Among the teams whose regular-season fortunes could have gone either way, the Memphis Grizzlies stick out. One of the absolutely worst teams in the NBA last season after a string of very competitive campaigns, no one knew if Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could rekindle their profitable partnership with question marks all across the roster. No one knew if J.B. Bickerstaff, the rare interim head coach made permanent, could effectively balance the needs of the veterans and a youth movement focused on Jaren Jackson, Jr. No one knew if Kyle Anderson would work away from San Antonio. And on, and on ...
Conley-to-Gasol? It still works. Playing Jackson alongside the vets? It works. Slow-Mo Anderson in Memphis? Oh, it works.
The Grizzlies are 6-4 after beating the sizzling Nuggets on Wednesday night in one of the lowest-scoring games of the season. The victory counts as Memphis’ third signature win of the young season after a pair of road triumphs over the Jazz. These wins will matter in April, and given that they are coming in the season’s first month with all the fit and rust issues Memphis had to deal with, that’s a very promising sign.
So, how are the Grizzlies doing this? It’s not the old Grit ‘n Grind joint we grew to love. But it sure is grimy. As Dan Devine noted in his weekly column, Memphis has the lowest average pace in the league this season at 96 possessions per game, per stats.nba.com. That’s more than 10 possessions behind the two highest-pace teams (Atlanta and Sacramento) and more than five behind the league median (101.7). That pace is real, too: it’s not exaggerated by rebounding weirdness as is sometimes the case with other teams. (Memphis is low on the table for offensive rebounding and pretty close to the median in defensive rebounding.)
As in the GnG days, the Grizzlies rely on defense (No. 6 in the NBA) and get by on offense (a little more than one point per 100 possessions below league median). Here’s how things are way different: Memphis is no longer allergic to the three-pointer. The Grizzlies are right at league median in the percentage of their points that come from beyond the arc — and mind you, that’s the current league median, which is bloated compared to the heyday of Grit ‘n Grind.
With two exceptions, every healthy rotation player takes at least three triples per 36 minutes of playing time, per basketball-reference.com. The exceptions: lightly used reserve big Ivan Rabb and the idiosyncratic Anderson, who barely shoots from anywhere, ever. (Seven field goal attempts per 36 minutes. He averages one shot every five minutes. Even Tony Allen would be impressed.) Most of the Grizz are shooting pretty well, too: the rookie Jackson has struggled to find his range but thankfully keeps shooting, and Conley has been quite cold to start the season.
Of course, the Grizzlies rely heavily on that old diet of Gasol-Conley picks and rolls. It’s still effective, even as Gasol slows down and Conley struggles from the floor. With willing shooters around the dual passers, there are a lot more options when it’s time to make a decision for either Mike or Marc. Zach Randolph wasn’t waiting in the short corner for the kick-out all that much. Tony Allen wasn’t much of a release valve at the weak elbow. Plus, neither could really take over ball-handling duties like Anderson, Temple, and Shelvin Mack can these days.
The Gasol-Conley pick and roll is still fairly old school. Gasol is a great passer and shooter, and Conley has a wicked first step. But this isn’t exactly Jokic-Murray or Embiid-Simmons or Harden-Capela. There’s no major innovation here, just modest updating to keep up with the times. It’s really the closest thing to Duncan-Parker we have left in the league.
This is where the Grizzlies land: strikingly modern compared to their old selves, yet still apart from a league obsessed with tempo, joie de vivre, and innovation. Will the contrast work like it used to? Ask the Nuggets, who have a lot of mud to clean off their boots after their trip to Memphis on Wednesday.
Grit ‘n Grind isn’t back, and never will be. But the Grizzlies are bringing grime into the new NBA by being themselves. Why would we ever ask for anything more?