There are three things guaranteed in life; death, taxes, and Mike Conley & Marc Gasol winning a bunch of basketball games. After last year’s disaster of a season (which now actually looks like a blessing), the Memphis Grizzles are sitting in the upper echelon of the Western Conference once again. The league might look and play differently in 2018 but the Memphis Grizzlies are still grittin’ and grindin’ their way to dubs. When the whole league has decided to zig, the Grizz have decided to zag. And by zag I mean play the same brand of Memphis basketball that has lead them to success over the last decade. They don’t feel the need to acquiesce to new trends, instead building their identity on their strengths. The team’s best player is slow, so they go slow. The Grizzlies are dead last in pace. The team doesn’t have many knockdown long range shooters, so they don’t shoot a ton of threes. They’re in the bottom third of the league in percentage of three-point field goals attempted. Mike Budenholzer is turning in his grave just thinking about playing like that, but it works for them.
We’re constantly being told that you need to go pace and space if you want to compete in the new NBA. So if the Grizz haven’t bought into that ideal, how are they winning? It helps when your two best players are great; and Conley and Gasol are great. After a years’ worth of Gasol is washed and Conley is overpaid talk, the two Grizz mainstays have silenced all of the doubters. We’re about a quarter through the season and Marc Gasol has the highest plus-minus of his career at plus 5.5. When Gasol is on the floor the team has an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 107.8 and a defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 99.5. That is sick. Gasol hasn’t gotten enough hype for the best big convo. Put those numbers up against Joel Embiid’s season (107.2 ORtg – 102.9 DRtg) and Gasol bests him in both categories. Gasol may be old but he damn sure ain’t washed.
As has been the script for his entire career, the NBA has been sleeping on Conley again this season. Conley has struggled a bit with his shooting, specifically his at the rim finishing, but he’s been a maestro running the show. Despite his low percentages, Conley has an offensive rating of 105.9 and an overall Net Rating of 5.2. That number is higher than Kyrie and Dame. He isn’t flashy but the dude just knows how to win.
While the play of Conley and Gasol has been the main factor in the Grizzlies’ early success, Memphis still needs contributions from the rest of the roster to succeed. The Grizz have built their season on the backs of their defense and some unselfish offense. When your two stars are the ultimate team guys who love to move the rock, everyone tends to make the extra pass. Memphis is fifth in the league in assist percentage (% of field goals that were assisted) and eighth in the league in assist ratio (% of possessions that end in an assist). Sixty-three percent of their field goals end in an assist. When you play with as few possessions as Memphis does, you have to take care of the ball; and they do, committing the seventh fewest turnovers in the league. A high assist rate and low turnovers is a pretty good recipe for success. When its crunch time and they need to get a bucket, Conley and Gasol have them covered. Both guys can create their own shot in iso or kill teams with a Conley-Gasol high ball screen. Over commit to Conley and Gasol has room to attack the hoop and play as a creator. Play him for the roll and Gasol has an open three where he is shooting a career high forty percent. The Grizzlies may not play like the Bucks or Pelicans, but they’re fun to watch if you’re a basketball purist.
On defense they’ve been suffocating. They’re currently first in opponents PPG and third in Defensive Net Rating. When Gasol and rookie Jaren Jackson Jr are on the floor together teams aren’t getting anything at the rim and Jackson has displayed the switchability that had NBA executives salivating to land him in the draft. They’ve completely abandoned going after offensive rebounds, focusing instead on getting their defense back and set up in the halfcourt. When they get the opportunity to set their defense up, every possession is going to be a struggle for the offense. The Grizzlies are pests on the ball, they get in the passing lanes, and they contest everything. Even when the offense gets an offensive rebound the Grizz have erased second chance points. Nothing easy.
When you look at the rest of the Grizzlies roster there isn’t a whole lot to like on the surface. Chandler Parsons lasted three games before he got hurt, their third leading scorer is a rookie, and they rely on borderline NBA players like Shelvin Mack and Marshon Brooks to play meaningful minutes. It doesn’t matter, it’s worked. The aforementioned rookie has been even more awesome than even the biggest Grizzlies fan could have hoped for. A number of executives believed that Jackson could wind up being the best player from his draft and early on he’s shown why. He’s looked confident playing inside and out and hasn’t struggled with the speed and physicality of the game. Like he did in college, Jackson has struggled with foul trouble. He contests everything and can be overaggressive defensively. When your team has a frontcourt partner like Gasol, you can afford to have your rookie deal with some foul issues. Jackson landed in the perfect situation. He gets to learn from one of the best bigs in the NBA while getting valuable minutes on a probable playoff team. Beyond Jackson the Grizz have gotten solid production from the rest of their rotation players. Garret Temple, Omri Caspi, and Shelvin Mack have shot the lights out. Kyle Anderson has struggled offensively transitioning from San Antonio but has been good as a ball mover and has fit right in on the defensive end.
The Grizzlies ability to have success with whatever role players or coach they surround Conley and Gasol with has been Spursian. They’re the system. The Grizzlies may come down to earth a bit as their role players shooting numbers regress to the mean, but as long as the defense continues dominating they’ll keep winning. They’ve played an average strength of schedule with some good wins over Milwaukee and Denver. They aren’t doing anything fluky. They’re just playing classic “Grit and Grind” Memphis Grizzlies basketball. Westgate sports books set their Over/Under at 33.5 wins before the season; health permitting, Memphis will smash that number.
The Grizzlies City Edition uniforms pay homage to the cities deep roots to pro wrestling. That’s a fitting aesthetic for a team that plays like it wants to punch you in the mouth.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com