The Memphis Grizzlies are playing with house money.
Not even a year removed from finally and fully dismantling the most successful era in franchise history, Memphis finds itself in pole position for the Western Conference’s last playoff spot. The eighth-place Grizzlies, 28-31, are two games up on both the Portland Trail Blazers and two and-a-half games ahead New Orleans Pelicans with just six weeks remaining in the regular season. The San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns aren’t far behind, but conventional wisdom is that Memphis’ chief competition for the postseason is Portland and New Orleans.
The biggest reasons why are self-evident. Damian Lillard was playing at an MVP level before going down with a minor groin injury before the All-Star break. Trevor Ariza has proven a perfect fit on both sides of the ball for the Blazers, Zach Collins is coming back from injury next month and there’s still a chance Portland gets a lift – even it’s psychological as much as physical – from the potential return of Jusuf Nurkic.
The Pelicans, meanwhile, have been the league’s eighth-best team since Christmas. Their new starting five of Jrue Holiday, Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson and Derrick Favors boasts a +21.8 net rating in 147 minutes. No other lineup has played even a fifth of that total since the No. 1 pick debuted on January 22, but those featuring Williamson at small-ball five have been even more dominant than New Orleans’ starters.
Unfortunately, the race for the eighth seed can’t be conducted in a vacuum of equal remaining competition and perfect health. As the playoffs fast approach, there’s ample evidence completely out of their control suggesting the Grizzlies will fall victim to that reality.
Jaren Jackson Jr. sprained his left knee against the Los Angeles Lakers on Feb. 22, and is scheduled to be re-evaluated next week. That forthcoming update almost certainly won’t align with his return to the court, though, especially debilitating because Memphis has struggled immensely without him, going 0-3 so far.
Two of those games came absent of Brandon Clarke, too, who started in Jackson’s place versus the LA Clippers on Monday before exiting with a right quad injury. It was announced shortly thereafter that he’d miss at least the next two weeks, leaving Memphis without two of its top three players up front as the West’s postseason push intensifies.
Even that description doesn’t accurately convey just how valuable Jackson and Clarke have been to the Grizzlies this season.
There’s an argument to be made that Memphis is the worst long-range shooting team in basketball. The Grizzlies rank 23rd in three-point percentage and 26th in three-point rate, per Cleaning the Glass. The hapless New York Knicks are the only team to rank lower in both accuracy and frequency from beyond the arc. No team with playoff aspirations other than Memphis sits in the league’s bottom third of both categories.
The good news is that coach Taylor Jenkins and front office honcho Zach Kleiman have ample time to modernize their team’s shot profile. The Grizzlies, remember, were never supposed to compete for the playoffs this season, and Ja Morant has been solid enough from three as a rookie to alleviate the major concerns about his shooting ability during the pre-draft process. But the promise of the future only deflects so much from the bad news of the present, which is that Memphis has been left especially punchless from deep as Jackson and Clarke watch from the bench.
Jackson’s development into a long-range assassin has come more rapidly than anyone anticipated. He’s shooting 39.7 percent on over six tries per game, and there’s not a single player Jackson’s height or taller who matches his blend of usage and three-point rate, according to data compiled at Basketball-Reference. Jackson isn’t a superstar yet, or even all that close, but he’s already a unicorn offensively.
Jackson doesn’t just launch threes on pops to the arc or simple ball reversals, like most players his size that boast legitimate shooting range. He’s comfortable letting fly almost no matter how far he is behind the three-point line, and almost no matter how his feet and shoulders are aligned on the catch.
Jenkins calls several pet plays per game to free Jackson up for clean looks from beyond the arc. Grizzlies guards have also grown adept at fooling defenses by screening for Jackson away from the ball, during instances that otherwise resemble routine NBA offense.
Clarke is way ahead of schedule as a shooter, too. After taking just 15 triples during his lone season at Gonzaga, he’s 21-of-52 from three as a rookie, good for 40.4 percent.
Obviously, Clarke isn’t a high-volume three-point shooter. He does the vast majority of his damage as a pick-and-roll finisher, finding small gaps in the defense to make himself available for pocket passes and lobs that often end with authority at the rim. But the gravity Clarke provides when he’s not involved in Memphis’ initial offensive action still matters, especially given the team’s utter lack of imminently threatening shooters without Jackson in the fold.
Jonas Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng have worked hard to extend their range to the arc midway through their careers. Both have shown they can knock down open triples, but neither is the type of shooter who defenses fear. The same goes for Kyle Anderson, now starting next to Valanciunas at the 4, as well as Morant, Tyus Jones, Josh Jackson and De’Anthony Melton. The notoriously-streaky Dillon Brooks is currently Memphis’ sole rotation player who deserves to be guarded like a real three-point threat.
