The Memphis Grizzlies have fought the NBA's biggest change for 6 years, and it's finally catching up to them

The Memphis Grizzlies have been one of the surprise teams of the early 2015-16 NBA season, and not for the right reasons.

At 3-5, currently in 12th place in the Western Conference, the Grizzlies have gotten off to a far slower start than anyone anticipated.

Coming off a 55-win season and a second-round playoff appearance, the Grizzlies were expected to continue down their path. They have the same core of players, the same playing style, and basically the same outlook: a 50-win season and a playoff appearance.

However, it seems that their consistency is now what’s doing them in. As ESPN’s Kevin Arnotvitz notes, the Grizzlies core of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol have been together six years. In recent years, keeping that core together has felt like swimming upstream as the Grizzlies have fought the NBA’s biggest change: small-ball.

In particular, the Allen-Randolph-Gasol grouping is problematic. In a league where teams go smaller, play faster, and shoot more three-pointers, the Grizzlies have a core reliant on post play with little outside shooting. Memphis has always been a stout defensive team, enough so to make up for their offensive shortcomings. At their best, they “grit and grind” out games with their defence, and get just enough of the high-low combos and smart passing of Gasol and Randolph, combined with Conley’s underrated helmsmanship.

However, this year, the defence has fallen off, and their offensive woes are even more glaring. Here’s a look at the Grizzlies’ defensive ratings since this core has been together:

  • 2009-10: 23rd
  • 2010-11: 10th
  • 2011-12: 7th
  • 2012-13: 2nd
  • 2013-14: 7th
  • 2014-15: 4th
  • 2015-16: 25th

Here’s a look at the Grizzlies offensive ratings during this same stretch:

  • 2009-10: 17th
  • 2010-11: 16th
  • 2011-12: 20th
  • 2012-13: 18th
  • 2013-14: 17th
  • 2014-15: 13th
  • 2015-16: 29th

The Grizzlies, even in their best years, have basically always been a below-average offensive team. Their offensive rating has plummeted this year, but they’re unlikely to keep shooting 26% from three. Still, the Grizzlies are the most notable outlier in today’s NBA — a team hell-bent on using a roster construct that’s becoming increasingly outdated.

As noted, the Gasol-Randolph combination, while extremely skilled, mucks things up on offence, as both players lack a respectable three-pointer. It only gets worse when Tony Allen is thrown in the group, a player so limited on offence that the Warriors put center Andrew Bogut on him in the playoffs, then had Bogut virtually ignore him to clog the paint. Outside of Conley or Courtney Lee, the Grizzlies have very few shooters defences have to respect and stick to.

This puts a ton of pressure on Conley to generate offence, as he’s arguably the Grizzlies’ most respected three-point shooter and easily their best player at breaking down defences off the dribble. But with Gasol, Randolph, and Allen, defences collapse into the paint, daring the Grizzlies to beat them from the outside.

As Mike Conley told Arnovitz, “The paint is a zoo. It’s clogged. It’s hard for guards to drive, hard for our big guys to have room to make plays.”

In a Monday night loss to the Clippers, the Grizzlies had to grind out shots against a Clippers defence that isn’t all that great.

Look at the lack of space the Grizzlies have and the lack of overall respect the Clippers give them. Blake Griffin isn’t even close to Gasol, DeAndre Jordan is in the high post while Randolph is on the three-point line, and J.J. Redick is in the paint while Tony Allen is on the perimeter. The play goes nowhere and Conley has to turn water into wine from 30 feet out with seven seconds on the shot clock. It results in a low-percentage, (missed) step-back three.

A similar thing happened later in the first quarter:

Conley makes the shot, but it’s an extremely difficult floater with his off-hand with 7-foot-1 DeAndre Jordan draped all over him.

This happens because of a failed post-up. When Gasol gets the ball in the low post, four Clippers are already available to help, and Gasol has to eventually give it up. When he does, Randolph isn’t a threat to shoot a three (whereas someone like Draymond Green would be) and he has to give it up to Conley to make a play again.

This has generally always been a problem, but as Arnovitz notes, it’s exacerbated by the Grizzlies defensive woes this year:

“Randolph, 34, has moved at glacial speed as a help defender behind the Memphis pick-and-roll defence. This gives Gasol a little less confidence to move out of the goalie box in the lane, which in turn puts pressure on Conley guarding the ball. Strung together as a chain, and that’s how a top-10 defence sinks to the bottom of the league.”

Arnovitz adds that a perennial top-1o defence without any big changes is unlikely to stay in the bottom-five of the league, but there are major concerns there, and it begins with Randolph. He’s an older, slow-footed big man who can’t keep up with the numerous floor-spacers at his position in the modern NBA, and he can’t space the floor or work off the dribble from the three-point like other younger, more mobile big men of his position.

Unless their defensive revives to a top-five level, Randolph regains his legs, or someone magically becomes a deadly three-point shooter, the Grizzlies are going to have to make adjustments. Those could be strategic adjustments, balancing out the minutes between Gasol, Randolph, Allen, and even Jeff Green (a talented scorer who also lacks three-point range), or they could be structural, as the Grizzlies may have to look to build a more modern roster.

The Grizzlies have fought the small-ball movement for six years, and for many years, they have been successful, making the playoffs and challenging for the Western Conference’s elite. But it seems now the Grizzlies are finally losing the fight, and they may be forced to adapt.

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