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The Memphis Grizzlies aren’t dead yet

The Memphis Grizzlies had a pretty miserable weekend.

In case you missed it, their superstar point guard Ja Morant was “suspended”/is not with the team for at least the next two games — and it may be longer – Grizzlies Head Coach Taylor Jenkins said there is no timetable for Morant’s return. On top of that, Memphis announced season-ending (and potentially career-altering) Achilles tear of Brandon Clarke dramatically impacts the Grizzlies’ rotations in the front court.

From off-the-court issues to on-court injuries, the current No. 2 seed in the NBA’s Western Conference (by just one game) appears to be on the ropes. Especially if you listen to numerous fan accounts on social media, or others from the national media. It’s as if the season didn’t just end for Clarke, but for all the Grizzlies.

But the Memphis fan base shouldn’t give up just yet. There is still hope for this season.

The Grizzlies competed admirably against the Clippers on Sunday night, posting a third quarter for the ages.

Sure, the Grizzlies still lost, putting a perfectly miserable exclamation mark on the crummy end of the week. But that showing was without not just Ja and BC, but two other key cogs to the Memphis machine that will almost certainly be back before both Morant and Clarke.

Dillon Brooks – every NBA fan bases’ favorite guy to hate (even at times the Memphis fan base) because of his defensive tenacity and overall demeanor – was only suspended one game for getting his 16th technical against the Nuggets. Surely his on-ball and off-ball defense was missed against Kawhi Leonard and Paul George. Steven Adams, the offensive weapon that few talk about being such a force on that end since he is an unorthodox impact player as a screener and rebounder, should also be back in the fold soon after missing weeks with a knee injury. The team could’ve used his size when the Clippers went small – the presence of Russell Westbrook on the floor would’ve allowed for that to happen.

Beyond those two significant additions, the Grizzlies have built impressive depth to this point in the Ja Morant/Taylor Jenkins/Grizzlies GM Zach Kleiman era. And that will be on full display in the days and weeks ahead.

Tyus Jones – the NBA’s best “ backup” Point Guard

This past offseason the Memphis Grizzlies re-signed Tyus Jones to a two-year $30 million extension. It was borderline starting-player money for Jones, who is limited alongside Ja Morant (-3.7 net rating as a duo in 371 minutes together this season) because of his size. Playing Jones and Morant together is essentially forcing Dillon Brooks on the floor for defensive purposes alongside them, and that inhibits floor spacing (Tyus is the best shooter of the bunch at 37.4 percent).

Tyus has also had issues leading the reserve unit this season for the Grizzlies, which in fairness to Jones has undergone some serious change from last season to this one. Still, when being paid starter money, and when saying you see yourself as a starter, usually more is expected than being so susceptible to those that you log minutes alongside. A -7.3 efficiency differential per Cleaning The Glass doesn’t inspire confidence in Jones’ ability to lead Memphis through an extended Morant absence.

So why the optimism? Because Jones’ “best backup in the league” idea this season has more to do with him filling in for Morant than spelling him in-game.

Entering Tyus’ game with the Clippers Sunday evening – you know, the one that was arguably his career-best including a scorching third quarter in which he scored 20 points – Jones had started nine games for Memphis in the 2022-2023 campaign. Across those almost 300 minutes Tyus posted a +4.6 net rating when compared to his +1.5 number as a reserve. Tyus shot better (61.1 percent to 51.4 percent true shooting) and simply looked more comfortable on both ends of the floor when in that role. And after his Sunday showing (25 points on 14 shots, 12 assists, 5 steals, zero turnovers) those numbers likely will only get better.

Sure, playing next to Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr. instead of rookies and lesser players helps. But while the two-man numbers for Tyus alongside Jaren (+9.9) and Bane (+5.1) are strong, Jones also has done well next to Ziaire Williams (+3.4) and Santi Aldama (+2.6)

Tyus’ worst numbers with a reserve? Brandon Clarke (-3.5). His partner throughout so much of this era that made the Grizzlies one of the NBA’s best benches.

Clarke and Jones simply haven’t clicked this year the same way they have in the past. Floaters that once fell in the pick and roll have been less clean. The support of veteran/more experienced players like Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton helped them more than was perhaps initially understood. But both Tyus and Clarke have been better with almost anyone else this year.

No, Memphis will not be better in the long run without Ja Morant and Brandon Clarke. But two players that statistically have performed rather poorly next to Jones are out of the picture for now. And in the starting slot, Jones has been able to have success, with Sunday night against the Clippers being the strongest result yet. That should only continue moving forward, as long as it must move forward. He, more than anyone, must continue to step up for Memphis to survive this stretch.

