NBA Film Room: How Grizzlies Kept Winning Without Ja Morant

Ja Morant, Grizzlies, NBA
NBA Analysis Network

To achieve great success in the NBA, it takes having a dynamic star that sets the tone for the team as a whole. For the Memphis Grizzlies, that player is Ja Morant. That type of talent is the basis for the identity of the way the roster is constructed as a whole.

Morant is putting together an impressive 2021-22 campaign—averaging 23.7 points, 5.6 rebounds, and 6.8 assists at 22-years-old. He’s one of the NBA’s fastest-rising young stars and appears primed to become a first-time All-Star.

With how important Morant has become to the Grizzlies, there was much concern about how the team would stay float when he went down with an apparent ankle injury against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 27.

Morant missed 12 games as a result of his ankle injury in addition to being among the many players around the league who were placed in the NBA’s health & safety protocols.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Morant made his return to game action on Monday during the Grizzlies’ matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder. He finished the 102-99 with 16 points, six rebounds, and eight assists in the 28 minutes he played.

Given Morant’s return to the Grizzlies’ lineup, let’s take a look at how Memphis managed to achieve so much success while their top player was sidelined.

Staggering Defensive Improvement

There wasn’t a team playing more impactful defense than the Memphis Grizzlies the 12-game stretch without Morant. The 98.1 defensive rating that Memphis posted ranked better than all 29 other teams around the league within that period.

It’s been a fascinating development considering there was a time when the Grizzlies were arguably playing like the worst defense in the NBA.

From the start of the 2021-22 season leading into the Grizzlies’ first outing of the ten-game stretch without Morant, they produced a 114.8 defensive rating. No team in the NBA had a worse overall output defensively.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Perhaps most fascinating of all is how there are still limitations with Steven Adams as a rim protector and defender out in space. The results can be a mixed bag at times. If he’s caught too far out in space then a blow-by is a real risk where the rest of the unit gets placed in a real stress test. Other times, him being a drop big leaves the team vulnerable to outside shooting.

Opponents shot 63.0% on shots within six feet of the basket when Adams was the nearest defender—registering as a +0.4% difference from their regular percentage. His rim protection ultimately proved to be largely ineffective throughout this stretch—something that’s been a trend for quite some time.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

The most impactful tool in the Memphis Grizzlies’ paint protection arsenal has been Jaren Jackson Jr.’s help rotations to come up with a timely play. He’s often doing this as the low-man but has blown up plays near the basket plenty of times, in general. This isn’t the type of impact Memphis receives from Adams, to say the least

While opposing players are shooting better than their regular percentage near the basket against Adams, they are experiencing a decline of -15.9% when Jackson Jr. is the nearest defender in such situations. On a lower volume, a similar outcome has occurred when Kyle Anderson (-19.8%) and Xavier Tillman (-16.4%) have contested a shot in these same situations.

Anderson’s impact has consisted of handling tougher on-ball defensive assignments and embracing containing dribble penetration. He has the size to absorb contact when an explosive guard is trying to bump him on a drive. He also has a staggering 7-foot-3 wingspan to help pressure a finish when tracking a drive from way out on the perimeter all the way to the rim.

There are some factors that simply have gone the Grizzlies’ way as of late contributing to positive results. Perhaps the greatest example of all has been that Memphis has given up the fewest attempts from the corners compared to all NBA defenses overall this season and that persisted over the 12-game sample. The difference? Teams shot an abysmal 26.7% (1st) on these looks while Morant has been out compared to a blistering hot 49.2% (30th) prior.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

When watching the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s clear there’s a focus on preventing clean looks in the corner. Memphis tends to stay home on the corner as plays develop, but when enough of a window is there for a catch-and-shoot take from the corner, they like to have the closeout use a rear-view contest to throw off the shooter.

A key area where the Grizzlies thrived was forcing turnovers—going hand-in-hand with their strategy to promote baseline attacks and prevent passes to the corner as it has directly helped to create turnovers. No team had a higher opponent turnover percentage (19.1%) and it wasn’t particularly close, either.

The high rate of turnovers the Grizzlies forced translated directly into scoring opportunities—creating 22.3 points per game directly from points off turnovers. While giving up the fewest opponent points off turnovers per game (10.5) within this 12-game sample, Memphis created a net average advantage of 11.8 points per game from turnovers with their excellence on both sides of the equation.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Again, a critical element of the defense has been the priority to take away passing opportunities to the corners. Forcing players who aren’t typically going to be shot creation threats in the middle of the floor or on baseline attacks after attacking off the bounce into positions where they have to give it up has resulted in favorable chances.

