Across the NBA this season, only 22 five-man lineups have logged at least 100 minutes. None of them have had a harder time putting the ball in the basket than the one most frequently featured by the Memphis Grizzlies.
When Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Garrett Temple, Kyle Anderson, and rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. have shared the floor this season, Memphis has scored just 91.5 points per 100 possessions. As a point of reference on just how bad that is, the Atlanta Hawks, the team that ranks dead last in the NBA in offensive efficiency this season, are scoring 101.1 points per 100 possessions this season. Since 1996-97, the first season in which the NBA published per-possession data, the only teams to have scored at a lower rate than that Grizzlies lineup over the course of a full season were the 1998-99 Chicago Bulls—a.k.a. the ghastly first post–Jordan and Pippen team—and the 2002-03 Denver Nuggets, who won 17 games. This is not the company that head coach J.B. Bickerstaff and Memphis’s brass would like to keep; this is a nearly unfathomable statistic.
Here’s another: That Grizzlies lineup actually has a positive net rating.
An almost hilarious level of offensive ineptitude just hasn’t mattered, because a lineup full of length and defensive smarts has just suffocated dudes, resulting in a microscopic defensive rating of 88.7. That’s a college radio station frequency, not a defensive efficiency mark. And yet, there it is, sitting atop the charts just as surely as its offensive counterpart sits in the basement—a dichotomy perfectly in keeping with Memphis’s uniquely stylish and anachronistic start to the season.
The Grizzlies have bounced back after a dismal 2017-18 in which Conley missed 70 games with a nagging Achilles injury that required surgery, head coach David Fizdale was fired after 19 games following a high-profile clash with Gasol, and the franchise’s run of seven consecutive playoff appearances ended. They enter Friday’s meeting with the similarly surprising Sacramento Kings at 8-5, in the thick of the Western Conference playoff picture. But while the Kings have succeeded by hitting the gas, the Grizz are taking things slow and riding a back-to-the-future approach back to contention.
In the midst of an offensive revolution, Memphis is winning with a bottom-10 offense and a top-five defense. As the rest of the league pushes the tempo with reckless abandon, the Grizzlies stay 10 toes down in the mud, ranking last in the NBA in both pace—more than 10 fewer possessions per 48 minutes than first-place Atlanta, according to NBA.com/Stats—and average time elapsed per offensive possession, according to Inpredictable. The Grizzlies are taking and making more 3-pointers per game than they have in franchise history, but relative to the bombs-away league they live in, they’re still comparatively conservative: they’re 22nd in makes, 24th in attempts, and 19th in the percentage of their total offense generated from beyond the arc.
The Grizzlies are basically content to play like it’s 2013. Tony Allen and Zach Randolph aren’t around to kick Chris Paul in the face and choke-slam Blake Griffin, but for now, at least, zigging while the rest of the league zags seems to be working.
After the disastrous swing-and-miss of 2016’s four-year, $94 million contract for the injury-ravaged Chandler Parsons, Memphis hasn’t had the wherewithal to shop at the top of the annual free-agent market. This summer, though, the Grizz scored by targeting lower-wattage (and lower-cost) options, importing smart, high-floor, low-mistake grown-ups who seemed like they’d fit in well alongside Conley and Gasol.
Kyle Anderson has had a rough offensive start to his Grizzlies career, attempting just 5.7 field goals per game and hitting only 41.9 percent of the shots he does try. But the 6-foot-9 ex-Spur with the nearly 7-foot-3 wingspan helps on the glass, moves the ball, and has been a vital part of Memphis’s active and disruptive defense. The Grizzlies force turnovers on their opponents’ possessions at the league’s highest rate, and score more points off those miscues than any team but the Thunder. Just like in the good old days, defense—straightforward man-to-man defense, none of this newfangled switch-everything business—remains Memphis’s calling card, and its single most valuable weapon.
“We want to be able to strangle people with our defense,” Bickerstaff recently said, according to Peter Edmiston of The Athletic.