The result? Possessions like these from the Grizzlies’ home loss on Friday night, when the Sacramento Kings consistently packed the paint with multiple defenders, completely unafraid of Memphis making them pay from the outside.
The numbers are just as damning as the eye test. Lineups without Jackson and Clarke that include Morant take threes on 28.5 percent of their possessions, ranking in the fifth percentile league-wide. Those units attempt 36.2 percent of their shots at the rim, compared to the 46.6 percent ratio of quintets featuring all three of Memphis’ young building blocks – the highest share of rim attempts among any lineup in the NBA, per Cleaning the Glass.
If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that the Grizzlies’ remaining schedule – the most difficult in basketball, according to Tankathon – doesn’t really toughen up until mid-March. Beginning with a key March 12 tilt in Portland, a whopping 16 of their final 17 regular-season games come against teams that will make the playoffs or are fighting tooth and nail to get there. There’s a chance both Jackson and Clarke are back by then.
On the other hand, considering just how rough its last month of the schedule is, wouldn’t it be better for the Grizzlies to bank wins against subpar opponents like the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets and Orlando Magic, who they face in early March? But if Friday’s loss to the Kings is any indication, Memphis is just as likely to lose to those foes without Jackson and Clarke as they are to powerhouses like the Milwaukee Bucks, Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors at full-strength.
These are good problems for the Grizzlies to have. Before 2019-20 tipped off in October, literally no one expected them to be in the playoff hunt entering the season’s final stretch. Missing the playoffs might actually be best for this team’s long-term plans, too. Boston gets Memphis’ first-round pick if it falls outside the top-six, and flattened lottery odds increase the likelihood of teams that just miss out on the postseason vaulting into premium position. The Grizzlies, basically, would undoubtedly rather convey that pick to the Celtics next season, when they’re a year older, wiser and more experienced.
But that dynamic won’t blunt the disappointment of Memphis’ potential late-season collapse in real time. The Grizzlies have been one of the league’s most exciting teams this season, playing with the urgency and electricity that belongs in the playoffs. What a coronation it would be of Morant’s star-turning rookie campaign for the Grizzlies to face off with the Los Angeles Lakers in the first round, with millions and millions watching worldwide.
Memphis’ breakout on the postseason stage, to be clear, will come regardless. But if early takeaways from the Grizzlies’ play absent Jackson and Clarke are any indication, it won’t be until this time next year.
NBA Rookie of the Year Watch – March 5
Two rookies have pulled away from the rest of the pack in the hunt for the Rookie of the Year award. Tristan Tucker breaks down how the rookie pyramid is shaping up halfway through the season.
The All-Star break is nearly upon the NBA, and the Rising Stars rosters were just announced with several rookies leading the charge. Two players have pulled away by a significant margin in recent weeks, with several first-year players making impacts on winning teams. Let’s take a look at how the rookie ladder has changed over the last two weeks.
1. LaMelo Ball, Charlotte Hornets (Previous: 1)
February was kind to the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month, who’s ascended to another level of stardom in the NBA in just his first season. The rookie is averaging 20.1 points, 6.7 assists, 6.2 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game during that span. Since Basketball Insiders’ last update to the rookie ladder, Ball put up a stretch of five 20-plus point games, including a 30-point showing against the Portland Trail Blazers and a 24-point, 12-assist game in Charlotte’s wild win over the Sacramento Kings.
WILD sequence at the end of Hornets-Kings as Malik Monk wins it with an and-one 😳pic.twitter.com/FNEhgdRVr0
— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) March 1, 2021
One of the concerns surrounding Ball when he entered the league was his ability to knock down jump shots at an effective rate. The 6-foot-6 point guard has shattered those concerns with his recent play and knocked down 40.7 percent of his attempts from downtown in just under seven tries per game.
When Charlotte parted ways with Kemba Walker in the summer of 2019, it would’ve been far-fetched to imagine that the Hornets would be stacked at the point guard position in just two years. However, with Ball and Terry Rozier, the Hornets are looking at a legitimate shot at the postseason.
2. Tyrese Haliburton, Sacramento Kings (Previous: 2)
Together with Ball, Haliburton has all but cemented this Rookie of the Year race as a two-party contest. It gets harder to not give Haliburton the top nod with each passing week; the rookie out of Iowa State is completely dominating off the bench for the Kings. Though he’s missed the last three games for Sacramento, Haliburton is averaging 17.4 points, 6 assists and 2.4 steals per game while shooting a very impressive 47.9/39.4/85.7 line in five games over the last two weeks.