Georges Niang, on this play, was attacking off the catch from the corner to get to the middle of the floor against the 2-3 zone look. The nail help collapsed on the drive with the weak-side corner defender hovering toward the paint—leaving the pass to the top of the three-point open. What Memphis wanted to prevent was the simple passing read directly in his line of sight to the weak-side corner.

The initial drive attempt from Shake Milton was met by two defenders in the paint. Milton thought he saw a 2-with-1 coverage and figured he could draw a commitment to the wing to open up the corner. Kyle Anderson was helping the helper on this play by accounting for the dunker’s spot—leaving the perception of potential pass being available to the weak-side corner.

On a basic ball screen play, the Memphis Grizzlies sent the low-man to tag the rim-roller and the general thought process for the ball handler is to get the ball to the spacer in the weak-side corner. The low-man wasn’t fully committed to the rim-roller and was essentially baiting the spray-out pass—creating a chance to play the passing lane.

Even when there’s an intentional action to create a strong-side pass to the corner, the Grizzlies have emphasized taking it away. This pin-in play typically will result in a clean look after capitalizing on an unsuspecting lapse from the defense. after the ball screen. Instead, Memphis diagnosed the play properly and broke up the pass.

When a half-court offense isn’t able to take advantage of the corners throughout the natural progression of a play, it can throw off the approach. Even in simple situations when, for example, the idea on a play is to force an X-out and create a chain of events against a scrambling defensive unit, those chances aren’t there with the weak-side corner taken away.

With Adams often deployed in a drop and the opposition not wanting to attack Jackson Jr. directly in a play, the ball handler is often faced with a situation where attacking a gap for a lower percentage pull-up is the outcome the defense is willing to give up while taking away early pocket passes and deep kick-outs. With the on-ball defender going over, it funnels the ball handler into such situations.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

In speaking of, one of the ways the Memphis Grizzlies have been able to generate turnovers at such a high-level has been the active-hands of Adams when engaged in drop coverage. Ball handlers have continued to diagnose the play in ball screen situations thinking a pocket pass to the roll man is going to be a viable option—leading to a turnover.

Of course, there are situations when Adams is caught in a situation where he’s out in space and his lack of quicknesses compromises the unit. However, in the early stage of ball screen plays, he’s able to be disruptive and force the ball handler to get to more layered approaches as opposed to having the early typical options.

When the screener slips with Adams playing up, that’s one of the scenarios that tend to pose a problem. If the pocket pass manages to connect, Adams is out of potential to make a recovery since he doesn’t have the necessary quickness or length like a Jaren Jackson Jr. or Myles Turner to make a recovery.

When there’s been earlier indication of Adams playing close to the level of the screen, the Grizzlies have been intentional about pre-rotating the low-man to be in position to pressure a potential catch and finish by the rim-roller.

A similar strategy has been deployed when the Grizzlies are looking to ICE coverage against a side ball screen. With two defender committed to the ball, a weak-side help rotation is necessary to prevent the free run to the rim for the roll man. Having proper timing is challenging but Memphis has been crisp in that regard.

The alternative options the Memphis Grizzlies have deployed at the five spot when Adams hasn’t been on the floor have offered more versatility when guarding out in space.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

With Tillman as the big defender, he has seemingly caught players off-guard with his ability to hold his own containing a drive after switching or engaging tightly in ICE coverage. He’s been able to use his foot speed and quick hands to force some turnovers as a result. While Adams can break up pocket passes, he can’t match what Tillman brings here.

The Grizzlies have been intentional about forcing mistakes outside of just a half-court setting, too. Transition situations are often a high percentage opportunity for a team to capitalize on live ball changes of possession—whether it be a turnover, long rebound, or quick spray ahead—Memphis has stayed in the hunt to force takeaways.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Memphis managed to make a real mark in forcing turnovers with their tendency to swarm the ball handler in transition. The initial defender would often cut-off the initial drive direction with a trailing defender getting into a position to pry the ball loose—often without the ball handler even suspecting.

Memphis has been quite effective at jumping the passing lines with a deceptive, well-timed approach at times in addition to the risky spray-ahead heave that teams like to throw at times. Diagnosing the play early and sitting in position waiting to make a play on the ball when the ball handler is unsuspecting has worked quite well.

Other times, the Grizzlies have prevented a drive middle in semi-transition—funneling the ball handler into a situation where they are driving into the corner help. Getting back on defense quickly and embracing the task of having an intentional approach has gone a long way.

Without being able to rely on a future All-Star to shoulder the offensive load and elevating the unit in that respect, the MemphisGrizzlies dug down deep to defend with greater execution and it paid major dividends.

