Last year was ugly for the Grizzlies as they recorded their joint-worst winning percentage since the franchise moved to Memphis. But this season we have finally been able to see what Head Coach JB Bickerstaff has done with a training camp, and how he has started the season.
But even if he has worked wonders to get the team back on track, the way he has got Memphis back to winning ways has been simple enough: get the ball back to Marc Gasol and Mike Conley.
Conley has been a pleasant surprise this season after a tough injury last year. Achilles injuries can be serious: in small, nifty guards, they contribute to the loss of speed and a reduced first step. But the Grizzlies’ point guard never had a game built on out-running players, in the same way that Tony Parker or John Wall used to, but he can use either hand to drive, dribble or finish, and can see the floor open up and make the right move every time. He always used his quick first step to an advantage, but his brain has always been his best weapon.
His shooting percentages so far this are slightly down compared to rest of his career, but after a taking step back last year prior to the season-ending injury, the results are pretty solid. And in terms of basic boxscores, he is close to career highs in points, assists and rebounds per game.
Gasol posted solid numbers last season – 17, 8 and 4 – over 73 games, but it could be argued that he didn’t help the team. According to BasketballReference, he posted the second lowest win shares of his career and one of the worst plus-minus scores. Ultimately, he wasn’t making anyone better.
This year, however, at 33 years old he might be having his best season yet. He is also averaging his second highest points per game, with 18, a career-high 9 rebounds and joint third highest assist averages. While his overall field goal percentage has dipped slightly, his efficiency from two, three and his effective field goal percentages have gone up compared to his career average.
Conley entered the league in 2007 and Gasol joined him one year later. Since then, the two have grown together and are on pace to become one of those rare duos that spend their whole career playing together with one franchise. It happened to Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. It should have happened to John Stockton and Karl Malone. And it could happen for the Memphis Grizzlies pair.
There have been moments where ownership, management and coaches haven’t always seen eye-to-eye with these guys, and the transition out of the grit’n’grind era was slippy’n’slidey. But the Grizzlies believed that Gasol and Conley were the way forward for the franchise after removing heart and soul players, like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.
With various injuries at different points during their careers, Conley and Gasol have often been asked to keep the team ticking over by themselves. And while they are talented enough to be all-stars individually, it is clear these two need each other to succeed: think Shrek and Donkey, think Jim and Pam, think Robson and Jerome. These iconic duos all have personalities, storylines and careers of their own, but they’re perfect together – just like Gasol and Conley.
But these guys haven’t been able to win this year by themselves. When Allen and Randolph left, the franchise lost two players that had high basketball IQ and didn’t care for the approval of others outside the franchise. This season, however, players like Kyle Anderson and rookie Jaren Jackson Jr have filled those roles.
Anderson signed with Memphis this past off-season for roughly $8m per year. He is not a quick player but he is wily, and having grown up in the San Antonio Spurs system under Head Coach Gregg Popovich (a specialist in player development) he rarely make mistakes.
He is a great passer for this system: he can see over the top of defenses in unusual spots on the floor, and simply knows where to be at all times during the offense. On several occasions throughout the course of a game, Anderson won’t clear out entirely on a Gasol-Conley pick-and-roll. He’ll hang around near the dunker’s spot, teasingly close enough to the action that his defender is encouraged to leave him and help on the Conley drive or Gasol roll or post-up. So many of his points come from easy, open drop-offs from star players, which makes their jobs easier.
The real surprise is Jaren Jackson Jr. picked fourth overall, this dude is sneakily helping Gasol get defensive player of the year consideration. Between the rookie and the veteran, they are crushing opponents and have a defensive rating of 93.4 per game to lead the NBA. But if you look at the second, third and fourth two-man defensive line-ups, they all have one constant – spoiler alert: it ain’t Gasol.
Jackson was previously considered “a glue guy” by the Ringer, he was not considered among the “upper echelons” of players going into the draft by our own Joe Hulbert, but he has proved to be an essential cog to Bickerstaff’s defensive system. He isn’t the best rebounder going, he wasn’t in college either, but he does have more offensive skills than anyone realised and is confident – even if he’s not yet elite – from behind the arc.
The crazy thing is, outside of those four players, and a good coach who connects with his players, there isn’t a lot else going for the Grizzlies. Somehow, the team is two games out of the top of the Western Conference with a largely nameless cast of characters supporting the two stars. Garrett Temple is probably getting more plaudits for his play than he deserves, Dillon Brookes has shown signs of potential, JaMychal Green continues to do JaMychal Green things on the boards when he gets minutes, and you have the likes of Omri Caspi, Shelvin Mack and Wayne Selden playing vital roles, but giving you only what you’d expect from those players. Sadly, the team is also getting exactly what we have come to expect from Chandler Parsons as well.
Ahead of the season, there were calls to restart. Move on from Conley and Gasol, tank and rebuild around Jackson and another elite draft pick next year. But this team has found something that works and if the two main guys could stay healthy this season, they could grit’n’grind their way towards a top four seed in the playoffs, just like old times.
Featured photo – via Joe Murphy / NBAE / Getty Images / Double Clutch illustration