The Memphis Grizzlies, long known for their defensive prowess during the Grit N’ Grind era, slipped to 24th in defense in 2017-18 through a combination of a coaching change, an injury to Mike Conley, and a step back on that end of the floor from their anchor, Marc Gasol. With that hellish year behind them, the addition of Kyle Anderson on the wing, and Conley’s return, Memphis has taken its rightful place among the league’s top defensive units. Its second-ranked defense this season would be the team’s best finish since 2012-13, when it posted a ludicrous 99.7 defensive rating on its way to a Western Conference Finals appearance.
The Grizzlies’ defensive acumen this season is fueled by a conservative approach on both ends of the floor. They rarely turn the ball over and don’t crash the offensive glass, instead opting to get back in transition and wall off opponents’ full-court drives to the rim. This continues in the half court, as the team drops Gasol and their other big men deep in the paint in pick-and-roll defense and rely on their perimeter length and the math of a two-point pull-up jumper to work in their favor.
For the most part, it’s worked. Gasol in particular has looked revitalized this season. He’s rebounding better than he ever has and has more than doubled his steal rate over last season. In areas that cannot be measured, he also looks to be a lot more engaged as a team defender, consistently communicating switches and coverages loudly throughout games.
In the above clip, the Utah Jazz go to their Thumb Series on a vital late-game possession. Joe Ingles sets the down screen on Gasol, which allows Rudy Gobert to set a ball screen for Donovan Mitchell. In an effort to keep Gasol in the paint, the Grizzlies switch the down screen, leaving Anderson and Garrett Temple to contend with the Mitchell-Gobert pick-and-roll, which they’ll switch with relative ease.
At this point, Gasol is matched up with Ingles, which would normally drag him way outside the paint. However, he does a great job communicating with Temple to leave Gobert and take Ingles, allowing Gasol to remain anchored. Ingles never touches the ball, as Anderson does a good job pressuring Mitchell while Temple plays the passing lane in his recovery, knowing that Ingles’ backdoor cut is covered by Gasol in the paint. Mitchell and Gobert try to re-work their two-man game together and Gasol is right there to take away any options going to the basket.
However, this clip also highlights the biggest problem Memphis has defensively: They give up a ton of corner three-point attempts. One in ten of their opponents’ shots are a corner three, the second-worst rate in the league. They’re on pace to be tied with the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks for the worst rate this decade.
On the final action of the above play, Mitchell and Gobert work the pick-and-roll and Shelvin Mack crashes down from the weak-side corner to tag Gobert’s roll, leaving Jae Crowder open. Mitchell finds him, and although he misses this one, Memphis is playing with fire allowing shots like this on a consistent basis. It’s still early in the season, but there is significant statistical evidence that a team’s shot profiles on both ends of the floor in the early portion of the season is heavily correlated with their final shot profile.
The trade-off between helping from the corners and allowing big men to get rolling to the basket has been around as long as the pick-and-roll itself. The high pick-and-roll is as popular as it is because it puts the defense in an impossible situation, stuck between helping onto the roll man and sticking to a shooter in the corner. As the league has gotten smarter with its spacing and better with its outside shooting, that choice becomes even more difficult for defenses.
At the very least, the Grizzlies’ aggressiveness in the paint has paid dividends. Memphis ranks seventh in defensive points per possession scored by pick-and-roll roll men and are about average in frequency as a proportion of overall defensive possessions, according to Synergy. They force a ton of turnovers in these spots as well, using their length and active hands to swipe down on big men around the basket or steal a kickout pass to that open man in the corner.
Through a combination of Gasol’s play in the middle and their additions on the perimeter — including Conley, who essentially missed all of last season — the Grizzlies are off to a flying start on the defensive end of the floor, though there are still cracks in their system that could turn into major issues later on in the year. If opponents regress to the mean in their three-point shooting, especially from the corners, that could create some trouble for a Memphis team that has focused so heavily on walling off the paint and helping from the perimeter.