In 2017-18, the Memphis Grizzlies were one of the NBA’s biggest disappointments. After seven straight playoff appearances, the Grizzlies crumbled en route to a 22-60 record, begging the question of whether the Grit-n-Grind era was officially over.
This year’s Grizzlies have brought it back with a bang.
While most teams are taking pace-and-space to its logical conclusion, the Grizzlies have embraced a throwback half-court style. They’re dead last in the NBA in pace, and they have one of the least potent offenses in the league. Rather than bury opponents under an avalanche of threes, Memphis has gone the opposite route, riding a smothering defense to a stunning 16-14 start to the 2018-19 season.
How have the Grizzlies revived themselves, blowing past underwhelming preseason expectations? It’s a combination of having a healthy Mike Conley, the addition of No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. and some savvy offseason pickups.
Conley has long been the head of the snake for Memphis, although he often flies under the radar in the star-studded Western Conference. The Grizzlies went 7-5 with Conley in their lineup last season, but when a heel injury sidelined him from mid-November onward, their season went into the toilet. Not even an unexpected Tyreke Evans revival could spare the Grizz from falling into disrepair, as the likes of Andrew Harrison, Kobi Simmons and Mario Chalmers had to fill in at the point.
Heading into this season, Conley knew his return would have a marked impact.
“From my perspective, man, I would say that this year is a rebound year for us,” Conley told CBSSports.com’s James Herbert. “We feel like we let one year slip away because of injuries and the circumstances of last season. This season is an opportunity to bounce back and get back into the conversation as a playoff team and competing again.”
With Conley back in the fold, the Grizzlies have been at least passable on offense, averaging 105.8 points per 100 possessions during his time on the floor. When he’s on the bench, they plunge to 96.5 points per 100 possessions, which would by far be the league’s most anemic attack.
Memphis doesn’t take many threes — it ranks 26th in attempts and 28th in makes — but Conley is the team’s highest-volume long-range shooter. His gravitational pull thus helps draw defenders away from his teammates and gives the Grizzlies some much-needed spacing.
While Conley has breathed some life into the Memphis offense, defensive improvement has been a team wide effort.
Six years after winning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol appears to be in the thick of that race once again. Once Conley went down last season, the soon-to-be 34-year-old quickly checked out, and the Grizzlies allowed a whopping 108.9 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. This year, they’re allowing only 102.4 per 100, which is one of the best marks for any Memphis rotation member.
Gasol has been getting some much-needed defensive help this year, most notably from No. 4 overall pick Jaren Jackson Jr. Defense was his selling point coming into the draft, and he’s lived up to his reputation thus far.
At the moment, Jackson is one of only six players in NBA history to average at least 1.5 blocks and 1.0 steals in less than 30 minutes per game as a rookie. It took head coach J.B. Bickerstaff all of two games before he inserted the 19-year-old into Memphis’ starting lineup, and Jackson has rewarded his coach’s faith with explosive athleticism and stifling rim protection.
Former Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale called Jackson a “future All-Star” in November, adding (via David Cobb of the Memphis Commercial Appeal): “He already plays both ends of the floor. He’s got an offensive package. He can play from different ranges. He blocks everything at the rim. He can switch on to people.”
With Gasol and Jackson manning the paint, the Grizzlies are averaging the fourth-most blocks per game (6.0) league wide. Opponents are shooting only 44.7 percent against Memphis, 1.5 percentage points below their typical average, which is the fifth-best mark in the NBA.
“We want to bring people to the mud and see how comfortable they are in that type of fight,” Bickerstaff told ESPN.com’s Tim MacMahon in late November. “There’s not a ton of practice time anymore, so the games are coming and everybody’s playing one way, and then all of a sudden you play us and it’s a completely different game. How do you handle that?”
While Conley, Gasol and Jackson are the headliners, the Grizzlies are also getting steady play from a handful of complementary contributors.
Garrett Temple, who Memphis acquired this past July for Ben McLemore, Deyonta Davis and a 2021 second-round pick, is the team’s fifth-leading scorer on a per-game basis and ranks third behind Conley and Gasol in made three-pointers. While no one will mistake Temple for the likes of JJ Redick or Kyle Korver, he’s the poor-man’s version of a three-point threat that the spacing-challenged Grizzlies desperately need.
Kyle Anderson, who signed a four-year, $37.2 million contract with Memphis this offseason, has been the team’s glue guy. While his per-game output is limited—7.0 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 29.o minutes—the aptly named “Slo Mo” is a perfect fit for the Grizzlies’ slow-it-down, grind-it-out style of play. With a 6’9″ frame and a nearly 7’3″ wingspan, he gives Memphis a rangy wing defender who’s third on the team in blocks (0.8) and is tied for fourth in steals (1.1) per game.
Shelvin Mack, the Orlando Magic’s assist leader from last season, has given the Grizzlies a steady presence at the point behind Conley. Memphis would go belly-up if Conley got hurt and Mack had to fill in as a long-term starter, but he’s an adequate backup who’s shooting a career-best 40.7 percent from three-point range. The upgrade from Harrison to Mack won’t draw many headlines, but it’s nevertheless been critical to the Grizzlies’ early-season surge.
While Memphis’ big-picture future remains uncertain—Gasol can become a free agent this summer by declining his $25.6 million player option for 2019-20—its short-term outlook remains brighter than anticipated heading into the year. So long as Conley, Gasol and Jackson stay upright and the supporting cast continues to provide a well-rounded boost, the Grizzlies could well remain in the Western Conference playoff race.