In last night's loss to the Trailblazers, four of the five starters shot better than 50% from the floor. The only one who didn't — Mike Conley, who shot 5-14 — happened to be the starter who registered the most field-goal attempts. Meanwhile, Marc Gasol, who is currently ninth in the league in field-goal percentage after finishing as the league's fourth best percentage shooter a year ago, registered only 6 field-goal attempts, only the sixth most on the team last night.
This was a slightly more extreme version of what has been a fairly normal dynamic this season. Conley, who is playing much better all-around basketball but not shooting well (42/29/71 percentages) is putting up 13.3 field-goal attempts a game — more than Zach Randolph, nearly as many as O.J. Mayo, and nearly twice as many as Gasol, who is averaging 7.4 field-goal attempts a game. (Less than Darrell Arthur and not much more than Tony Allen, who is averaging about a third as many minutes.) Foul trouble and the lingering effects of his preseason ankle injury are certainly a factor in Gasol's so-far reduced workload, but even with that taken into account, he hasn't gotten the ball enough.
This shot distribution is clearly out of whack with what would be most effective for the team, but the issues go deeper than just featuring too much Conley and not enough Gasol.
Twelve games in, I've developed a slightly different sense of the way I think the parts should fit in the team's offense. Sticking to the starting lineup, for now, the short version goes something like this: The halfcourt offense should be primarily run through Rudy Gay and Gasol, with Mayo and Randolph used more as finishers (and, in Mayo's case, simply used more). And Conley needs to find a better balance between his past deference and newfound aggression.
The Inside Game: Last season, Zach Randolph was the Grizzlies' leading scorer and all-star representative. But despite all that, I think de-emphasizing him — or maybe just differently emphasizing him — in the team's halfcourt offense would be smart.
It seems to me that Randolph is most effective as a scorer the less he handles the ball. When you dump the ball into him on conventional post plays, he's good enough to draw double teams, but the team doesn't get the usual benefit from this because Randolph is not very effective passing out of double-teams. And when he faces up in isolation situations, there's little mystery about whether a shot is going up. Randolph is reasonably effective in these situations, but not so much that he makes up for the stagnation that results.
Instead, Randolph's shot attempts should come more as a "garbage man" or pure finisher. In addition to scoring off his own offensive rebounds — his greatest strength as a player — most of his shots should come off of quick catch-and-finish or catch-and-shoot plays. High-low feeds from Gasol, feeds from Conley when he's able to pin his man down low early in the shot clock, or short or mid-range jumpers as a secondary option. I suspect Randolph's scoring average would only go down slightly if used more this way, but his efficiency would improve greatly: Randolph is shooting under 50% this season and has done so every year of his career. There's no reason someone with his skill set should have such low shooting percentages. It's purely a matter of shot discipline and being miscast as a go-to, isolation scorer.
Instead, Marc Gasol should be the team's number one post option in halfcourt sets. Unlike with some other centers, Gasol's lofty shooting percentages are not the result of feasting on simple catch-and-dunk plays around the rim. Instead, Gasol has a versatile array of post moves and a solid and underutilized mid-range jumper. He's also, arguably, the most talented passer in the team's starting line-up. Featuring him more in the offense wouldn't just boost Gasol's own shots and points, but would likely lead to better ball movement and shot selection across the board.
Gay and Mayo: There's been a lot of focus on the team's identity being rooted in the interior tandem of Randolph and Gasol, but the biggest impact they made last season was on the offensive boards. A common refrain lately has been about other teams focusing on taking away the team's post game. This shouldn't be as big of a problem as it's seemed to be given the other options the team has. And shifting a little more of that emphasis to the wing duo of Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo might be beneficial.
On the wing, the dynamic between Gay and Mayo should be similar to that between Gasol and Randolph, with the ball running through Gay more and Mayo used as more of a shooter.
I expressed concerns about Gay's lackluster defense in the previous post, but the rest of his game has looked terrific this season. He's shooting the ball well in every way (50/42/88). He's rebounding well, passing more willingly and effectively than ever before, and has become a much surer ball handler and far less turnover prone. He's also further established himself as a strong late-game option, with the ability to get good looks even against tight defenses late in games, and also to make clutch shots. I do wish Gay would get to the line more often, but given how well the rest of his offensive game is coming together, this is not an overwhelming concern. Put simply, Gay is the most talented offensive player on this team and should be treated as a clear-cut first option. In the team's halfcourt offense, Gay and Gasol should be the focal point.
As for Mayo, he's off to a generally poor start, with his scoring average (15.5), shooting percentage (42%), and PER (12.5) all well below his established norms. But Mayo is better than this and the team needs to put more effort into getting him going, as they did in the first half last night.
That said, there are clear deficiencies in Mayo's game that need to be accounted for. Like Randolph, I suspect Mayo might be more effective the less he does with the ball. Mayo will occasionally make a sharp pass that suggests good playmaking ability, but more often, when asked to create for himself or others, he'll turn the ball over due to shaky ball-handling or misfire on basic passes, like post entry feeds. And Mayo's effectiveness as a one-on-one scorer is also impacted by his mundane size and athleticism. He doesn't get to the rim easily and when challenging what are almost always bigger, more athletic defenders, he's prone to getting his shot blocked or altered.
Where Mayo thrives — or should — is as a shooter. Even with his early struggles this season, he's still shooting 40% from three-point range. I think a large percentage of Mayo's shots should be assisted jumpers — again, I go back to that Ray Allen comparison from the preseason — but I also think the Grizzlies should focus more on getting Mayo these shots rather than letting him turn into a something of a forgotten man. This happened in the first half last night, where the team was running Mayo off screens to get open catch-and-shoot attempts and was looking for him on kickouts for three-point shots. But the Grizzlies got away from this in the second half, and Mayo's touches declined precipitously. Mayo may not be the dynamic shot creator many of us hoped he would be, but he should be an important weapon in this offense. And he should be treated as such.
The Conley Question: If the most important thing on offense is, in Hubie Brown's trademark phrase, knowing when to pass and knowing when to shoot, then that question is more challenging for Conley than for any other of the other starters. Last season, Conley was, rather infamously, more of a stand-around option, often bringing the ball up the floor getting it to the post or wing and becoming a spot-up shooter. This depressed his individual production, but fit his standing as the starting lineup's fifth most talented scoring threat. This season, Conley has been more aggressive creating shots for both himself and teammates, but this — along with a bump in minutes played — has led to him taking too many shots relative to his scoring ability. The team's offense needs to find a better balance between Conley's past deference and his newfound aggression. And perhaps Conley could better regulate his own offense based on the other scoring threats on the floor. Conley's penetration, for instance, seemed more effective with Randolph out of the lineup, when there was more room to operate and a better pick-and-pop partner in Darrell Arthur.
Given the length of this post, this two-part series is going to have to be a third. I'll look at the bench, rotations, coaching, and potential roster changes in the next post. Probably tomorrow.