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The Grizzlies Look Ready to Compete—With Ja Morant or Not

Memphis has won nine of its last 10 without the explosive offense of its third-year superstar. And while he can be a liability on defense, there is a way to make it work.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

There’s a pretty useful rule of thumb to determine the legitimacy of an NBA contender: If you’re in or near the top 10 in points scored per possession and in points allowed per possession, you can reasonably harbor hopes of making the NBA Finals.

It’s not a perfect measuring stick; every so often, a flip-the-switch team like the Shaq-Kobe Lakers or the second-LeBron-era Cavs will crop up as the exception. But generally, teams that consistently crank it up on both ends of the floor tend to rack up a lot of regular-season wins, meaning higher playoff seeds and home-court advantage. And more-balanced rosters stand a better chance of withstanding spells of poor play than those tilted primarily toward either offense or defense. It’s no coincidence then that, of the seven teams most highly favored by Vegas touts to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy come season’s end, six—the Nets, Warriors, Bucks, Suns, Jazz, and Heat—rank in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. (The seventh, the scuffling Lakers, currently have a negative net rating, but they also have LeBron James and Anthony Davis, so: still among the favorites.)

Coming into the season, nobody expected the Grizzlies—a young team that built off its 2020 play-in appearance by making the postseason proper last spring and losing to the Jazz in five games—to be one of those two-way top-10 teams. And, as it stands, they’re not; they enter Friday’s play ranked fifth on offense and 17th on defense. But Memphis has been one of those teams over the past two and a half weeks, blitzing opponents by a monstrous 18.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions during a scintillating stretch that has featured nine wins in the past 10 games … while, interestingly enough, not featuring Ja Morant.

The franchise point guard exploded out of the gates this season, pulverizing opponents in the paint, drilling pull-up 3-pointers, and looking to be well on his way to his first All-Star selection. Despite the third-year guard’s heroics, though, the Grizzlies stumbled to a 9-10 start, largely thanks to a Swiss cheese defense that allowed a handful of ugly blowouts.

When Morant went down in late November with a left knee injury (that thankfully wasn’t as bad as it looked), it seemed like Memphis was about to be in deep, deep trouble. Instead, as they did last season, the Grizzlies reconfigured on the fly, leaning on their considerable depth to stay afloat without Morant. They’ve done a hell of a lot more than just tread water, though, moving into sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference and cementing themselves as a team to be reckoned with.

Head coach Taylor Jenkins knew he could rely on Tyus Jones, one of the league’s best backup point guards, to maintain a characteristically steady hand in an increased role—he’s averaging 6.4 assists in 30.4 minutes per game, with more steals (1.5) than turnovers (1.3)—but he also knew no one player would be able to replace Morant’s 24.1 points per game. So he democratized the attack, entrusting other members of Memphis’s rotation with a few extra touches and a bit more responsibility. So far, so good: Seven Grizzlies are averaging more than nine points per game during the 10-game run, led by Jaren Jackson Jr. (shaking off his slow start to the tune of 19.8 points on .597 true shooting), Dillon Brooks (18.4 points and a team-high 9.2 drives to the basket per game), and blossoming sophomore Desmond Bane (17.7 points, a blistering 47 percent from 3-point range on more than eight attempts per 36 minutes).

But while the stepped-up contributions from starters and reserves alike (welcome back to the rotation, Kyle Anderson and John Konchar!) have helped Memphis maintain a top-six offense, the real leap has come on the defensive end. A team that was dead last in points allowed per possession through 19 games has transmogrified into the league’s no. 1 defense—an even more swarming edition of the turnover-creating engine it was last season:

Claws and Fangs in Defense

Season Segment Steals per Game Blocks per Game Deflections per Game Opponent Turnover Rate Defensive Rating
Season Segment Steals per Game Blocks per Game Deflections per Game Opponent Turnover Rate Defensive Rating
First 19 Games 9.5 5.8 16.1 14.4% 117.4
Last 10 Games 11.8 6.3 19.3 17.5% 97.5
Steal, block, deflection, and turnover rate stats via NBA.com. Defensive ratings via Cleaning the Glass.

The Grizzlies have benefited from some long-distance luck in their recent rise to the top of the defensive rankings. Opponents have shot just 31.9 percent from deep against them over the last 10 games, compared to a league-high 42 percent before Morant went out. Their overall numbers also benefit from the inflation of their historic 73-point annihilation of the Thunder. Those caveats aside, though, the Grizz have been equal-opportunity offense-smotherers of late, holding six of their other nine opponents below one point per possession in this span.

Their collective length and activity, from bigs like Jackson and Steven Adams to point-of-attack defenders like Jones, Brooks, and De’Anthony Melton, applies immense pressure on virtually every possession—on the ball, to cutters trying to find daylight in the half court, on handoffs and kickouts, on weak-side rotations and balanced closeouts to the perimeter, everywhere. And all that pressure has been breaking opponents down:

Over their last 10 games, the Grizzlies rank first in the NBA in points per game off of turnovers and on the fast break, and they’re tied for eighth in points per possession added through transition play; generating easy buckets on the break is a pretty good way to make up for the loss of your best playmaker. So, too, is hammering the offensive glass: Memphis has rebounded 34.1 percent of its misses and scored 18.9 second-chance points per game since Morant’s injury, both tops in the league, with the bruising Adams grabbing 4.6 offensive boards per night all by himself. Boxing out a 6-foot-11, 265-pound mountain, it turns out, is really, really hard—even when you’ve got four dudes surrounding him.

