We’re rounding the corner from the NBA All-Star Break and have less than two months from the playoffs. In the Western Conference, there’s a multi-team race for the final postseason spot that figures to go down to the wire.
Currently leading the charge are the Memphis Grizzlies, an upstart group led by rookie point guard Ja Morant. Morant and second-year pro Jaren Jackson Jr. are pumping energy into this organization and have carried them through the first sixty games.
Will first-year coach Taylor Jenkins and his upstart group of youngsters be able to hang on and earn a postseason berth?
To prepare for the final run of the regular season, I’ve been unveiling a scouting report on each team in the race over the next few weeks. These pieces will focus on personnel notes (including the most effective ways to mitigate their success), overarching themes of their scheme and a preview of what the road ahead looks like with the schedule.
Here’s the Portland Trail Blazers, in case you missed them:
Games take on a whole new meaning of excitement during this 25-game sprint. Rosters are mostly already set for the postseason, and every game matters in a more easily tangible way. It’s now all about jockeying for position or simply trying to play your best basketball.
Teams are who they are at this point, and that makes scouting a lot easier. We’ve learned a lot about individual player tendencies, the purpose of how an offense or defensive scheme is structured and how legitimate their success is.
The Personnel Files
Morant is a freak athlete. He’s super bouncy off one or two feet, is shifty in tight spaces and is blindingly quick when given a runway.
He’s simply a tough cover one-on-one.
Transition and early drag screens for him are lethal, and the 5-out spacing of the Memphis offense gives him plenty of time to make reads and remove some physicality at the rim. Morant’s already elite at scoring with a runner or floater and can use his right hand even when driving left. That’s not due to him being poor with both hands; He’s an outstanding passer with his left.
According to Synergy, more than half of Morant’s offense comes from the pick-and-roll. Like any high-IQ player, he’s able to beat teams who throw one consistent defense at him, so any opponent that wants to truly limit Morant’s impact must change its coverages throughout the game.
There is one type of coverage that Morant struggles with most, however.
He can be contained and kept out of the lane by teams that go under the pick-and-roll, daring him to shoot. Ja will hide behind the screens and pull up. When he first comes to see the opponent giving him room, he feels compelled to take it, particularly late-clock:
Long-term, Morant is too good of a shooter not to fix this flaw and hurt teams that go under screens. Right now, however, it seems like the rookie wall and the physicality of doing this for a living is throwing his shooting off-the-bounce out of rhythm.
If there’s a big possession to win, I wouldn’t over-pressure and deny or trap to try and make someone else hit a big shot. I’d go under the screen and live with the results from Morant while maintaining inside position for a rebound.
Jaren Jackson Jr.
Versatility is the name of the game for Triple-J. A long and lean 6’11”, Jackson’s fluidity allows him to play the 4 or the 5 and destroy practically any opponent. He takes smaller guys into the post and forces switches with early screening actions.
Memphis will also play him at the 5 when Jonas Valanciunas sits, terrorizing stiffer bigs off the bounce.
The Grizzlies will run an early transition pitch for Jackson, which, with his skill, length and the slowpokes he’s guarded by, is incredibly lethal. Even though he’s right-handed, Jackson seems to prefer driving to the left off this type of pitch:
It’s a bit of a tell, though, because most of the Grizzlies offense with Morant is initiated on the right side of the floor.
So when Jackson dribbles up the left, his defender should start to drop to protect the paint and beat him to the left elbow. If he pulls it from 3 and hits, it’s better than him scoring as effectively as he did in the clips above.
Guys who are barely 21 and seven-feet tall shouldn’t be able to handle or move in the open floor the way JJJ does. They also shouldn’t be able to shoot on the move like him. Jackson’s great off screens or handoffs, and this ability really opens up the playbook.
While Morant is the engine that makes their offense go, Jackson is the Grizzlies’ most valuable defender. He blocks shots and guards multiple positions, and late-game switching with him at the big spot helps stifle the point of attack for their opponents.
Quietly, Dillon Brooks could be the third-best player on a playoff team.
Well, it’s quiet to the masses at least. Brooks has quickly earned a boisterous reputation among his peers for his pesky defense and frequent fouling. He is uber-aggressive on that end and is constantly in foul trouble. He leans in to create contact on offense, too.
He’s just a heat-seeking missile and seemingly never tires of that role.
Offensively, Brooks loves to create space for a two-foot step-back in the mid-range. He’s a skilled player who can handle, catch-and-shoot and make decisions on the move. He’s best off dribble handoffs at full speed.
When he’s going to his right, he’s going to drive. When he comes off a handoff to his left, he’s more comfortable pulling up with a jumper.
Watch for Brooks’ fake back screens for Morant (or other handlers) in semi-transition.
Morant and Brooks will set up like they’re doing a back screen, but it’s really just a designed action to get the defense sucked onto Morant while springing Brooks open for a 3-pointer:
Watch out for him when he takes the ball out in sideline inbound situations, too.
An isolation is coming for him off Philly sets and, with his brazen personality, Brooks has proven he’s not afraid to go at anybody. A little shot of irrational confidence never hurt anyone.
One of the most underrated players across the league, Valanciunas is a battering ram of a screener. He’s a sneaky good scorer and has improved his shooting greatly, to the point where he has to be somewhat respected when spacing their offense.
Everything about Jonas is sneaky, actually.
