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.
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