Swimming against the current is difficult in the NBA. Just about every team is spreading the floor with shooters and running pick-and-rolls. Up until this season, the Grizzlies were one of the last holdouts, a throwback team built around two traditional big men who controlled the tempo, pounded the ball inside, and wore teams out on the offensive glass. That changed with the May hiring of David Fizdale, who had spent the past eight seasons as an assistant in Miami running a pace-and-space system diametrically opposed to Grit ’n’ Grind.
It’s a little jarring to watch the Grizzlies play like everyone else this season after the team spent so many years creating an identity around a retro style. As the league becomes more homogenized, it’s sad anytime a team makes a move that diminishes variety, even when the move seems logical. Through the first 18 games of the season, four major changes stand out:
1. Moving Zach Randolph to the Bench
Everything the Grizzlies did over the last six seasons started with the frontcourt duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. They are two of the best post scorers in the league, and both have the ability to knock down jumpers and facilitate out of the high post, allowing them to play a devastating high-low game. One of them had a mismatch on almost any given night, and they both knew how to play off the other in order to exploit it.
The problem with playing two back-to-the-basket scorers together is that it makes running pick-and-rolls difficult, since there’s little room in the paint to drive the ball or dive to the rim. And having two relatively immobile defenders on the floor made it hard to extend the defense out to the 3-point line. Over the last few seasons, teams have been moving players with Randolph’s skill set to the bench, whether it’s Al Jefferson, Greg Monroe, Enes Kanter, or Jahlil Okafor. Because they are playing with less talented players, there’s less of an opportunity cost for them to dominate the ball, while the opposing team’s reserves are less capable of exploiting their defensive issues. The Grizzlies experimented with the move last season, but it didn’t stick, especially once a massive wave of injuries had them scrambling to fill out a lineup.
Moving Randolph to the bench has meant that he and Gasol almost never play together anymore. Take a look at the difference in how their minutes are now distributed. The numbers are a little deceptive because Randolph has missed the last three games following the death of his mother, but he missed five games last season that Gasol played in, and none of it changes the underlying pattern.
Randolph’s per-game numbers have gone down this season, as has his court time, but he’s more productive, which you can see in his per-36-minute numbers.
2. Marc Gasol Is Shooting 3s
When Fizdale arrived in Memphis, he came with a vision of turning Gasol into Chris Bosh by encouraging the Spaniard to stretch his offensive game to the perimeter. Bosh went through a similar transition, and it was gradual, first dipping his toes in the 3-point water before diving into the deep end. Gasol cannonballed in, bombing away from deep beginning at the start of the season. He has taken almost as many 3s this season (56) as he has in the rest of his career (66). Fizdale made his mark in Miami as a player development coach, and his ability to get even established players to buy in and change their games is probably the most encouraging aspect of his first month in Memphis.
Gasol, at 31, is playing as well as he ever has. He can still bully defenders in the paint and face them up at the elbow, but now opposing big men also have to guard him 25-plus feet from the basket. He is shooting 41.1 percent from 3, so he can’t really be left open. This creates opportunities to take defenders off the dribble, as well as more room for him to hit cutters when operating from the top of the key.
The Grizzlies have gone from starting three guys who didn’t shoot 3s (Gasol, Randolph, and Tony Allen) to starting only one (Allen). The underlying appeal of the 3-point shot isn’t the extra point, it’s all the extra spacing it provides for the half-court offense. The Grizzlies are taking around seven more 3s per game than they did last season, but what’s even more important is the number of different spots on the floor from which Memphis is getting them.
3. Playing Younger Players
The team’s influx of younger players is probably less a reflection of Fizdale’s philosophy than it is a reflection of the roster restraints that come after shelling out $361 million in deals to Gasol, Mike Conley, and Chandler Parsons over the last two offseasons. For most of the Grit ’n’ Grind era, the Grizzlies stocked up on veterans who understood the team’s schemes and knew how to operate within the tight confines of its offense. Memphis still has Gasol, Conley, Allen, and Randolph, as well as the apparently ageless Vince Carter, but there’s a bona fide youth movement happening around them.
