What went wrong in December? It's pretty easy to narrow down. The defense, led by Tony Allen's shut-down work on the wing and Marc Gasol's more subtle but perhaps more meaningful anchoring in the paint, has remained elite. After allowing only 96.2 points per 100 possessions in November, the team allowed only 96.6 in December, and currently ranks second in the NBA behind Indiana. (All specific stats per NBA.com. Team rankings per ESPN.com.) The rebounding has actually improved at both ends of the floor, with the team leading in the NBA in offensive rebound rate and tied for fifth overall.
Instead, the slide has been almost entirely the result of a massive regression — some might say correction — on the offensive end.
In November, the Grizzlies scored 105.6 points per 100 possessions and, at one point, were among the league's top five offenses, drawing media attention across the league for their suddenly elite offense. In December, they've nose-dived to 96.3 points per 100 possessions and have now fallen to 20th in overall offensive efficiency, matching last season's mediocrity.
Pretty much all the good things I wrote about the team's offense here and here have reversed or declined since November gave way to December, as the offense has gotten slower and grown more stagnant — more reliant on isolation plays from top scorers Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph and on mid-range jumpers from nearly everyone.
The early dynamism — with offensive improvement built on more three-pointers, more free-throws, and a faster pace rather that simply better overall shooting — has mostly disappeared.
From the free-throw line, the team's entire starting frontcourt has generated fewer attempts than in November, going from a combined 14.5 attempts per game in November to 9.8 in December, making up the bulk of a team-wide decline of 5.4 attempts per game. This is partly the result of a returning Darrell Arthur — who is more of a mid-range jump shooter — cutting into Gasol and Randolph's minutes, but both starting bigs have had their free-throws decline at a steeper rate than their minutes.
The third component is pace, which was already moderate but declined in December, dropping the team to 23rd overall. Fastbreaks have declined, from 16 points a game in transition in November to 10 a game in December. (Meanwhile, the Grizzlies have given up more on the break, leading to a 10-point swing, from a roughly +3 to -7, month to month.) But pace also seems to have impacted the team's halfcourt offense, with fewer quick-hitters, particularly in the post, before opposing defenses are set.
Individually, while much of the focus tends to be on the team's top scorers, Gay and Randolph, it's the play of Conley and Gasol that's more crucial to overall team offense.
Gay shot very poorly in December, but wasn't much better in November and his percentage of the team's overall field-goal attempts actually declined. Gay's regression on three-pointers and free-throw attempts have been part of the problem, but his overall lackluster production hasn't been much of a month-to-month variable. Randolph has taken on a bigger offensive role with similar efficiency as the team's overall offensive performance has plummeted, but I don't think that correlation is particularly meaningful.
Gay and Randolph might be the team's best scorers, but the offense functions better when Conley and Gasol are playing well and the ball is moving through them.
Gasol's scoring has been impacted by his declining free-throw rate, but the bigger issue is his playmaking, with more of his December high-post touches resulting in mid-range jumpers (which jumped from 26% of his attempts to 33%) rather than assists (which fell from 4.5 a game to 3.2). With Gasol's turnovers also up, a lot of this seems to have resulted from other teams scouting out these plays better, with those backdoor cuts and halfcourt lobs that were November highlights now harder to come by.
Conley, more than anyone, is the key to team success. I wrote it in my season preview and I believe it more now. In November, when the team was 12-1 with a top-10-quality offense, Conley was averaging 15.8 points per game on 53% shooting, a performance that prompted current Grizzlies VP John Hollinger, then a columnist for ESPN.com, to tab Conley as a potential first-time All-Star and to write this:
Conley has a lot of factors in his favor, starting with the fact that he's playing like an All-Star. His 21.08 PER blows away his previous career best, and he's taken on a much larger scoring role without any decline in efficiency — a big reason the once-scuffling Memphis offense ranks 11th thus far.
Since then, Conley has fallen hard — 11.4 points per game in December on 34% shooting, his PER falling by four points — and the team with him. The improved shot selection that partly drove Conley's early success, and which mirrored an overall team trend, has regressed some. Mid-range jumpers doubled from 8% of Conley's November attempts to 16% of his December attempts, but that's still well below the 29% of his attempts last season that came from mid-range. That's meant somewhat fewer threes (37% of November attempts, down to 30%) and fewer attempts at the rim (44% in November down to 39% in December). But, for Conley, shot selection has been less of an issue than shot making. Three-point regression from November's unsustainable 47% was to be suspected. More troubling is how much Conley struggled to finish at the rim in December. After converting 58% of his attempts at the rim last season and 61% in November, Conley converted only 40% in December. And while Conley's assist and turnovers mostly held steady, the later has increasingly become an indicator of team success. Adding to the reasons for concern, given past trends, is that despite being much less effective in December, Conley's minutes actually increased.
You could see some attempt to correct this in the past two games, where Lionel Hollins employed a different substitution pattern — bringing in Bayless earlier — and limited Conley to an average of 30 minutes in the two games.
I'm reluctant to get too much into Xs and Os, but some fixes for the Grizzlies offense are apparent. Individual shooting from Gay, Conley, and Bayless needs to bounce back, and given how aberrantly bad they each were in December that seems likely, though not to the also aberrantly high November levels. The team needs to pick up the pace some, both to generate more fastbreak points and also to get into the halfcourt offense quicker. And the overall approach needs to shift back away from isolation to more team-oriented offense spurred by Conley and Gasol and geared toward generating shots in the paint and from outside the arc. Truthfully, my instinct is always to run more offense through Gasol, who remains the team's best combination scorer/playmaker. But Gasol is unselfish to a fault and, perhaps given his size and the fatigue issues it brings, seems to drift more toward his mid-range shot as games and seasons wear on. He also carries an enormous burden on the defensive end.
Conley, in general, simply has to be better for the Grizzlies to generate above-average offense, though with the loss of Pondexter dealing a body blow to the team's already suspect outside shooting, getting back into the Top 10 offensively with this roster may be difficult.
My increasing sense is that the reality of roster limitation, the team's troublesome salary structure, and the slide down into the middle of the Western Conference playoff race are all making an in-season roster shake-up more likely — though still far from a certainty. But that's a topic for future research.