All it cost Memphis to get Temple was two players who were out of the team’s rotation, a 2021 second-round pick, and some cash. The 6-foot-6 swingman is off to the best start of his career, matching up defensively with each opponent’s top wing while averaging a career-high 12.2 points per game and knocking down 38.6 percent of his 3-point tries. (One big, and very welcome, break from Grizzlies tradition: This season’s team is converting deep shots at a solid clip, shooting 36 percent, tied for 11th in the NBA.)
Memphis added Shelvin Mack three weeks into free agency at a bargain rate, and he’s looked like the best backup Conley has ever had. (Not a high bar to clear, admittedly, but still.) He’s shooting a scorching 47.2 percent from deep, and sporting a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Omri Casspi has been solid in spot minutes when called upon, too … when he’s not on the shelf after injuring himself pulling a Shammgod, anyway. Slot them in alongside credible holdovers like athletic wing Wayne Selden and reclamation-project scorer MarShon Brooks, and all of a sudden the Grizzlies have a bench that can actually hold onto leads, and that figures to get even stronger once former starters Dillon Brooks and JaMychal Green return from early-season injuries.
There’s been a very cool additive bonus to adding multiple smart, active defenders who care about getting stops, and drafting Jackson Jr., a shot-blocking menace at Michigan State with remarkable physical tools: It really seems to have energized Gasol.
No stopping that force. 18 points for Big pic.twitter.com/pLc1KBL3Dy— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) November 8, 2018
A couple of down seasons led some to wonder how much Gasol had left in the tank at age 33. But the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year has returned to the ranks of the league’s best defensive captains. He’s organizing his teammates on the perimeter, barking out coverages, spotting and snuffing out dangers two passes before they become crises, and finishing defensive possessions with authority. In Year 11, he’s turning in the highest steal and defensive rebounding rates of his career.
Add a career-best 43.6 percent mark from 3-point land (for a year with more than a handful of attempts) for the evolving stretch-5 (which helps mitigate a career-worst 43.1 percent mark inside the arc) and Gasol’s customary elite playmaking from the center position, and you’ve got an impact player, even if his per-game scoring is down. Gasol’s one of only six players averaging at least 15 points, eight rebounds, and four assists per game this season, and he’s been the Grizzlies’ single biggest bellwether thus far. Memphis has produced the point differential of a 58-win team when he’s on the floor this season, and of just a 17-win team when he’s off of it, according to Cleaning the Glass.
But as good as Gasol is, and as vital as he can be, the Grizzlies are only the Grizzlies when he’s got his longtime pick-and-roll partner running point and fully operational. Things looked grim there for a second; 10 games into his return, Conley was shooting just 35.8 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from 3, and looked like he lacked the burst to turn the corner on offense and properly harass opponents on defense. This week, though, Conley started to look much more like the guy the Grizzlies gave what was at the time the biggest contract in NBA history:
Conley capped his best stretch of the season on Wednesday by scoring 11 of his 26 points in the fourth quarter, including a huge turnaround jumper and a pair of clutch free throws in the final 30 seconds to hold off the Bucks for the Grizzlies’ best victory of the season, a 116-113 road win over Milwaukee. The 31-year-old is getting his legs back under him, and with that steadiness comes rhythm, touch, and the confidence that he can get wherever he wants on the floor to rise and fire. That means good things for Memphis: Over his past three games, Conley has averaged 27.3 points and 4.3 assists on 50-37.5-81 shooting splits, with eight 3-point tries and seven free throw attempts per game.
Mike just hit a switch.— Memphis Grizzlies (@memgrizz) November 13, 2018
Flip. Flip. pic.twitter.com/UtlekfGhX2
Before last season, the Grizz had outscored their opposition when Conley and Gasol shared the floor for eight consecutive seasons; that trend has held true so far this season too. With the duo in form, Memphis can weather a lot. It is the grand truth of this era of Memphis basketball: when Conley and Gasol are healthy, the Grizzlies are a problem. It’s a long season; how long that good health lasts remains to be seen. So far, though, so pretty damn good.