In their past ten games, the Memphis Grizzlies have been shaky. Before their game against the Clippers, Memphis held a 4-6 record in their previous ten games, losing to sub-.500 teams like the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks and the (pre-Cousins trade) New Orleans Pelicans. But it seems like the Grizzlies have locked up another playoff appearance, despite their recent struggles. They sit in sixth place in the Western Conference standings, an impressive feat amidst a year where the Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, and Houston Rockets have improved. If the season were to end today, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Co. would play the Houston Rockets in a first-round matchup. But before even thinking about potential playoff matchups, it’s important to diagnose their current issues.
On the season, the Grizzlies rank sixth in the league in defensive rating, living up to their Grit N’ Grind defense-first identity. But over the past ten games, Memphis has struggled mightily, ranking 25th in defensive rating. They have allowed their opponents to shoot 54.2% eFG for 28th in the league in the same span, per NBA.com/stats. They also have allowed their opponents to get to the free throw line with ease, ranking 27th in the league in opponent free throw attempt rate. For a team that prides itself in their defense first approach, Memphis has not shown that identity as of late.
The defensive issues range team wide. Mike Conley has played well offensively, but his defensive performances have been lackluster. Jrue Holiday, Jeremy Lin, and Yogi Ferrell, among others, have scored efficiently and often against Conley and the Grizzlies. Conley has struggled defensively for most of the season, but his issues have been magnified as of late. Coach David Fizdale has gone so far as to play Conley off the ball. In the fourth quarter of a close game against the Brooklyn Nets, Andrew Harrison was tasked with guarding Jeremy Lin, while Conley was put in a cross match with guards Sean Kilpatrick and Caris LeVert.
Power Forward JaMychal Green has had a breakout season, and is likely to earn big money in the restricted free agent market. He’s been a solid option offensively in the wake of Zach Randolph’s move to the bench. But in his last ten games, he has contributed to the Grizzlies’ defensive woes. His defensive rating in this stretch ranks worse than Conley’s. He has allowed opponents to shoot 53.6% against him, and 63.1% at the rim. On pick and rolls, Green has struggled playing the switch as well.
This may stem from over-helping on defense. On penetration, Memphis’ main goal is to pack the paint and prevent easy penetration. But that comes at a cost. In several Grizzlies’ plays, a defender (Conley, Green, Parsons) would sag off of their man and step into the paint. But with an extra pass, that leaves the Grizzlies’ defense scrambling. Somebody is left open. That leads to opponents shooting 47.4% from the field in the past ten games, ranking the Grizzlies 24th.
Either that, or the Grizzlies defense rotates too late. The defensive over help allows for a drive to the rim by any attacking offensive player. If an offensive player is able to get past a defender on a close out, it may be an easy path to the rim. Marc Gasol, JaMychal Green, and Zach Randolph are too slow footed to rotate in time. The Grizzlies have allowed 26.5 free throw attempts per game, a sign of late rotations at the rim. Memphis has missed Brandan Wright, a long, but rangy big man that can rotate and recover on defense, and use his length to challenge players at the rim. Memphis may need to work on their defensive rotations as the season winds down.
Memphis, surprisingly, were not players on either the trade market or buyout market. Their only major addition in the winding stretch of the season is the signing of Toney Douglas for the remainder of the season. Now, Douglas may have been the most “Memphis” player on the market, with other options like Jarrett Jack and Brandon Jennings lacking in size or defensive prowess. But while Douglas has done a decent job in his time with Memphis this season, the bench still lacks a solid punch. While a bench lineup led by Zach Randolph, Vince Carter, and Douglas is solid offensively, it may prove problematic defensively.
At this stage in their careers, the narratives on Carter and Randolph are well known. They aren’t strong defenders by any stretch, but these are two useful offensive players. Playing these two on second units lessens the negative impact they have defensively, but they still may be outmatched against younger, high paced teams.
Coach Fizdale elected to have Tony Allen come off the bench in their last game against Brooklyn just to give the second unit a shot of energy defensively. Allen may continue to come off of the bench until the defense sorts out their issues. But outside of Allen, the defensive cupboard runs bare. James Ennis and Deyonta Davis have played limited minutes recently. Davis has only played in 28 games this season, mostly in team blowouts. Jarrell Martin and Wade Baldwin, two more young, athletic players, have toiled between the D-League and the NBA throughout the season. But it may be worth a shot to add a dose of athleticism to the Grizzlies’ second unit.
Offensively, the second unit may lack some pop as well. Outside from Randolph, there is no mercurial offensive player to energize the team. Troy Daniels started off the season well, but he has not shown much aside from being a perimeter shooter. His three-point field goal percentage is better than his overall field goal percentage, making him essentially a predictable player.
Memphis currently has all 15 of their roster spots filled. But if their issues persist, they may want to dip into the free agent or D-League talent pool. There are a few decent veteran options coming from the CBA like J.J. Hickson, Donald Sloan and Josh Smith. But with multiple young pieces looking to be developed, General Manager Chris Wallace may not sacrifice a cheap, intriguing young prospect to sign a veteran for this season’s playoff run.
Luckily for Memphis, the Oklahoma City Thunder have struggled as well. They narrowly trail Memphis, holding the seventh seed in the playoff standings. But either way, the Grizzlies need to tighten up their recent lackluster defense. With less than 20 games left in the season, Memphis has to address their defensive struggles, or at least add another presence off of the bench.
It’s unlikely that Memphis overtakes the rejuvenated Los Angeles Clippers to gain the fifth seed, or struggle enough to drop out of the playoff picture. The top three seeds are all offensive juggernauts. The Golden State Warriors are still one of the deadliest teams in the league, even with Kevin Durant out indefinitely. Surprisingly, Memphis has beaten Golden State twice this season. The San Antonio Spurs are the San Antonio Spurs. They have dialed back on the pace this season, instead, adding athleticism and efficiency. Memphis plays San Antonio three times in the final three weeks of the season. In the third spot is the Houston Rockets. Memphis and Houston split the season series. The Grizzlies lost by 24 and 15 in their two recent losses to Houston.
While only a ten game sample, the Memphis Grizzlies have struggled as of late. Their trademark defense has been lacking, and their lack of second unit punch has been exposed as well. The playoffs are over a month away. While they may not be championship contenders, Memphis still can make teams sweat in the playoffs. It may be time for a lineup shakeup in the Grindhouse.