Their style of play is not pretty, it’s not up-tempo, it’s not overwhelming- it’s simply Grizzlies basketball. The Grizz break down opponents slowly but surely and they do it. pretty damn well.
What is Grizzlies basketball? It’s all about the “grit and grind.” This team thrives off of being bigger, stronger, more intimidating, and more passionate then its opponents. Grantland’s Jalen Rose talked about how the Grizzlies lead the league in “Dark Alley Guys”- players who you wouldn’t want to be caught alone with in a fight. Many teams in the league think that in order to win games, you must score more than the other team- that it’s all about scoring. But for Memphis, they believe teams win games by making the other team score less than themselves-it’s all about getting stops.
For Memphis it’s not about the 110-105 win where the whole starting lineup was in double figures. Instead, they love the 93-82 wins where the game was tough as nails and both teams fought for every basket.
The Memphis Grizzlies pride themselves on their defensive efforts. It’s no coincidence that 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, anchored the best defense in the NBA this season. It’s no surprise starting shooting guard Tony Allen (often dubbed The Grindfather) has been on back-to-back All-NBA First Defense teams. It’s no fluke that the Grizzlies were the only team in the NBA this season to limit their opponents to fewer than 90 points per game scoring. It’s not odd that starting point guard Mike Conley was third in the NBA this season in steals per game. It’s no shocker that starting power forward Zach Randolph was fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game.
What I’m alluding to is that it is no coincidence that this same team shut down the NBA’s best offense and bounced them from the playoffs. Sure, Russell Westbrook’s injury hindered OKC’s playoff run, but even with their explosive point guard who knows if the Thunder would have advanced past Memphis?
When Memphis shipped All-Star Rudy Gay over the border to Toronto this past January, many thought that the Grizzlies were ruining their shot at a title run. How would the Grizzlies make up the 17 points per game Gay averaged in 2012-2013? How would the Grizzlies work around the intangibles that don’t show up on the boxscore such as who would take the last second shot, who would the team go to in crunch time, who could they rely on to get them out of a scoring funk?
Sports Illustrated ran an article that said, “Gone goes Gay, gone goes Speights and Ellington, gone goes Memphis' chance to win a championship.” CBS ran a similar article that said, “Are the Grizzlies better on the court as a result of all this? No, they would've had a better shot if they'd stopped after the Cleveland trade and kept plodding along.
Well what if I told you that the Grizzlies were 27-11 in the regular season after trading Gay and are 8-3 this postseason? What if I told you that they have the third best record in the NBA since the trade, and would be second if it weren’t for Miami’s epic 27-game win streak. While this may come as a surprise to many readers and NBA fans, it’s certainly no surprise to the Grizz.
The Rudy Gay trade didn’t just happen to work out for the Grizzlies. It was far from luck. To be quite honest, it’s not even the smallest bit of a surprise to the Grizzlies; it’s what VP of basketball operations John Hollinger expected.
Hollinger, the former ESPN basketball insider famous for creating the PER metric, was hired by the Grizzlies this season under the new management. The move was an interesting one since head coach Lionel Hollins is known for not being very sabre-friendly. Hollins even questioned the trade and stood by his former star player Rudy Gay. Lo and behold, Hollins continued to do his part and the team went on a 14-1 run over 15 games throughout February and March.
So to answer the questions early, how are the Grizzlies making up for Rudy Gay’s absence?
33-year old Tayshaun Prince has been fantastic for the Grizzlies and has done his part in replicating Gay. According to 82games.com the Grizzlies two most used lineups, Mike Conley- Tony Allen-Rudy Gay-Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol and that same lineup with Prince instead of Gay have produced nearly identical numbers.
