No team captured the NBA’s attention last season quite like the Memphis Grizzlies. Before they were eliminated in the second round by the eventual champions, Memphis finished the regular season second in wins, fourth in offense, and sixth in defense despite having one of the youngest rosters in the league. Behind Ja Morant, a 22-year-old sensation who vaulted himself into MVP consideration with ineffable showmanship, the Grizzlies carried themselves as if in the middle of a dynasty. The confidence was unearned yet, somehow, endearing.
Coming out of their series against the Warriors—in which Morant missed three out of six games—there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Grizzlies’ future. But to take the next step and accentuate their franchise point guard’s uncanny athleticism, vision, and forethought in ways that can propel them to a title, they’d eventually need to establish a more reliable relationship with a serious shortcoming that held them back: the 3-point line.
Evolution is key. So is spacing. Surround Morant with knockdown shooters, widen his driving lanes, and unleash an offensive attack that coerces one impossible choice after another. That’s the idea, eventually. But so far this season, without Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ziaire Williams, Memphis has tried to rekindle the same identity that overwhelmed opponents on the offensive glass and in the open floor last year, while also posing a greater threat from downtown.
Generally, Memphis’s past few weeks have been understandably erratic. A once-rugged defense has become a wafer, allowing 117.9 points per 100 possessions (third-worst in the league). Some of this is due to not having JJJ, who finished fifth in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. Some of it is because they gave up 261 combined points in two straight games. The Grizzlies are allowing a league-worst 17.6 second-chance points per 100 possessions and the fourth-most 3s.
They also have two rookies in their rotation and a starting power forward who entered this season with 360 minutes of NBA experience under his belt. Right now, they’re undersized and inexperienced. But within their adversity, the Grizzlies have still spent a decent amount of time singeing the eyebrows off opposing defenders.
Memphis isn’t where it ultimately wants to be shooting the ball, but it’s finally starting to embrace the 3-point line, perhaps the most important big-picture analytical tweak any contender has made this season. It started in the season opener, when Memphis tied its franchise record by launching 50 3s in an overtime win against the Knicks. Two days later they put up another 42, tied for the 15th-highest output in franchise history.
This matters, even if it looks like only baby steps. Last season, the Grizzlies ranked 29th in 3-point frequency and 17th in accuracy. This year, they’re 20th in 3-point frequency and fifth in 3-point accuracy (and only New Orleans is better above the break).
Their no. 1 threat from deep is third-year marksman Desmond Bane, whose upside as a 3-point shooter borders historical greatness. He’s shooting 46.9 percent at a high volume (a whopping 9.1 tries per game) that includes 1.28 made stepback 3s, which is second only to Luka Doncic.
Creating efficient looks off the bounce is hyper valuable (is 19-for-36 good?), as is constantly racing around screens, setting picks, and sowing chaos that forces the opposition to track every move. But Bane’s individual uptick isn’t enough to singlehandedly explain Memphis’s hopeful trajectory from the perimeter.
Last year, De’Anthony Melton was a long-ball enthusiast, but Kyle Anderson was not. Both are gone. Their minutes have so far been replaced by John Konchar (who made 44.8 percent of his corner 3s last year) and Memphis’s two 2022 first-round picks: David Roddy and Jake LaRavia. All three have been blessed by the brightest green light when defenses sell out to take the paint away from Morant.
Morant is shooting a sizzling 51.9 percent behind the line, which is obviously unsustainable. But if he proves himself to be an above-average outside threat on and away from the ball, every half-court defense will be a speed bump for the Grizzlies.
Roddy has started slow, but made 43.8 percent of his 3s at Colorado State last year. LaRavia, meanwhile, is drilling a league-best 60 percent of them. Both may see their minutes cut when Jackson eventually returns. The 23-year-old big endured a slump from the outside last year, but still finished second on the team in total 3-point attempts. Until then, Jackson’s replacement, Santi Aldama, isn’t shy despite taking 36 non-corner 3s last season and only making [squints at laptop] two of them.
Here’s what “isn’t shy” looks like. After Josh Hart takes away Memphis’s first option in this sideline out of bounds action, Aldama looks at the rim and doesn’t think twice, even though there’s plenty of time on the shot clock and he isn’t wide open.
As Memphis’s two offensive engines, Bane and Morant dictate where and how they take shots. But early on/off splits credit third guard Tyus Jones with their steady venture out to the arc. When Jones is on the floor, 39.9 percent of Memphis’s shots are 3s. When he’s not, that number drops to a team-low 27.6 percent, which makes up the largest gap in the league.
Coming into this season, Jones took just 3.7 3s per 36 minutes. He’s blowing that mark out of the water this season, though, attempting 6.7. Go under a screen and he’s letting that ball fly.
No one is confusing the Grizzlies with Daryl Morey’s Houston Rockets, but their drift toward the arc is encouraging. Head coach Taylor Jenkins isn’t dumb. He knows it’ll be impossible to defend his team’s read-and-react system if the defense has to worry about Morant’s downhill drives and the 3-point line. Jenkins spent many years with the Hawks and a season in Milwaukee witnessing how effective a spread floor was for Giannis Antetokounmpo.
All great players function better in space. If Memphis continues to incorporate the 3-ball and hits them at a high rate, life will be easier for all its ball handlers and impossible for whoever is trying to stop them. If they do that while deploying lineups that won’t harm their collective defensive intensity, the Grizzlies could easily go even deeper than they did last season. Ja Morant plus a modernized shot profile is curtains for the competition.
All stats and records used through Wednesday’s game.