Haliburton’s excellence extends beyond his scoring, as the Kings are 1.5 points better when Haliburton is on the floor. Furthermore, the 6-foot-5 guard boasts an assist percentage of 24.6, which ranks in the 97th percentile of all NBA players and a 1.33 assist to usage clip, which ranks in the 100th percentile.
The Kings have to feel good about their young core in spite of their record, especially with Haliburton earning Western Conference Rookie of the Month honors and a spot on the Rising Stars roster.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 24, 2021
3. Immanuel Quickley, New York Knicks (Previous: 5)
Before the season, nobody would’ve guessed that the Knicks would be the fifth seed at the halfway point of the season. Head coach Tom Thibodeau and improved veteran play from All-Star Julius Randle and others have sparked the franchise’s turnaround. No player, however, is more synonymous with that spark of energy than Quickley.
Since the last ladder update, Quickley is averaging 13.5 points on a staggering 48.4 percent clip from deep. When the team acquired Derrick Rose, Quickley’s playing time was in the air, but the rookie’s resilience and determination have kept him in the lineup as he continued to exceed expectations.
4. Saddiq Bey, Detroit Pistons (Previous: 6)
Bey’s placement here should be representative of the overall fantastic job the Detroit Pistons have done with all of their young pieces. Bey is obviously playing great — more on that later — but other draftees Isaiah Stewart and Saben Lee are playing phenomenally as well. Then there’s the case of resurgences in Josh Jackson — averaging a career-high 13.5 points per game — and Dennis Smith Jr., who was just acquired and posted a triple-double in a blowout win.
— SLAM (@SLAMonline) March 4, 2021
But, in a year that many thought would be a throwaway for the Pistons, especially with seventh overall pick Killian Hayes sidelined, Bey and the rest of the young corps along with Jerami Grant and company have stepped up and delivered exciting basketball to Detroit.
Over the last two weeks, Bey is averaging 11.7 points and 5 rebounds per game while shooting an impressive 37 percent from deep on just under eight attempts per game. If Hayes pans out, the 2020 NBA Draft is shaping up to be a turning point for the Pistons.
5. Anthony Edwards, Minnesota Timberwolves (Previous: 3)
If Edwards could hit shots at even a 45 percent clip, there’s little doubt that he would be running away with the scoring title of all rookies and perhaps the Rookie of the Year award itself. However, it continues to be a hindrance, as Edwards is shooting a horrid 32.8 percent from the field and 25.4 percent from 3 in the last two weeks.
It’s unfortunate that the shooting is so inconsistent, as he’s put together a string of four 19-plus points per game contests and several highlight-reel plays across the span of the last two weeks.
ANTHONY EDWARDS…DUNK OF THE YEAR. 😳😳😳
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) February 20, 2021
The last two weeks brought a lot of turmoil to light for the Timberwolves, with the team undergoing a head-coaching change, bringing in Chris Finch from the Toronto Raptors to replace Ryan Saunders. But that’s not all, as Ricky Rubio recently voiced displeasure with the team’s performance and D’Angelo Russell and Malik Beasley continue to be out.
With all the drama surrounding Minnesota, it’s hard to envision any rookie seeing much success there. The fact that Edwards is able to put these high-scoring performances together at all is telling of how special a talent he can be.
6. Jae’Sean Tate, Houston Rockets (Previous: 4)
Tate’s on-court production has dipped slightly in conjunction with the Houston Rockets’ losing streak, but the hyper-athletic forward is still giving it his all on a nightly basis. Look no further than the fact that the team is parting ways with DeMarcus Cousins for proof that Houston believes in Tate as a member of its future.
Houston plays better when Tate is on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. And with that comes rejuvenated energy from all points on the court. When Tate is on, the team’s offensive rebounding percentage increases by 8.1 percent, which ranks in the 98th percentile of the entire NBA.
Even though the Rockets are in a slump, Tate is averaging 9.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on 47.9 percent shooting from the field. Most recently, he enjoyed a double-double in James Harden’s return to Houston.
Honorable Mention: Isaac Okoro, Cleveland Cavaliers (Not Ranked)
Okoro gets his first rookie ladder nod after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw a fantastic stretch in which the team won four straight games. During that span of time, Okoro averaged 10.1 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.3 steals while seeing season-best shooting figures of 49.1 percent from the floor and 41.4 percent from three.
The 6-foot-5 forward out of Auburn has played the second-most minutes of any rookie and has started in every game for the Cavs, a promising start to Okoro’s career. Okoro is also playing strong defense for a Cleveland team that desperately needs good defenders and his stock could rise as the weeks go on.