Adams has made his presence felt on the defensive glass, too, with his boxouts and active hands helping Memphis rise from 20th in defensive rebounding rate through the first 19 games all the way up to fifth during this stretch. That, in turn, has contributed to a drop in second-chance points allowed per game (from 12.7 to 10.4) and a dramatic decrease in points conceded in the paint (from 48.3 to 37.8). With Adams and Jackson on the floor, using their nearly 15 feet of combined wingspan to turn the lane into a no-fly zone, opponents have shot just 40 percent from the field and scored a microscopic 92.4 points-per-100 over the past 10 games, light years ahead of the Warriors’ league-leading full-season mark.

One smaller-sample note to keep an eye on: The Grizzlies’ defense has remained excellent even when Jackson has played without Adams over these 10 games, giving up just 96.7 points-per-100. It hasn’t gone perfectly—opponents have grabbed offensive rebounds more frequently and scored more in the lane—but it hasn’t been a jailbreak. Memphis has outscored opponents by 35 points in 86 Jackson/no-Adams minutes over the last 10 games, and by 12 in 49 minutes when Jackson plays without either Adams or backup center Xavier Tillman Sr. Given Memphis’s $105 million investment in Jackson as the eventual stretch-5 complement to Morant who can spread the floor and protect the rim for him, any indication that he can credibly handle a larger workload in the middle is very encouraging for the Grizzlies’ brain trust.

What would be most encouraging, of course, would be Memphis continuing this rampage after Morant comes back … which, if my high school Spanish isn’t too rusty, might be in a couple of days. Keeping the good vibes rolling, of course, requires answering a big question: Can the Grizzlies still be the team that puts opposing offenses to sleep with Ja logging heavy minutes?

It’s no secret that Morant has his failings as an individual defender—chiefly the slight build that makes it a struggle for him to control stronger ball handlers at the point of attack, and occasional flights of fancy off the ball, like gambling for deflections or steals, that can compromise Memphis’s help defense. It makes sense to look at the stats, see that the Grizzlies’ defense took off after the removal of a player who has been graded in multiple metrics as one of the NBA’s worst defensive guards over his three pro seasons, and conclude that his return could send Memphis sliding back down toward the bottom of defensive rankings.

It’s not impossible to build a strong defense around Morant, though; we know this because the Grizzlies finished seventh in defensive efficiency last season with him leading the team in minutes. It’s worth remembering, too, that Memphis’s brutal defensive start to the season came with Brooks—the team’s no. 1 stopper against top wing scorers and an elite on-ball defender who last season finished third in the entire NBA in average defensive matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index—on the shelf with a broken left hand.

With Brooks and Bane available, Memphis has a pair of big, strong, quick, versatile perimeter defenders capable of taking the two toughest assignments on an opposing offense. That allows Morant to deal with the least menacing option in a lot of instances, often with a pair of shot blockers (two of Jackson, Adams, Tillman, or Brandon Clarke) lurking behind him. That sort of setup can be awfully effective: Last season, Memphis defended at a top-five level in nearly 900 possessions with Brooks and Bane riding alongside Ja, and they’ve produced similarly strong results in limited action this season.

If the defense really can jell around Ja, Memphis could be an awfully dangerous team, even for the powers atop the Western Conference—especially if the other promising things we’ve seen this season hold firm, like Ja taking the early-season offensive leap, Jackson rediscovering his off-the-bounce scoring rhythm and showing growth as a defensive centerpiece, Bane becoming a more advanced playmaker as well as a high-volume sharpshooter, Brooks establishing himself as a real two-way menace, and Adams and Anderson playing productive roles as valuable veterans.

“Don’t forget about that kid that’s waiting and cringing to play with us, big 12,” Brooks told reporters after Wednesday’s win over the Trail Blazers. “We are going to keep holding down the fort, and once [Morant] gets back, it’s going to be scary. It’s going to be really scary.”

Heading into the season, many observers pegged the Grizzlies to spend the season on the fringes of the play-in conversation. Now, though, with 18 wins already banked and one of the league’s friendlier remaining schedules to play, the projection models at FiveThirtyEight, Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, Inpredictable, and PlayoffStatus now all see them as not only a near lock to snag a spot in the top six but a strong bet to land the West’s no. 4 seed. A lot can happen between now and then; these bright young Grizzlies have a long way to go to sew up home-court advantage in Round 1. They’ve already come pretty damn far, though, and pretty damn fast. If they can marry the best versions of what we’ve seen with and without Ja, they may well be one of those two-way top-10-caliber teams by the time the playoffs roll around—and one hell of a tough out, too.