Memphis Slow Rolls the Fast West

December 12th rolled around, and the Memphis Grizzlies were sitting in the midst of the Western Conference’s top teams. They had 15 wins and a stingy-as-ever defense.

It wasn’t until January 17 last season that the Grizz notched their 15th victory.

Healthy returns of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—perhaps the two most perennially underrated stars in the league—have kept Memphis towards the top of the West and confident about a playoff berth.

Stylistically, these Grizzlies are bucking all sorts of trends: They’re near bottom in 3-point attempts per game, dead-last in rebounding and have the NBA’s fewest steals.  First-year head coach J.B. Bickerstaff has his team playing at the league’s slowest pace, with 94.9 possessions per 48 minutes.

So how are they winning games in a league where 3s, pace, and rebounding battles are big indicators of success? Has Bickerstaff found value in being a contrarian, and how sustainable is the hot start in Memphis?

Defensive Grit

Defensively, these Grizzlies are long-armed and pesky.  Every starting player boasts a length advantage over their opponent most games.

The acquisitions of Kyle Anderson, Garrett Temple and Jaren Jackson Jr. have completely changed the way the Grizz defend. A savvy veteran that has been shutting down opposing shooting guards for over a decade, Temple remains one of the league’s most unsung positive-impact guys. Anderson, whose nickname is “Slo Mo,” brings a Spursian defensive culture and great basketball instincts to the table.

Clearly, the coaching staff has emphasized defending with active arms up.

Length without activity is meaningless. Memphis’ terrorizing wingspans only bother opponents if they are outstretched and waving around like pool noodles at a water park: deterring shots, passes, and even drives throughout entire possessions.

Possessions filled with activity like that are rarer than you would think (or hope) at the professional level.

The fruits of a 2017-18 poor season, rookie Jaren Jackson was a prized draft pick due to his unique combination of size, athleticism, length and perimeter skill. He’s been the perfect fit with such a long group of wings, already utilizing his wingspan like a veteran.

While his collegiate resume lacked the polish or pomp of other lottery hopefuls, his athletic upside and analytical darling nature caused many to hold him in high regard. He’s proving those folks right early in his career.

Jackson has a unique ability to block shots while serving as the primary defender on guards who look to drive past him. While he has a skinny frame, Jackson has proven adept at moving his feet, absorbing contact with his chest and then using his forklift-like arms to poke the ball away during a shot attempt:

While he can cede the first step to many fours, that length deters shots, allows him to recover quicker, and sneaks up on opponents who see these two magically long arms fly at them.

JJJ’s per 36-minute numbers are outrageous for a rookie: 18.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 1.4 steals and 2.6 blocks.

One of my favorite defensive metrics, which can measure overall activity and a nose for the basketball, is “slocks,” or steals and blocks. Per 36 minutes, he is snagging 4.0 slocks. Only five players have more: Anthony Davis, Hassan Whiteside, JaVale McGee, Myles Turner and Nerlens Noel. Jackson is the only one on the list who spends fewer than 40 percent of their minutes at the center position, according to basketball-reference.

While Jackson is a rare specimen and has some incredible long-term upside, the anchors of this mechanical Grizzlies defense remains Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.

Coming back fresh after an oft-injured campaign last year, Gasol looks smooth and spry. Teams that try to go small and attack the Grizzlies through spreading him out haven’t found consistent results:

As a whole, that’s a fantastic defensive possession above.

Would anyone expect Gasol to keep OG Anunoby in front and contest a shot from isolation? The Grizz do not swarm all the way to the ball when OG starts his drive, rather they use their length in the lane to bluff, or stunt, at the ball and stay with their assignment. Gasol forces a spin-back to the left and then swallows the ball into his vertical reach—textbook form from a textbook defender.

Gasol can be a quarter-step slower than his man precisely because lanky wings and savvy veterans are around him. As positionally sound and rotationally crisp as any team in the league, the Grizz give up a low amount of uncontested shots on the interior and rarely miss an assignment.

Scour their roster, and you’ll have a difficult time finding a negative defender in some fashion.

When Gasol takes himself out of a play on one of those rare poor perimeter closeouts, the rest of the Grizz are ready to fly around and keep the ball away from a scoring opportunity:

Bickerstaff’s team routinely makes plays like this. Length and versatility allow them to fly around without worry about a mismatch. Every angle is perfect, and every closeout executed with the urgency of a buzzer-beater situation.

Just because the Grizzlies want to play slow on offense does not mean they are always conservative on defense. Occasional traps are sprinkled in on ball screens, and Memphis turns opponents over nearly one-third of the time in those situations. The same goes for post-ups, where Bickerstaff is not content just sitting back and letting NBA-caliber players pick them apart from down low.

He dials up the heat and traps when isolators put the rock on the floor:

The unsung hero of a play like this: No. 0 JaMychal Green.

He flies out with fervor to prevent a reversal pass to Devin Harris, and that pins the action back on the side of the floor the trap occurred. Quick reversals kill aggressive defense because the ball moves faster than the defense can recover. A heady and urgent closeout from Green prevents such a reversal.

Offensive Grind

The Grizz are middle of the pack here. They are efficient from 3 despite low volume, play conservatively by avoiding turnovers, and they avoid the offensive glass in favor of preventing transition. No team has fewer offensive boards than Memphis—and only three surrender fewer transition opportunities.

Gasol and Conley anchor the attack, and everyone else has a specific role to fulfill.

For a team without much depth or offensive versatility, middle of the pack is all they need: Continue to be efficient and maximize each opportunity, put players in positions to succeed and grind the clock down.

Memphis has 486 possessions that enter the final four seconds of the shot clock through 26 games this year, according to Synergy Sports. Only two other teams have eclipsed 400 possessions, and the league-average team has under 300 end clock opportunities.

These Grizzlies will continue to slow you down and wait you out. They’re patient on offense and disciplined on defense. They’re long and active, but conservative. So long as their defense continues to fly around and force teams to earn their keep, Memphis will find a combination of slow pace and success.

We’ve seen teams have hot starts to a season before, only to flounder in January and December. The Grizzlies are in danger of falling into similar territory, having lost six of nine before Wednesday’s contest with the Portland Trail Blazers. Miami and Houston come to town before a tough road trip of four games in eight days. Those opponents: Golden State, Portland, Sacramento, and the L.A. Lakers.

Time to see what the Grizz are made of.

“By Christmas, we’ll know who we are,” said Conley on Tuesday. “How we do out of this stretch will be vital.”

This reincarnation of “grit and grind” Grizzlies should still be primed for a playoff spot. Led by two stars in their thirties, club speed fits the personnel and serves a deliberate purpose: Inflict Grizzlies play style on every opponent.

If Memphis does end up fading down the season stretch, they will only do so their way: slowly.

Unless otherwise noted, all stats are courtesy of basketball-reference, NBA.com stats, and Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 11, 2018.

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