Breaking down the Memphis Grizzlies part-2: Offense
The first part of the article was about why the Grizzlies are among the league’s best defensive outfits. But, on a purely objective level, their defense can only get them so far. The team is still smarting from their last season’s loss to the Chris Paul led Clippers, when they failed to impose themselves on the defensive end of the floor. While they were being tortured defensively, the team also failed to do much with their offense.
Many scholars of the game would tell you that great defense leads to easier offense, but the reverse of it is also true. A good offensive outing helps to improve the confidence and belief of the player, and also gets the commitment and intensity out of the team on the defensive end. And when the Grizzlies failed on the defensive end of the floor, they looked to their offense for some inspiration. For the Grizzlies of last campaign, the only way to automatic offense was through their star forward Rudy Gay. Now, Gay is a prolific scorer and can score in multiple ways, still he is no Kobe Bryant, and can’t surely be expected to carry a team all on his own.
Losing OJ Mayo in the off-season also added to the Grizzlies’ misery and many pundits feared that the lack of offensive depth and scoring options is a major glitch for this otherwise overwhelming roster. However, coach Hollins was not going to let the ghosts of last season’s loss to the Clippers haunt them again. He didn’t wish to change the mentality or the defensive identity of the team, but rather built an offense that is based on the Grizzlies’ strengths, i.e. energy, size and length.
Energy, size and length: These three qualities are the backbone of the Grizzlies’ offense. The offense is direct and simple and despite not making a refreshing telegenic, has proved to be highly effective. The team has shown a desire to make the maximum of the size and strength of their versatile duo of Gasol and Randolph. The team’s primary strategy is no longer revolving around Gay alone and they have shown a greater desire to get the ball into the post, and allow their bigs’ to funnel their offense.
Randolph in particular has been their biggest weapon on the offensive end, as the Grizzlies have allowed Randolph to work on the low post and make the maximum of his bullish attitude and strength. Ever since his entry into the NBA, Randolph’s ability on the block was very well apparent. However, a long series of injuries and his temperament never allowed him to blossom into the player that his supreme basketball ability deserved and demanded. However, he looks to have come off best from the off-season, and looks to be in the best shape of his life. He is averaging a league high in rebounds with 13.6 rebounds a game, and also scoring at a pretty high rate of 16.7 ppg. Randolph’s strength and speed down low makes it very difficult for the rival team’s Power Forwards or Center to defend him. He is an amazing athlete, who can hit the defender with many offensive moves, be it the turnaround 10-footer, or the easy score at the ring.
In the game against the Lakers, Randolph was up against his toughest test yet, pitted against the Lakers’ herculean duo of Howard and Gasol. He not only managed to burn them for 17 points, but also managed to notch up 5 offensive rebounds out of a total count of 12. Feeding off his energy and commitment to crash the boards, the Grizzlies got several second chance opportunities and the point differential from those second chance attempts was a major contributor in their win over the Lakers.
Gasol on the other hand, despite not being as dexterous as his elder brother, is still a very effective post player. Like Pau, Marc also prefers to play on the elbow, where he can use his efficacious playmaking and passing ability to create for the back-door cutters. He also has a pretty smooth mid-range jumper on him, and can also use the head-fake to draw out the defender and attack the ring. In case of a defensive double-team, he can hit the opposition with many looks from the top of the key. Both Gasol and Randolph have the ability to force double teams and have the awareness to use the same to create openings for the rest of the team, be it the back-door cutter or a perimeter spot-up shooter.
The Grizzlies’ major offensive threat is to try and feed their two bigs’ on the post. However, their effectiveness isn’t limited to the post either, as they are also very adept pick and roll players. The Grizzlies have often differed into many such pick and roll situations, and with a proficient guard in Conley calling the shots, they have managed to use this maneuver to their maximum advantage. Conley is very efficient with his ability to pick the perfect pocket pass, as well as take advantage of any defensive lapses by attacking with his dribble. Thus teams are forced to pick their poison. If they try to trap Conley, he has shown an ability to find the rolling big in Gasol or Randolph, who then have an open lane and easy scoring opportunity. If they choose not to pick, it opens up the lane for Conley to attack on a dribble penetration. If they switch, you have two players who are more than capable of exploiting the defensive mismatches. Not surprisingly, Gasol and Randolph are the highest in terms of PER for the Grizzlies, averaging 20.7 and 19.0 respectively, while also leading the Grizzlies team in terms of the True Shooting percentage and effective Field Goal percentage. Further, Gasol plays a major role as a playmaker in the high-post, averaging an assist rate in almost 20% of the buckets. It may not be as pretty as the Stockton-Malone partnership, but aesthetics is not something you expect from the hard-nosed Memphis team.
