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Don’t Let Brandon Clarke Fall Out Of The Grizzlies’ Rotation

Panic! Hysteria! Madness in Memphis! After dropping four of their last five games, it feels like a solid part of Memphis Grizzlies Twitter has their pitchforks out regarding the bizarre state of the team’s rotations. It’s easy to understand why. No less than eight games before the conclusion of the regular season, and it feels like Taylor Jenkins and company are still tweaking the Grizzlies’ lineups on a game by game basis. One night Justise Winslow’s the backup point guard, the next he’ll play some minutes at the four, only to receive a subsequent DNP-CD. For a team whose peak was defined by absolute stylistic consistency in the Grit and Grind years, it’s easy to see why the fanbase is somewhat unnerved.

In terms of Jenkins’ specific adjustments, there are plenty of small decisions I could break down, but I’m not here to nitpick. Instead, I feel a yearning desire to submit a plea against what I consider to be the most confusing choice of Memphis’ recent rotation retooling: the absence of Brandon Clarke. His disappearance stands as a unique case. Normally it’s the team’s veterans and lower-profile players whose spot in the rotations are on the line, instead of a rising star coming off a nomination to last year’s All-Rookie first team. As such, this choice stands out as the most drastic of Memphis’ roster shakeup, and one I think has the potential to rear its ugly head in future years.

The Reasoning:

While I am taken aback by Clarke’s extended absence, I did note recently that I was expecting him to miss time. However, that prediction came with a notable caveat that Clarke’s absence would stem from a spot on the team’s injured reserve. After all, the Canadian missed some time in April with thigh soreness, and he did seem to undergo a stinger against the Denver Nuggets. For a player that’s so dependent on verticality, a nagging leg injury is obviously costly, limiting his strength from floater range and his ability to stick with perimeter players.

Speaking of his floater game, Clarke’s been uncharacteristically off with his signature shot. Over his last fifteen games, BC’s only shot 7/22 from floater range, down from a near 50% clip in his rookie year. While his mark on the floater might have been inconsistent, he hasn’t been able to make up for his sagging numbers with spacing from deep, either. Despite his relative strength from the corners, he’s only made one three in his last 15 games–a definite clash of styles for a team that’s tried to lean into the long ball as the season rolls along.

Of course, one can’t speak about Clarke’s absence without mentioning Jenkins’ desire to experiment with lineups. Considering the team’s stacked roster of bigs, the fact that the team’s starters are garnering more minutes simply doesn’t bode well for Clarke. Hell, Xavier Tillman (stepping in for Clarke against the New York Knicks), only managed nine minutes in his last outing. BC’s position certainly doesn’t help either. As the NBA becomes more versatile, Memphis has tried to employ both centers (Jaren Jackson Jr.) and smaller wings (Justise Winslow) as part-time fours, leaving little room for Clarke on the floor.

The Flaws:

Let’s ruminate on the shifting lineups for just a minute longer. It would be one thing if the organization really committed to their experiments, digging their feet into the mud and giving players like Winslow a consistent barrage of opportunities to learn their new positions. Instead, the roster retooling has felt half hearted at best, with positions changing on a somewhat arbitrary basis. Who can tell me why JJJ’s playing almost exclusively at power forward now? Can Tyus Jones rack up more than ten minutes? Is Justise Winslow going to pop up on the floor again? While experimentation can have some inherent benefits, the inconsistency of the team’s decisions can’t be seen as a win, especially when they push a player like Clarke to the margins. 

Don’t get me wrong: I have some respect for the team’s mantra of ‘data collection’, messing with lineups to their heart’s content to see what works best. However, the Grizzlies might be collecting too much data in certain places when it comes to Jackson. It’s clear that he’s a five, not a four. Virtually every single number for JJJ improves as he moves to the center position– both Jaren and the team score significantly more on better efficiency and cause more turnovers. With Jackson in the fold as a full-time center, that hopefully frees up the minutes for Clarke to see the floor.

But enough about other players, I still think BC could be incredibly useful to the Grizzlies immediately upon his potential return. In a time where everything’s up in the air, Memphis needs to get back to basics to right their ship. To that end, Clarke represents the epitome of what the team needs: a player who both knows and excels in a defined role. One could even argue that Clarke would have been useful to that end several games ago, at the very least in the Knicks matchup as one of the team’s most capable bodies to throw at Julius Randle.

The Answer: 

Let’s get to some solutions, shall we? It’s clear to me that for Clarke to flourish, the team needs to pair him with Jackson, and do it consistently. Last year, lineups with Jaren and BC together with three other current Grizzlies ranked in the 99th percentile of all two-man combinations. With that in mind, the fact that this duo’s only logged 84 possessions together this season is a downright travesty. This nugget of info also dovetails nicely with my proposition to move Jackson to the five spot, a move that the team seems to be shying away from.

Similarly, in my advocacy for the team to return to the basics, I’d recommend a healthy diet of using Clarke as a roll man. The Grizzlies excel in running a basic spread pick and roll, and BC is the team’s most valuable weapon in that playtype–he ranks in the 69th percentile as a screener (nice), significantly higher than both TIllman and Jonas Valanciunas. After a few games where the team’s offense looked out of sorts, don’t be surprised to see Memphis roll out a diet of heavy pick and rolls.

With just eight games left, at least the Grizzlies can take some solace in the fact that their schedule seems to be light work. With games against the Detroit Pistons and Sacramento Kings on the docket, this stretch seems to be the ideal time for a team to turn around their fortunes. Handing some minutes over to Clarke might be a good start, but ultimately it’s the team’s effort level that will translate into potential success going forward. With a resurgent Minnesota Timberwolves squad on the docket for tonight, let’s see if Jenkins can produce some Memphis Magic once more.

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