has the Grizzlies playing four teams currently above .500. If the Grizzlies can come out of this slate of games still playing above-.500 ball, they might be a legitimately good team, if not, it could be another long year for Grizzlies fans. Mike Conley summed it up perfectly when speaking to Commercial Appeal following Memphis’ 105-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets.

“By Christmas, we’ll know who we are, and how we do out of this stretch will be vital.” he said. 

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