Forced evolution

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Denver Nuggets

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Like many coaches before him, Taylor Jenkins at times falls in to lulls and gets a bit too … predictable. Rotations do not get adjusted. Set plays don’t get layers added to them. There is limited practice time in the NBA season, and because of that so much of who the team is coming out of October’s training camps schematically is who squads are for much of the season.

That’s true of the Memphis Grizzlies. Rotation patterns get exploited at times, and some times they get stuck to even when it’s at the detriment of an individual game. For example, the Grizzlies are very aware of how many minutes individual players log per game. In the Denver Nuggets loss this past Friday night – the one that essentially ended Memphis’ pursuit of the #1 seed in the Western Conference – Taylor Jenkins acknowledged that mentality when it came to Jaren Jackson Jr.’s minutes (even when Ja Morant was also out).

Memphis entered the 4th quarter of that game tied with the Nuggets 80-80. The Grizzlies lost to Denver 113-97.

In a game Memphis NEEDED to stay in that race realistically with Denver, the plan was not deviated from. And two All-Stars sat at the same time. The Nuggets (understandably) took advantage.

The same happened in the 4th quarter against the Clippers. While players played more minutes than usual – a sign of acknowledging the undermanned nature of the contest – the team was once again stagnant offensively. As hot as the Grizzlies were offensively in the third quarter with 51 points scored, the 4th was that cold as only 17 were scored by Memphis.

This trend has continued regardless of who is playing. The Grizzlies are one of the worst 4th quarter teams in the NBA, especially recently. But overall, 29th in the NBA in 4th quarter scoring will not get the job done.

When your superstar point guard is gone for an indeterminate amount of time, and essentially your 6th man big is out for beyond this season more than likely, change has to come whether you like it or not.

It shines through in the opportunity to put two of the NBA’s best shooters out on the floor together in Desmond Bane and Luke Kennard. Both Bane and Kennard have experience running the offense – Bane of course as his role in Memphis has evolved over the last two seasons…

And Luke Kennard excelled in this area during his time in Detroit…

Kennedy Chandler – the Grizzlies de facto 3rd point guard – should not see the floor when Tyus is out unless it is in mop-up duty if a game is out of hand. Bane and Kennard can handle that duty together, and it adds a level of offensive versatility that the team sorely needs. A potential Kennard/Bane/Brooks/Jackson Jr./Adams lineup creates massive problems for opposing teams in terms of limiting both the pick and roll as well as closing out on multiple capable shooters on the perimeter.

In terms of Clarke’s “replacement”, David Roddy drew the start on the perimeter against the Clippers Sunday and Xavier Tillman Sr. has performed admirably of late with Steven Adams out. These two players should get the first crack at filling the role Clarke had in the rotation once Adams is back and the team is as complete as they can be. You cannot replicate Clarke’s athleticism and burst/bounce.

But you can combine the effort, timely offense, and defensive acumen of Tillman with the unique size/athleticism of Roddy and get two players capable of defending all sorts of front court opponents. Roddy logged a considerable amount of time at the “5” while at Colorado State, and Tillman was given the task of defending Kawhi Leonard through Sunday night’s contest.

Kawhi had success at times, especially in that evil 4th quarter – but he has his way offensively against just about everyone, and Paul George was the larger issue in this game. Roddy at 6’5” makes for an undersized center, but his physical strength and frame enables him to hold his own in and around the paint while maintaining a scoring presence both on the perimeter (33% in 2023 from beyond the arc) and off the dribble.

Tillman getting run obviously won’t lead to much rotational change. Adams will log time with Jackson Jr., and Santi Aldama next to Tillman makes sense for floor spacing purposes. But David Roddy seeing increased opportunity at the 4 next to Tillman, while undersized, would make for some switchable frontcourt opportunities similar to what Brandon Clarke provided the team with. And of course Roddy could perform alongside a “5” like Jaren Jackson Jr., or even Steven Adams.

An eventual “4”-”5” pick and roll with Roddy and Adams? That’d be a step toward evolution through experimentation. And with Morant and Clarke out, it’s time to get back to the drawing board. Even if it isn’t Roddy or Kennard-based, rethinking both minute distribution and scheme would be wise when possible. Morant and Clarke are elite athletes. There is no replacing that.

You can, however, better replicate their impacts with tweaks here and there. And it’s time Coach Jenkins reevaluates how he plays his best players, and what they’re doing in their time on the floor.

The Grizzlies pushing the Clippers to the brink Sunday night despite being down so many players was surprising to some. But Memphis has invested heavily in their team culture and in L.A. that was on display. Yes, the Grizzlies will be underdogs more than usual in the days to come. But without Ja Morant especially, and Brandon Clarke additionally, the team has to redefine how they will win basketball games.

If their effort Sunday night in Los Angeles, down four of their top-nine rotation players is any indication, there is reason to believe they can find a way. If they’re willing to look hard enough.

The Memphis Grizzlies are down. But don’t count them out just yet.

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