With a multitude of highlight-reel dunks, passes and plays in just the last two weeks, several rookies are making big impacts on teams in a year where young depth is crucial. While Ball and Haliburton are currently leading the race, don’t sleep on James Wiseman to make a resurgence, as he scored 14, 11 and 16 points, respectively, in his first three games since returning from injury. Be sure to check back with Basketball Insiders for the next rookie ladder to see how tight this competition gets!
NBA Daily: Marcus Morris Thriving Off Bench
Marcus Morris has been one of the Clippers’ most dependable reserves this season, David Yapkowitz breaks it down.
When Marcus Morris Sr. came over to the Los Angeles Clippers last season near the trade deadline, he stepped right into the starting lineup at power forward. He started all 19 regular season games – including the bubble – and when the team re-signed him this past offseason, he looked like a lock to remain in the starting lineup.
But he’s been one of the main anchors of the Clippers’ second unit this year and coming off the bench was something he requested of new head coach Tyronn Lue. Along with Lou Williams, the pair have spearheaded one of the most formidable bench units in the NBA. The pair has combined for 24.8 points per game on the season and they’re both shooting lights out from three-point range.
On a call last month with media, Morris admitted that this dynamic pairing with Williams was exactly what he was envisioning when he initially asked to be part of the second unit.
“Building that chemistry with me and him both coming off the bench, we’ve to be one of, if not the best bench in the league. Both of us are proven vets, proven scorers in this league,” Morris said. “I think our camaraderie, us being really good friends, I think that helps on the court. Not just scoring but just being vets, being able to talk and being able to lead our unit.”
As well as he’s played this season, it wasn’t always such a smooth transition to the Clippers. Morris’ numbers dropped last year from his career averages and he shot 31 percent from the three-point line; the lowest he’s shot since his second year in the NBA. Like most of the team, he faded a bit during the team’s second-round playoff debacle against the Denver Nuggets.
This season, although his scoring isn’t as high as it used to be at 12.4 points per game, Morris’ shooting has been much more efficient. His 46.3 percent from downtown is a career-high. He looks much more comfortable in the flow of the offense and he’s played his role to perfection. Naturally, Morris credits Lue with helping him establish his role.
“I think the biggest difference is just having that exact from [Tyronn Lue] just talking to me and telling me exactly what he’s wanting me to do. Last year, I thought I was a lot of times in no man’s land, I couldn’t really put my finger on my role,” Morris said.
This year, I’m coming off the bench to be aggressive, coming off to bring energy, shoot the ball, the guys I’m playing with just playing off them. Lou does a great job of drawing the defense and you have to have guys that can knock it down. I’m just here to do whatever it takes, whether it’s to bring energy or to score.”
Morris began the season missing the first eight games due to a knee injury. But he’s always been one of the more durable players in the league and since then, he only sat out one game. Thankfully for him, he didn’t end up needing surgery only rest.
Lue has been quite pleased with Morris’ contributions this season. He credited Morris’ conditioning while acknowledging the extra work he’s put in to be as effective as he has.
“Just putting in the work, just trying to get his body right, just trying to adjust to the speed of the game, when you’ve been out for so long it is kind of tough to just step back in and play well,” Lue said. “We’ve been needing and asking more from him in the post, rebounding the basketball and, of course, shooting the basketball. He’s been great and he’s been putting in the work. You see the results.”
Like the rest of the team, Morris has been able to shut out any lingering effects from the bubble. He knows the Clippers have championship aspirations this season and, because of the way they flamed out in the playoffs, there will doubt as to whether this team is capable of winning a title.
“Seeing how many people jumped ship last year, I think it definitely helped us. That’s how it works when you have a good team and doesn’t work, people tend to jump off the ship,” Morris said. “We get back to work and we get a championship, people will jump back on the ship. That’s just how it works. We are going to continue to find our camaraderie and we are going to continue to get better. Come playoff time, we’re going to be ready.”
And for the Clippers to win their first championship in franchise history, they’re going to need Morris to be at his best. His versatility is key to their attack, while that ability to stretch the floor with his three-point shooting –plus putting the ball on the floor or posting up – is a big part of what makes the Clippers so dangerous.
He’s willing to do whatever needs to be done.
“I’m a hooper. Whatever you need me to do. One thing I do, I don’t just talk,” Morris said. “I’m just playing. I’ve been in the league for a long time, going on my eleventh year. It doesn’t change for me. One thing you’ll find out about me is I’m never too high, never too low.”
NBA AM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
Will we see Rudy Gobert win another Defensive Player of the Year Award? Or will we have a new winner this year?
