Entering the season, nearly every team in the Western Conference was predicted to have a legitimate chance of making the playoffs. Some even foresaw a scenario where Igor Kokoskov rallied his young Phoenix troops to surprise people in the same way they did under Jeff Hornacek a few seasons ago – but no such luck. The Western Conference has been as brutal as expected, with 13 of the 15 teams looking like they have a real shot at the playoffs, or are at least on the right way to breaking the top in the near future.
A team that has fallen far adrift from the playoff race, is the Memphis Grizzlies. To say that the Grizzlies were people’s choice to be a shoe-in for the playoffs would be a lie, but few saw the team losing nine out of ten despite having relatively good health. The team’s season is over, with owner Robert Pera confirming to reporters that he told Marc Gasol and Mike Conley personally that he was going to be trading them, or at least attempting to. With Memphis eight games back of the last playoff spot and without an injury excuse to fall back on, a blow-up is, unfortunately, the only answer.
While everyone is focusing on finding the correct trade for Mike Conley or Marc Gasol, some are diagnosing this Grizzlies team, and attempting to work out went wrong. The answer is complex, but it comes down to one thing: bland, outdated offensive principles.
The Grizzlies are not a fast team. Their highest paid players are north of 30, and their big free agency signing is literally nicknamed ‘Slo-mo’. Only the San Antonio Spurs run a higher percentage of their plays in half-court settings, which is essentially any play that is not a fast break. The difference between San Antonio and Memphis in that part of the game is striking, though, with the Spurs being fourth in efficiency compared to the Grizzlies at 23rd.
If a team is to run a lot of half-court action, their sets need to be creative and innovative, using a lot of ball screens to confuse the defense. You do not necessarily need to create all of your gravity and action to lead to a perimeter shot as the Spurs and Pacers have shown, but you need to move the defense around. The Grizzlies don’t do this at all, and they are easy to play against.
The Grizzlies are 29th in offensive efficiency, below the likes of Atlanta, Phoenix, and New York. They are dead last in pace by a whole possession and show little signs of improvement.
Schematically, JB Bickerstaff has prioritized ball movement, getting rid of the Grizzlies ‘pound-it’ style offense and replacing it with a read and react scheme. In an interview at the beginning of the season with Peter Edmiston of the Athletic, the coach said he wanted to add thrust to the scheme. No one really knew what this meant, but Bickerstaff talked about the speed of action as opposed to the speed of the shot going up. Essentially, he wanted his team to make quick cuts and actions in order to open things up and allow for ball movement. He seemed to want a very democratic and loose offensive system where the players think for themselves.
Unfortunately for Bickerstaff, his ideas haven’t really worked. His democratic vision has quickly turned into something resembling Lord of the Flies. The Grizzlies are first in the NBA in passes per game, but are 21st in assists. The ball zips around the perimeter but due to the loose style Bickerstaff has envisioned, the action off the ball isn’t consistent in the slightest. Kyle Anderson probably has the best understanding of the little things, but he is the only one consistently making cuts to open things up.
A read and react style of offense takes a highly motivated and intelligent group of offensive players to run it consistently. It also generally requires real perimeter action to create spaces for those back cuts to exist. The Grizzlies should not have poor spacing, they are one of the only teams in the NBA with a big line-up that can offer you perimeter shooting and not sacrifice defensive stability. But a bland offensive scheme without concrete action and guaranteed good shots has meant that this era has ended sooner than it really should have.
The play below is the type that the Grizzlies have become accustomed to in recent weeks. The Grizzlies led the game against a dismal Pelicans road team for the majority of the first half, but they scored just 18 points in the third quarter.
Things stagnated, and this possession was as bad as it got. One effortless guard screen to attempt to free up Gasol in the post was about the only notable action. Sure, there was some player movement, but movement for the sake of it achieves absolutely nothing. Action is what is important, and the Grizzlies simply gave a struggling Pelicans defense zero problems on this play.
Shelvin Mack has been unpopular in his time in Memphis. He has only really played to an acceptable level alongside Conley in a two-guard set, but Bickerstaff leans on him too heavily as the sole guard and throws him under the bus in this scheme. The Grizzlies keep running Mack with JaMychal Green and Gasol. The trio have a dismal net rating of -.19.0, and Bickerstaff keeps rolling with them despite them not being good. On this particular play, Mack was really the fall guy because there was simply not enough action to create space. Mike Conley can just about make plays in this system, very few backup point guards have a chance.
In a system without structure, the point guard often has to pick up the slack. The Oklahoma City Thunder use a similar offensive system, but they get away with it because they have Russell Westbrook and Paul George. Bickerstaff is insistent on utilising a loose style that the Grizzlies roster just doesn’t have the offensive talent to justify using.
Below is another example of bad offensive play in Memphis.
This time, Green collapses the defense well. Unfortunately, there is no player movement at all, and the action re-sets. Green can be a solid player, but he is not someone to be dumping off passes in the post. These are acceptable in moderation for players like Gasol and Jackson, but Memphis just lack imagination when their initial actions do not break down. Action is key, and there was just a real lack of it here. Sacramento found Memphis easy to defend.
Again, on the play below, we get a look into all that is wrong with the Grizzlies.
There are five passes on this play, and a dribble hand-off. None of them really created anything, and two of the players barely moved on the possession. Jevon Carter does excellently to nearly make something of this, but it is not a good team play. Relying on a rookie second-rounder to make something from nothing summarises what is going on with Memphis at this point in time. This is a basic four out one in play with very little screen action, which makes it easy to defend.
Bickerstaff has a lot to answer for. This team definitely had something left in the tank, but the bland offensive system he has crowbarred them in to has meant that the fun ride has ended a lot sooner than it needed to. A counter-argument is that Memphis never really ran a great offensive system back in the day, but the league has simply changed so much since then. The thrust he has looked for hasn’t been there consistently, and the result is ball movement without any real objective.
Things have gotten ugly in Memphis, and I fear that a great basketball city is going to have to put up with a miserable NBA team for a while. But it really shouldn’t have ended this way, things could have been better.
Featured photo – via Justin Ford / USA TODAY Sports / Joe Murphy/ NBAE / Nikki Boertman / The Commercial Appeal / Double Clutch illustration