If the season ended right now, the Memphis Grizzlies would be the two seed in the Western Conference with an 11-5 record. Who saw that coming? Memphis is back to its grit and grind ways after taking a year off to tank. They have won four in a row and have already won at Milwaukee and Utah twice. The Grizzlies have a modest +3 point differential, but like old times they are winning close games. So let’s investigate what’s behind this surprising start and can it hold up?
The concern going into the season was if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could carry the load at their age and coming off injuries. So far the answer is a resounding yes. These two are heating up and have such great chemistry together it looks like they could get buckets into their 40’s. Memphis is only 23rd in offense, but Conley and Gasol are doing enough to carry the load. Both are starting to shoot better as well, so there is a good chance their offensive efficiency goes up. Let’s start with Gasol because he has been incredible.
Gasol right now leads the league in RPM at +7.21. He has an offensive RPM of 2.49 and a defensive RPM of 4.72, so he is anchoring the Grizzlies on both ends. Gasol is averaging 16.8 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. He has helped the Grizzlies most as a floor spacer. Gasol ranks in the 65th percentile in spot ups and is taking 4.6 threes per game and making them at a 41% clip.
He provides much-needed spacing for a team that desperately needs it. Also, his elite passing, keeps the ball moving and his passing also helps overcome lack of spacing. His assist ratio ranks in the 92nd percentile for all big men. He is an expert at finding cutters, shooters and of course his running mate Conley, with a deadly two-person game.
Speaking of Conley, he is back and craftier than ever. Conley is 10th in RPM among all point guards, and while Gasol has anchored the Grizzlies defense, Conley has been more important to the Grizzlies offense. His offensive RPM is 2.79. Conley started the season slowly, shooting only 41% from the field and 34% from three, but he is heating up, the other night he drilled 11 threes. He also has made up for it, by getting to the free throw line at a career-best rate 5.7 times per game. Conley is also their go too option when things get tight.
More recently in crunch time, they don’t always use the two man game of Gasol and Conley. Instead, they are letting Conley isolate. He has delivered, ranking in the 81st percentile in isolations. Plus Conley keeps things humming by almost never turning the ball over.
The Grizzlies are back to being long, mean, physical and straight up suffocating. During the offensive revolution, the Grizzlies have held their ground, and they rank 3rd in the league in defense. They slow the game down, by playing at the slowest pace in the league and make you earn everything. Memphis has the best halfcourt defense in the league, and the key has been forcing turnovers at a league-best rate. They are forcing turnovers on 18% of opponents possessions, by far the highest mark in the league.
The main reason has been the trio of Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. These three are absurdly long, discipline and can switch across multiple positions. Temple and Anderson are third in defensive RPM at their positions, Gasol is first, and Jackson Jr has a positive DRPM as a rookie, no easy feat. Every player on their team beside Marshonn Brooks forces steals at least average rate.
Gasol gives them a legit rim protector, although they struggle to protect the rim when he rests. Perhaps Joakim Noah can help? That’s a scary sentence to type. The good news is Memphis is good at taking away threes, ranking ten the league and forcing teams into midrange jumpers. There are a few weaknesses, they still foul too much, they are an average rebounding team, besides Gasol and it remains to be seen if they can keep forcing turnovers at such an absurd rate.
Still, this is a legit top ten defense. JaMychael Green coming back should also help with depth. I think them forcing turnovers to come down, but as long as Gasol is healthy, and their long starters play high minutes, they will be tough to play against every night.
3. Clutch Time Performance, and Some Bench Help.
Before last season the Grizzlies were known to be a clutch team, and that has come back this season. Memphis is 3rd in clutch time net rating this season in eight close games, going 5-3. They are 3rd in clutch defense and fourth in a clutch offense. A couple of things help them in clutch time. Despite a below average offense, they have two players who can get their shots and have high basketball I.Q’s in Conley and Gasol. Second, they never turn it over. On defense, they can switch about everything, and their length helps them take away passing lanes, and contest all shots. Nothing easy. They may regress a little in this area, but their formula is sound.
Depth is still an issue, injuries to Green and Dillon Brooks have hurt as well, but they are getting enough. Especially from unexpected sources like Omri Casspi and Shelvin Mack. Both have been journeymen, who at times have been solid, but nothing more. This year they have never been better. Mack has shown he can play with or without Conley. He is nailing an absurd 49% of his threes, is also an elite midrange shooter, a good passer and rarely turns it over. Casspi also is a good passer, who rarely turns it over and has thrived in transition and as a spot up player. Both have been better defensively this year as well, and fit right into Memphis’s style by being able to force turnovers.
I have my doubts that Memphis can keep this up. They are a top ten defensive team, but I’m not sure if they are top five, teams will start to figure them out. Also, it remains to be seen if Gasol and Conley can stay healthy for the season. Still, there is a lot to like, and they deserve credit. They certainly can finish with a winning record and make the playoffs, but I would be shocked if they had homecourt in the first round. I am just happy to see Gasol and Conley back at it again for another run. What a joy to watch!