According to their database, 82games.com shows that per 100 possessions, the lineup featuring Gay averaged 106 points while allowing only 95 points. The lineup featuring Prince averaged 105 points per 100 possessions and allowed just 93 points by the defense. In roughly 637 minutes together, Gay’s unit outscored opponents by 114 points, yet in about 552 minutes of play, Prince’s group has outscored opponents by 118 points! And what happens when Prince and Ed Davis, who was also dealt in the trade, are on the floor at the same time? In the time that Prince and Davis have been on the floor (alongside Conley, Allen, and Gasol), the lineup has averaged 111 points per 100 possessions while allowing a staggering 86 points on defense. They’ve outscored opponents by 35 points in 76 minutes.
Those numbers are incredible when you take into account the financial benefits of the deal too. Prince may be past his peak, but his veteran leadership goes along with the grit and grind of the team and Ed Davis is an efficient backup for Gasol and Zbo.
It really goes to show just how much of an impact Hollinger and his analytics can have in replicating scoring at a discounted and price.
It’s been nearly 1000 words and Mike Conley & Marc Gasol’s stellar play has yet to even been recognized.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe wrote a fantastic piece on Conley’s growth this season. Lowe notes that Conley, in addition to Marc Gasol, has really stepped up since Gay was dealt to Toronto. He’s been able to showcase his skills a little more and his usage rate has increased since the January blockbuster. Lowe notes that another strength of Conley is that his shot selection is more in-sync with Memphis’ offensive gameplan as opposed to Gay. Conley’s points come mostly on the pick-and-roll so he’s either dishing to Gasol and Randolph or taking it to the rack himself.
On the defensive end, Conley has done more than just holding his own. He’s a kleptomaniac and used his high basketball IQ to steal more passes this season than every player in the league aside from Chris Paul and Ricky Rubio.
To go along with being the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol has also made tremendous strides on offense this year. While his numbers don’t look special (14.1 ppg and 7.8 rpg), he is the key to Memphis’ offense. When Mike Conley isn’t running the PNR, the Grizz often go to Gasol on the elbow and run the offense through the big Spaniard. At the elbow, Gasol can either knock down a 15-footer or dish out a pass to shooters in the corners or a backdoor pass to Randolph down low.
Gasol led all big men in the league this season with four assists per game. To put that into perspective, he averaged more assists per game than Heat starting point guard Mario Chalmers, averaged the same number as Pistons starting point guard Brandon Knight and Kings starting point guard Isaiah Thomas, and averaged just one assist per game fewer than Mavericks starting point guard Darren Collison. Something must be in these Spaniards’ water growing up because Rubio and Gasol make some of the most beautiful passes in the league.
The big man is also a shockingly fantastic free-throw shooter. Only Dirk shoots a better percentage than Gasol among seven footers. At 84.8%, Gasol leads all centers in FT% and is 19th in the entire league. And if you only count players with more than 300 free-throw attempts this season, which is a little less than four per game, only Kevin Durant, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and James Harden shot better.
Gasol’s usage rate isn’t extraordinarily high (18.8) which mean’s that when he does use up team possessions, he is extremely efficient. Gasol led the Grizzlies in PER and was third among big men that averaged more than 35 minutes per game.
Where Gasol really makes his mark though is on the defensive end. He was fourth in the league in blocks per game and always matched up with the opponent’s best low-post player. Using 82games.com’s 5-man units statistic, all of the Grizzlies’ top five rotations involving Marc have a positive +/-.
When looking at Gasol’s game as a whole, it’s a microcosm of the Grizzlies organization: it appears pretty average and nothing stands out, but the intangibles and immeasurable details are what make them so good. It’s not flashy and it’s not necessarily exciting, but Gasol’s play is basketball porn for any analyst with a love for fundamentals and a Stephen Hawking-level basketball IQ.
Regardless of who Memphis faces in the Western Conference Finals, it’s needless to say they won’t be intimidated. This close-knit group fears nothing and looks forward to continuing the grind to the finals. And if they do advance to their first NBA Finals in franchise history, look for them to give the Miami Heat trouble, assuming the defending champs advance to their third consecutive NBA Finals. They’ve shut down two superstars in Chris Paul and Kevin Durant; what makes you think Tony Allen and his grit and grind squad will back down to LeBron James?