The most important piece is JaMychal Green, who took Randolph’s place in the starting lineup. Green doesn’t take a lot of 3s, but he has good range on his jumper and is much more capable of guarding out on the perimeter. He came into the NBA as a more traditional back-to-the-basket scorer, but he’s tirelessly reinvented himself to fit the new model of what a starting PF looks like in 2016. It’s the same story for James Ennis, a second-round pick by the Hawks in 2013, who has turned himself into a 3-and-D small forward in Memphis. Neither one is asked to do much on offense, but they both adjusted relatively seamlessly to their new roles in Fizdale’s scheme.
The downside of relying on younger players can be seen in the play of guard Andrew Harrison, who has shown flashes of being a capable NBA player this season but is shooting only 28.4 percent from the field. While Harrison’s size as a 6-foot-6 point guard gives Fizdale a lot of options when it comes to setting his lineups, his inability to shoot consistently makes it hard to know what the Grizzlies will get from him from night to night. First- and second-year players Deyonta Davis, Jarell Martin, and Troy Williams have all gotten minutes as well, but they are still figuring out who they are. There are just a lot more moving parts in Memphis than in previous years, with last season being the notable exception, when the Grizzlies wound up using 28 different guys at one point or another because of an almost unprecedented number of injuries.
4. Emphasizing Mike Conley
The biggest beneficiary of the Grizzlies’ new philosophy is Mike Conley. While Gasol has added something to his game, and Randolph has seen his role change dramatically, Conley is pretty much the same player. It’s just that the environment around him has changed, as he is operating in more space than he ever has. He is averaging a career-high 19.5 points per game, although some of that improvement comes from shooting an almost certainly unsustainable 47.6 percent from 3 on a career-high number of attempts. Comparing him to the other elite point guards in the West has always been difficult because of all the offensive constraints of the systems he ran under coaches Dave Joerger and Lionel Hollins. Now Conley is operating at a relatively equal footing to Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, and other uptempo guards. The most encouraging sign for the Grizzlies so far is they have a net rating of plus-9.4 when Conley and Gasol are on the floor together.
However, for all the changes they have made under Fizdale, the Grizzlies offense as a whole isn’t all that much better. They have an offensive rating of 99.9, the fifth worst in the league, and they are winning games primarily with their defense. They have a defensive rating of 100, which is fourth best. The whole point of creating more space on the floor is to unleash the one-on-one abilities of your best two players, and neither Gasol nor Conley is a naturally ball-dominant scorer. They are both at their best when they can feel out the defense and make the best available play, whether it’s pass, shoot, or drive. Memphis still doesn’t have a consistent scoring option on the wings other than Carter, who probably can’t sustain his current level of play at the age of 39.
That brings us to Parsons, whom the Grizzlies signed to a max contract in the offseason and who has played only six games this season coming off knee surgery. He’s already back on the shelf following a bone bruise, and the team has said it may be months before he’s fully healed and playing without minutes restrictions. He gives them an element they have never had before in Memphis — a wing player who can shoot from 3, drive the ball, and create plays for others — and his skill set would allow him to complement Gasol and Conley without taking the ball out of their hands too much. The concern is that he has now missed chunks of the last three seasons with knee injuries, giving them another injury-prone core player.
Until Parsons gets back and proves he can be anywhere close to 100 percent, the Grizzlies are still relying on the same group of players they have over the last six years. They have an 11–7 record this season, and they are in fifth place in the Western Conference, but that’s a little deceptive given their point differential of minus-0.4, which is only the seventh highest out West. Their huge jump in the number of 3-point attempts has taken them from 25th in the league in 3PA to 15th. Fizdale has them running the Red Queen’s Race: They have made all these changes just to stay in place. There’s not a huge benefit to changing styles when everyone else is already doing it.