In the fourth edition of the Defensive Player of the Year Rankings, Basketball Insiders continues to look at the players excelling on the defensive side of the ball. The Utah Jazz continues to be a powerhouse in the Western Conference amidst a surprising season, and they will still be well represented in these rankings. But there’s another newcomer to the list, an MVP-caliber player looking to lead his team to the NBA Finals. Ready to take look at the rankings? Let’s get into it.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 2)
The 28-year-old center out of France is one of the best defensive big men the game has seen in recent years – and this year is another example of that as Gobert has been the anchor of the best team in the NBA. Better, he has been a vital piece to their unanticipated success by taking part in all 35 of the Jazz games thus far.
Looking at Gobert’s numbers, he is still second in the league in blocks with 2.8 blocks per game, trailing only Myles Turner in that category. Gobert has had three or more blocks in 18 games, even reaching four in 12 of them.
In the defensive rating category, Gobert ranks third in the league with a rating of 103.0, per NBA Advanced Stats. This number is just enough behind Lebron James at 102.6 and teammate Mike Conley, who leads the NBA with a rating of 100.8. These three players are also in the top three for defensive win shares, with Gobert sitting in third with a DWS of 0.154. Gobert should be the current frontrunner as he has led the best team in the NBA on defense through the first half of the season.
2. LeBron James (Previous: 4)
As a reminder, LeBron James has not made an All-Defensive Team since 2014. How about breaking that streak with a DPotY award as well? He very well could.
Without Anthony Davis, James is unarguably the tone-setter for the defense. The Los Angeles Lakers’ victory over the Portland Trail Blazers on Feb. 26 is a prime example of this. During that contest, James had 3 blocks and 4 steals as the Lakers won by 9. Furthermore, James has managed to average 1 block and 1.3 steals per game since the injury to Davis.
Notably, James ranks in the top three in both defensive rating and defensive win shares. James is just behind Conley in defensive rating at 102.6 compared to Conley’s 100.8 rating. Keep an eye on James’s defensive impact for the defending champs as the season continues to unfold.
3. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Embiid has been very neglected on this list, but now is the time for him to make his appearance. Yes, it is very high for a player to debut on this list, but he’s been on a tear as of late.
In his career-high night on Feb. 19, Embiid went off for 50 points, 17 rebounds and 4 blocks in a matchup with the Chicago Bulls. This is the game that put the league on notice of Embiid’s brilliant season, both offensively and defensively, as he leads the first-place Philadelphia 76ers. As things stand right now, he’s averaging 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per game.
Taking a deeper dive into Embiid’s floor presence is what makes him stand out. He’s 13th in the NBA in defensive rating at 106.6. He also ranks 10th in defensive win shares with 0.131, per NBA Advanced Stats. The coaching change in Philadelphia has allowed Embiid to run the Sixers’ offense and, as things stand right now, he’s certainly in both the MVP and DPotY conversation.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 1)
Since an extended absence, Conley returned to make an instant impact in the Jazz lineup, averaging 2.0 steals over his last five games. The unexpected success has been due in large part to Conley’s improved play. Of course, Conley is high up on this year’s All-Star snub list, but his significant individual improvements won’t go unnoticed here.
Conley is currently tied for third in the league in steals per game at 1.5. He is also first in defensive rating with a rating of 100.8. Beyond that, he then ranks second in defensive win shares with 0.168. Without Conley, it’s hard to see the Jazz having the success they’ve enjoyed this year. Watch out for him as the season approaches the midpoint as he tries to become the first guard to win the award since Gary Payton during the 1995-96 season.
5. Myles Turner (Previous: 3)
Despite a slip in the standings for the Indiana Pacers, Myles Turner has been a very bright spot for the team defensively. He leads the league in blocks with 3.4 per game and has a pretty sizeable lead over Gobert in that category. Add in the fact that he is averaging 1.1 steals per game, it’s easy to see why Turner is so high in these rankings.
If the Pacers can manage to get things back in order amidst a sub-.500 record thus far, Turner could rise into the upper part of these rankings again.
Honorable Mention: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: N/A)
While voter fatigue may hinder the chance of Giannis earning his second consecutive DPotY award, he should be in the conversation again. The Milwaukee Bucks are amongst the top three in the Eastern Conference standings, thanks to the stellar defensive play from the two-time MVP.
It will be interesting to see where he finishes in the voting after the season’s end. Maybe he gets this award for a second-straight year, while the voter fatigue towards him takes place in the MVP ballots.
While these rankings have gotten competitive as of late, there’s still plenty of time for rising and falling in Basketball Insiders’ weekly Defensive Player of the Year rundown.