Another major bright spark has been the play of Mark Conley, who has been spectacular so far. Averaging over 6 assists per game, Conley’s importance to the Grizzlies can hardly be estimated by the sheer weight of his numbers alone. He has been a highly efficient floor general, pushing the ball, recognizing mismatches and consistently picking the right pass. His speed and ability to penetrate off the dribble is one of the major reasons why the pick and roll is working so well for the Grizzlies. If you don’t pay attention to Conley, he has proved to be more than capable to exploit the open lane and finish at the ring. His understanding with Tony Allen has also been a major factor behind the Grizzlies’ success, as the hard-working Allen has proved to be a constant menace with his tenacity and intelligent back-door cuts and Conley has shown the vision and astuteness to find him in every such viable scoring opportunity. Conley’s ability to create has also rubbed off on the other players in the team, and the Grizzlies have come through as a team that likes to share the ball, notching up 237 assists in a total of 409 field goals they have made in this campaign.
Conley has also not shied away from taking the open shot from the perimeter, and he showed his belief and confidence in the best possible way by scoring two clutch baskets against the Lakers. The Lakers were riding high on another resurgent comeback fueled by their all-star Bryant. The Lakers had cut down the lead to 6 points, and threatened to pull off a miraculous recovery. 1:43 left in the clock, it was widely expected that the Grizzlies would look to Gay, but they found a surprising hero in Conley. His two clutch buckets in the dying minutes, knocked out the wind off the sails of the Lakers and gave the Grizzlies a clutch superstar who they can rely on and look to carry their offense.
Despite the role players having proved to be very efficient, the Grizzlies still bank on their all-star forward to bail them out in most situations. And Rudy Gay despite not being at his best, has still proved to be their X-factor. Gay remains a premier scorer in the league, but unlike Anthony and Bryant, he isn’t a player who looks to shoot the ball too much. He has no qualms about not being their primary offensive weapon and rather than trying to create off isolation situations, has shown a desire to use his speed and intelligence to make cuts to the basket and finish at the ring. When the post-game doesn’t work out, they kick the ball out to Gay on the perimeter who then tries to create off the dribble. He is their hero, not because he scores on every trip, but because he scores when the Grizzlies want him to score most. Gay also gives them a viable option from beyond the arc, and despite not still being at his imperious best, has still managed to notch up an average of 20.1 ppg, on 43% shooting from the field. Gay also has shown a desire to attack the ring and create off dribble penetration, and this desire to get to the cup has seen him earn 4.7 free throw attempts per game. Gay has never been with a congregation of such effective and efficient players, and the confidence and belief is more than apparent in his game-play this season.
Another major offensive weapon of the Grizzlies also comes from their defensive intensity, as they still remain a team that force the opposition to commit several turnovers and use the openings to get some easy transition buckets. All of these moves and strategies have seen them do exceedingly well on the offensive end, averaging over 100 points per game. Add to this a defense as strong as the Grizzlies and you have the secret behind their overwhelming success so far.
The Memphis Grizzlies might feature among the better half of the league in terms of their offensive stats and their Field Goal percentage is also pretty good at 44%, but that doesn’t exactly paint the whole picture. A close look at the Memphis offense reveals that their offense does indeed still have some seriously grave issues.
The Grizzlies are third best in the league in turn-overs conceded, and it is a testament to the effectiveness of their PG Conley and Bayless. However, the Grizzlies offense is dependent on many isolation sets, be it Rudy Gay in the mid-range post-up state, Marc Gasol at the elbow or Zach Randolph at the low post. They might have got through exploiting the same with their length and strength, but as the season progresses, teams will try to exploit their one-dimensional game by trapping the isolation player and forcing turnovers.
Further on, the team lacks a shooter who can be a constant threat from beyond the arc. While Mike Conley and Jerry Bayless may have been making over 40% of their shots, the Grizzlies still remain a team who languish among the bottom of the league in terms of their 3-point attempts and 3-point shots made.
The bench, despite proving a high energy defensive intensity, have failed to do much as an offensive unit. They average a total of 21 points per game, and despite not being dismal, the scene isn’t encouraging also. Other than Conley, the Grizzlies lack any guard who can orchestrate the offense, and this is one major concern that Hollins needs to address before the post-season approaches.
The initial signs may be promising, but it is too early in the season to be making predictions and drawing conclusions. The Grizzlies have indeed started strong, but considering the length and rigors of the season, having the same defensive intensity for the whole length of the season is a huge ordeal. Further on, the Grizzlies’ ideal of playing high energy defense makes huge demands of their durability and fitness levels. And considering the history of Randolph with injuries, and with Speights not proving to be too effective a cover, the grizzlies look slightly short-handed in this respect. They did beat the Lakers, but this single regular season win may not count much until they manage to keep up their confidence, belief and perseverance till the post-season.
Hollins recently commented that the Grizzlies have indeed got many heads rolling, and suddenly they are in the spotlight. The Knicks may have a similar record, but the fortunes of the two franchises seem to be on very different tracks. While the press might be too busy eulogizing Anthony, projecting him as a possible MVP candidate and predicting an overhaul of the Bulls regular season record, the Grizzlies have not had that luxury. Maybe they were never expected to have the same level of media attention, but it is nothing new to the franchise rising from the banks of the river Mississippi. Hollins and his Grizs are however too busy working to bother about such stuff. It is all about crashing the boards…the prizes can wait!