He’s not a high-volume scorer, but he impacts the game by dominating the boards. It’s not something that is noticeable while watching, but you’ll look up and he’ll almost always have a double-double.
Valanciunas is vulnerable through attacking in PNR with a guard that can shoot, however.
He’ll stand back and isn’t as mobile to get to the perimeter. That’s an area he must improve if he’s to stay on the floor at crunch time rather than seeing the Grizzlies go smaller with Jackson at the 5.
You’ll hear all the labels about Anderson: Slow-motion. A 1970s throwback. YMCA game. No matter, this cat is an integral part of the Grizz group, thanks to his strong on-ball defense, versatility on offense and shot-making ability.
That shot-making is, of course, dependent on him getting a shot off despite his insanely slow release:
— Mike Prada. I have spoken (@MikePradaSBN) March 3, 2020
Coach Jenkins will plug and play him in small-ball lineups. Anderson is strong enough to guard the 4, and when Jackson is the 5, Jenkins can keep him in the corners and blocks or have him run the offense as the trailer at the tops and elbows.
As Cleaning the Glass metrics denote, the Grizzlies are only giving up 96.9 points per 100 possessions when Anderson plays the 4—an ungodly low number. He needs to be on the floor late in games.
Brandon Clarke and Gorgui Dieng
Different plug-and-play bigs, Clarke shoots well but is more of a finisher and athlete while Dieng is purely a pick-and-popper or spacer to the corners.
Dieng is also purely a 5, whereas Clarke can survive as the 4.
Watch Memphis experimenting with their supersized lineups, however. Since acquiring Dieng in February, the Grizzlies have played 80 possessions that feature Dieng, Clarke and Jaren Jackson, who serves as the 3. Those lineups are an impressive +8.7 points over 100 possessions. A small sample, sure, but too unique of a combination to ignore.
De’Anthony Melton and Tyus Jones
Melton is more of a slasher, and Jones more of a facilitator in the pick-and-roll. Jones picks second units apart through ball screens and elevates the play of those around him.
Melton, on the other hand, is an athlete who can either provide a scoring punch next to Jones or provide one of the more athletic backcourt combinations when paired with Morant. Both are really solid basketball players, but there have not been a lot of minutes of Jones and Morant together yet.
The Grizzlies don’t have a ton of 3-point shooters, so both need to thrive, especially in close games. Jones is 42.1 percent from 3-point range in wins and 31.3 percent in losses. Likewise, Melton is below 30 percent from deep in defeats.
Move over, Grit and Grind. Make or miss, these Grizzlies like to run and play some of the most up-tempo ball in the league. A top-ten team in pace, the Grizzlies spread the floor and share the ball but don’t take a ton of 3-pointers.
Jenkins stole the main motion offense he runs from his time with Mike Budenholzer. Many of the counters and reads are similar to those in Milwaukee, but are point guard-centric here in Memphis.
Even though the Grizzlies don’t shoot a lot of treys, the constant threat of spacing the perimeter opens the lane for Morant to drive and kick, or for non-elite players to have more space to finish and score:
Two more actions will pop up frequently out of their play calls: One is a Horns 45 set, something nearly every team in the league runs. The Grizzlies put Morant and Jackson in a pick-and-pop action, with another screener ready to help those two get open.
Jackson’s versatility to shoot off the screen, drive to the rim from the catch or serve as the screener that leverages others open makes him a tough cover:
Lastly, let’s look at a really unique set with a ton of moving parts. It begins with the point guard, Morant, hitting a wing and setting a back screen (or rip screen) for the trailing Jackson.
That’s a decoy. Morant pops and receives the pass back.
While that happens, the Grizzlies get their other big to lift from the opposite corner. He’s going to set a high screen for Morant while Jackson runs to the corner off an exit screen.
The combination of the exit screen for a shooter and the pick-and-roll places the defense in a difficult situation, which usually ends in a dunk:
Nothing Jenkins does will reinvent the wheel, but he’s proficient at putting his guys in a position to succeed. With a high-IQ bunch that is relatively under-talented, that’s the recipe needed to maximize offensive output.
While the Grizz show their strength and impress on certain occasions, they’ve been battling injuries lately. Memphis lost its first five games out of the All-Star break, including two bad losses to Sacramento.
Then the Grizzlies went and beat the Lakers by seventeen at home, even without Jackson or Clarke.
That said, they only have three road wins over playoff teams this season. To finish keep their frontrunner spot for the 8-seed, they’ll need to snatch a few away on the road. They have eight roadies left against playoff opponents, and two more key games at Portland, New Orleans and San Antonio, who are also jockeying for the playoff berth.
The final month will also see only one Grizzlies game against a team without playoff aspirations (New York Knicks). Nothing gets easy with this schedule.
If the Grizzlies aren’t still a game or more ahead on April 1st, things may get dicey. They finish their last six home against Dallas, at Portland, at Denver, home vs. Oklahoma City and Philadelphia, then at Houston. All six teams are playoff teams or contenders likely fighting for their own positioning and seeding.
No team chasing the Grizzlies has such a difficult slate to finish the year.
Memphis is ahead right now, and they have earned that distinction with their stellar play. But there’s a reason they shouldn’t feel comfortable. Many capable teams are on their heels but, with a tough road ahead, they’ll certainly prove they are a playoff team if they can hold onto this slim lead.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of March 3, 2020.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.