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Three Grizzlies Trends: New Starting Lineup Poses New Questions

It’s been a fascinating few games for the Memphis Grizzlies. They’ve been jostled around by champions, beat down on lottery teams, and wrestled with plenty of the league’s outstanding young talent. Heading into a stretch of five games in seven days, it’s essential for armchair strategists like myself to digest Memphis’ last several performances ASAP, since making major adjustments with such short turnaround time between games may prove a tall task. As such, let’s take stock of the state of the Grizzlies through three of their most fascinating trends.

1: Faces in the Space: Dillon Brooks

At the season’s onset, Taylor Jenkins labeled this year as a ‘data accumulation’ phase–one with loads of experimentation to figure out how to best utilize their roster. As such, the recent lineup change in the lineup shouldn’t come as a great surprise to Grizzlies fans (especially since the Brandon Clarke injury left a sizable hole in the starting five). Instead of a one-for-one replacement at the four, Jenkins elected to restructure the team’s offense, moving Kyle Anderson to the four and making room for another shooter in the starting lineup, a spot that’s been occupied by Grayson Allen and Desmond Bane as of late.

Though the team’s entire offense has been bolstered by the move, nobody has reaped the benefits more than Dillon Brooks. He’s been taking advantage of the luxury of an added sniper, shooting 46.9% with the new starting lineup, a mark that would slot him right between Bradley Beal and James Harden on the shooting guard rankings. More impressively, the Oregon product has shot 42% from three over the recent stretch, a more than ten percent jump from his season mark of 31.1%.

Take a look at this triple to get a feel for how Brooks has used the extra space to his advantage.

With Brandon Clarke spacing the floor, teams normally collapse from whichever corner BC is posted. It’s the smart move, as Clarke has shot a suboptimal 31% from corners this year, far below league average. However, with Allen in the strong-side corner, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has to stick to the shooter, forcing Wesley Matthews to abandon Brooks in the weak-side corner. Morant sees Matthews flashing, and it’s an open-gym triple for Brooks.

If I wanted to be finicky, I could nitpick that Brooks has yet to grow into a well-rounded offensive weapon. He’s not used to weaponizing offball movement, and at some point will need to start using the extra space to start making plays (his assist numbers have actually dropped with the new lineup). I can’t be too upset though–his recent efforts have been an unabated positive for the Grizzlies. Case in point: the team’s point differential goes from -3.4 with DB at the 2 to +0.7 with him at the small forward slot, a move that should be permanent going forward.

2: Traversing the Road to Recovery

Learning how to return from and manage injuries is one of the most underrated aspects of maturing in the NBA. Longevity can be determined by luck, but make no mistake, it’s also a skill. Why else do you think teams hire coaches solely responsible for teaching their shooters how to fall down safely? As a young team prone to throwing their bodies in harm’s way, learning how to return from injury is downright essential for the Grizzlies. Returning from an ankle sprain, Brandon Clarke’s first game back seemed a good litmus test to their abilities.

Thus, it should come as a reassurance that Clarke put up 13 points, four boards, and four assists in his return to NBA action. BC was as springy as ever, claiming in his postgame media availability that he felt like he was immediately back to his pre-injury form. That’s progress for Clarke, who by his own admission took several games to return to 100% after suffering a similar injury during the preseason. 

In my conversation with Clarke after the game, he told me that the preseason injury was a learning experience for him, both in terms of developing habits towards recovery and injury prevention. He also noted that due to the breakneck pace of the season, he felt he’d be doing his teammates a disservice if he returned as anything but “the same beast”. Fortunately for Memphis, Clarke and Jonas Valanciunas have both put together dominant performances as of recent, the latter averaging 21.8 points and 12.6 rebounds per game on the mend from missing five games in the NBA’s COVID protocols. Hopefully this bodes well for Jaren Jackson Jr. and Justise Winslow, both of whom are slated to return from long term ailments in the near future.

3: Uh oh, Tyus Jones

After a phenomenal start to the season, the Grizzlies all but crowned Tyus Jones as their reliable bench leader. Seemingly out of nowhere, he’s fallen off a ledge. Jones had just put together a stretch of six consecutive games with a positive +/-, rightfully garnering love from all corners of the Memphis internet. However, Jones has been a negative in each of Memphis’ last four games, and it hasn’t been particularly close, largely due to a shooting slump. In three of the aforementioned games, Jones was unable to cash a triple, and the quick guard is one of six from floater, a shot that’s normally his go-to in the paint. 

Concerningly, Jones’ league-leading pull-up shooting has taken a noticeable decline over this stretch. Jones, who had been shooting a prodigious 54.5% on pull-up jimbos, has only converted 12.5% of his tries over the last four games. I see this as a regression to the mean for Tyus, who’s normally shot 40% off the dribble over the course of his career. It’s not something to worry about just yet, but a few more off games from him and the Minnesota native could be headed towards a bonafide slump.

Defensively, things might be even more concerning for Jones. Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight were quick to remind viewers of Sacramento’s last-place defense during Sunday’s Kings matchup, but Jones is treading water alongside Sactown when it comes to poor defensive performance. Over the last four games, Jones is averaging a defensive rating of 118.25, a mark that would rank second to last amongst NBA teams–Jones is still managing to narrowly escape Kings levels of bad defense. 

On the precipice of their most intensive stretch of the season, the Grizzlies won’t have a lot of time to grind out film sessions and work through new schemes after their matchup with the New Orleans Pelicans. If Jones isn’t able to get back into form tonight, expect him to lag behind the rest of the team for a decent chunk of the team’s next games. However, should Jones seem to be on the getback, the Grizzlies might have the potential to go on another impressive winning streak.

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