Teething Problems: The 1—2 Grizzlies’ Negative Feedback Loop



The Grizzlies lost on the road in Dallas Saturday night, dropping to 1–2 on the year. Tonight they’re back home to face the Boston Celtics. What’s working for the Grizzlies so far, and what’s not?

First things first: the reason the Grizzlies have gotten off to a 1–2 start is not that Dave Joerger’s “new offense” is terrible and doesn’t work. Are the Grizzlies’ offensive difficulties related to the transition to a different offensive mindset? Sure. But their offensive difficulties aren’t the real problem so far: the bigger problem at this point—the reason the Grizzlies’ opponents in all three games so far have scored 100 points—is the defense.

In all three of the Grizzlies’ games so far, the two losses on the road at San Antonio and Dallas and the overtime win at home against Detroit, the Grizzlies’ interior defense has been slow to rotate and has let opposing guards drive to the rim pretty much at will. Lockdown perimeter defense has come and gone—usually when the Grizzlies have found themselves in a hole (as has happened in all three games played so far) they’ve been able to dig themselves back out by tightening up and generating turnovers—but even when the perimeter is secure, the path to the basket appears to be far too open for opposing guards.

I would assume that there’s correlation (if not causation) between the Grizzlies’ defensive ratings (points allowed per 100 possessions) in the last three games—104.8 against the Spurs, 106.3 against the Pistons, and 116.9 against the Mavericks—and the Grizzlies’ newfound pace. Last season, the Grizzlies were 30th out of 30 teams in the league in pace[1] at 88.4. So far this season, they’re 18th out of 30 with a pace of 94.6. That’s a noticeable jump, and it’s happening mostly with the same group of players. The faster pace is probably at least partly to blame for some of the Grizzlies’ problems so far, and one gets the feeling that Joerger would like to play even faster if the players on the roster would allow for it.

On the other end, things aren’t as simple as “Joerger’s offense sucks.” That’s a cop-out this early in the season, and it’s not paying attention to what’s really going on. The Grizzlies struggles in the three games so far, to my eyes,come down to three specific things:

Turnovers. This is fairly obvious. It’s only three games into the season, but so far the Grizzlies have been turning the ball over an average of 17 times per game. Last year’s average was 14. But especially in the last two games, it seems like the Grizzlies have gotten themselves where they’re down by single digits, they’re not getting stops on the other end of the floor, and then they turn the ball over on consecutive offensive possessions and thus never close the gap with their opponent—or at the very least, they make that gap harder to bridge. Playing from behind is bad enough. Playing from behind and then giving the ball away on multiple consecutive trips down the floor is worse. The Grizzlies are going to have to do a better job of taking care of the basketball than they’ve done so far. It feels like some of the turnovers are coming from bad passes—guys are unsure of where their teammates are going to be (because they’re unfamiliar with the sets being run) and they’re also unsure of which teammate they’re going to be passing to, making it much easier for opposing defenders to jump those passes and generate transition baskets. One hopes that will tighten up as the Grizzlies get more comfortable with each other (several new bench players, after all) and more comfortable with the new sets.

Shot selection. I think newly-contract-extended Quincy Pondexter is maybe the most guilty of this one, what with his newfound allergy to taking open three-pointers even though he’s the best three point shooter on the team not named Miller. I think this baffling phenomenon was best explained yesterday on Twitter by Matt Hrdlicka of Grizzly Bear Blues:

I think, ultimately, that this is a comfort-level thing. These Grizzlies are still playing completely inside their heads and haven’t progressed to the point where they don’t have to think about every move they’re making on the court yet. Until they’re not second-guessing every move that they make—which, with the implementation of any new offensive philosophy is something that’s going to take a little bit of time—they’re going to be taking shots that maybe they shouldn’t be taking. And when they’re taking bad shots, it’s going to (1) lead to more turnovers and (2) have a direct effect on the next thing that’s going on:

Defensive efficiency. Last year, the Grizzlies—through their slow, methodical, play with which they simply pummeled opponents into eventual submission—finished 1st in the league in points allowed (89.3 points per game) and 2nd in the league in defensive rating (100.3 points allowed per 100 possessions). The extremely high level of defensive play, coupled with the fact that the Grizzlies did everything they could to, well, grind opponents to a halt and limit the number of possessions, meant that the Grizzlies were an elite defensive team, able to make pretty much anybody look like a lottery team on any given night.

That simply isn’t the case this year, and it’s related to pace, but it’s also related to the bad shooting and turnovers, which are in turn related to the poor decision making going on. When you take a bad shot early in the clock and aren’t able to secure an offensive rebound, or when you simply turn the ball over on a bad pass, you’re creating transition opportunities for the other team, and you’re giving them easier baskets than they’d be getting otherwise. The Grizzlies discomfort in general is messing with their defense—and since the defense isn’t the all-suffocating airborne toxic event it was last year, the Grizzlies are falling behind and having to play catch-up, which leads to a sense of pressure and a desire to play for the quick score, which means bad shot selection and more turnovers, which leads to falling further behind, which leads to more bad decision making and more easy baskets for the opponent…

You see where I’m going with all of this. The problems the Grizzlies are up against right now aren’t related to the offensive system in and of itself—they’re related to the team’s overall discomfort with the new style of play, and that new style of play is going to take a while before it’s not new anymore. But the offensive system really isn’t all that different from the old one. It’s just sped up, and refocused around the Marc Gasol/Mike Conley pick and roll as a starting point instead of “try to post up and then pass out to the wing if that doesn’t work.” It’s about trying to run the offense in a way that spaces the floor better so that the Grizzlies’ dominant post play can be more efficient and more effective, not “going away from what works.”

It’s only three games into this season. I’m not about to say that there’s no reason to be concerned—of course there is. We have no idea how long this transition is going to take, how well the roster as currently assembled is going to adjust to the tweaks to the Grizzlies’ offensive system, how many games it’s going to cost the Grizzlies and how that’s going to affect the Western Conference playoff standings, which will probably be tighter than Fat Elvis' jumpsuit. There’s plenty of room for the whole thing to go pear-shaped during this transitional period. But these guys are good basketball players. My gut feeling right now is that whatever roughness we’re currently seeing is temporary—it’s not going to be this way all year. The question now is when are they going to start getting it together?

Celtics as learning experience

Tonight would be a good night to batten down the hatches and beat the crap out of a team that’s not very good (winless, actually) and who just played a road game last night in Detroit (which they lost by 10 points). This year’s model of the Boston Celtics is “in a rebuilding year,” to put it nicely. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett are gone now, and Rajon Rondo is still out, and Jeff Green and Avery Bradley and the Nets’ sloppy seconds just aren’t going to get very far this year, even in the Eastern Conference.

Taking care of business at home tonight against a bad team could give the Grizzlies a little bit of the breathing room and momentum they need headed into the other two home games this week against the Pelicans (yes, I typed “Hornets” the first time) on Wednesday and the Warriors on Saturday. Those games are practically guaranteed to be much more important at the end of the year than this one. The pressure is off (other than the pressure the Grizzlies are no doubt placing on themselves not to fall to 1–3 on the year) and the opponent is pretty bad, so tonight’s contest against the Celtics should (I say should) be a fairly straightforward win.

A win, and a chance to work out some of the kinks in the negative feedback loop that’s currently giving the Grizzlies so many problems. Here’s hoping they can work out some of that bad mojo tonight.

  1. Which Basketball Reference defines as “an estimate of the number of possessions per 48 minutes by a team.”  ↩

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