Jaren Jackson Jr.’s Scoring Inside 3-Point Line

Between injuries and general inconsistency, Jaren Jackson Jr. is still finding his way along the path of stardom in the early stage of his NBA career. There’s still been inconsistency within this stretch, but he’s shown some intriguing signs, too.

Perhaps there has been no greater window into what Jackson Jr. can become as an overall player than what he’s shown during this stretch without Morant in the lineup. He’s participated in ten of the 11 games—averaging 19.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Jackson Jr. exceeded the 20-point mark in six of these 11 performances and was involved in the Grizzlies’ offense as a frequent option—receiving a 27.2% usage rate.

Perhaps most interesting of all has been Jackson Jr.’s continued success as an overall scorer despite having what could be considered a quality perimeter shooting outing in just two of his games during this stretch. He combined to go 10-of-14 (71.4%) in a two-game stretch early on but has shot 9-of-43 (20.9%) outside of that.

What’s been most impressive offensively from Jackson Jr. as of late has been the scoring he’s accomplished inside the three-point line—going 48-of-83 (57.8%) on two-point field goals despite not being a shot creation threat from short-range or mid-range. While his three-ball hasn’t been dropping, his reputation has opened things up for him inside the lane.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

The low-release point push shot that Jackson Jr. uses for his jump shot is a limiting approach in some ways. While it can lead to shot-by-shot inconsistency, it ultimately reduces opportunities to be a shot creator, particularly from inside the three-point line. He’s attempted just eight total jump shots off the dribble this season and only four jumpers from inside the three-point line altogether.

The shooting gravity that Jackson Jr. brings to the Memphis Grizzlies offense often opens up opportunities for his teammates. However, there have been situations when he’s been able to benefit directly from how the defender is respecting that part of his game.

Take this cut to the rim as a prime example. Jackson Jr. comes up for a handoff and Tillman reads the on-ball defender aggressively playing the over. With the big engaging tighter on the ball instead of being in a drop, there’s nobody left to impact the play—including the late low-man rotation.

In this instance, the Grizzlies deployed Jackson Jr. and Adams as screeners out of a horns set. Jones decided to dribble left and Adams slipped the ball screen—creating an opportunity to bury his man under the rim as Jackson Jr. pops well beyond the three-point. With Jackson Jr.’s man overplaying the potential catch-and-shoot jumper, the blow-by to get straight to the rim occurs.

A similar scenario can occur when Jackson Jr. is the back-screener in a Spain pick-and-roll sequence. Adams has to be accounted for on his rim-roll sometimes causing the guard to have to get out on Jackson Jr.’s pop. An aggressive pursuit can create a favorable angle to attack off the catch as Adams buries his man in the paint.

Spacing the floor can create opportunities for Jackson Jr. as well. Defenders do not want to leave him open for a standstill catch-and-shoot jumper given that’s when he’s most effective as a shooter. As a result, this can open up a window for him to attack off the catch and use his quickness to hit the defender with a change of direction move as he gets to the rim.

In a simple ball screen sequence where Jackson Jr. is playing the four and setting the screen, there are often two smaller defenders who are engaged in the sequence. He is able to use his size and length when exploding downhill to create a favorable outcome on the finish in the paint. Again, the threat of his jumper draws a tight closeout—enabling the blow-by.

The Grizzlies have given Jackson Jr. opportunities to break down his man at the top of the three-point line as well as getting him the ball at the nail to attack. When factoring in the natural back to basket sequences that develop throughout games, he’s got a layered arsenal to turn to as a scorer.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

When Jackson Jr. is being guarded by a smaller defender, the Memphis Grizzlies like to have him come off a pindown out of the dunker’s spot to make the catch near the nail area. Other times, he will flash to the middle of the floor as a play develops. These are all opportunities for him to use his combination of size and quickness.

When Jackson Jr. does get the ball out on the three-point line as a play develops to attack, his combination of size and speed enables him to take advantage of most matchups. A smaller defender can’t bump him off his path while a bigger defender is often caught on his heels—vulnerable of his veer-step finish.

It’s not often that a power forward has the coordination and fluidity of motion to be effective running a ball screen or receiving the in a handoff. In the case of Jackson Jr., he’s shown to be capable of accomplishing both and using them to his advantage in order to get to the rim for a finish.

The traditional back to basket game from a big man isn’t something that Jackson Jr. does necessarily at a high volume. He has shown at times to have this in his scoring arsenal, however. He can bulldoze a smaller defender on a face-up drive or simple duck-in for a quick hook in the middle of the lane.

A recent play that caught the attention of many from Jackson Jr. occurred against the Los Angeles Lakers. He was fearless against an elite matchup—Anthony Davis—using a forceful attempt to get to the rim for a finish out of the post. It’s one thing to body up a guard, but Davis? That’s a sign of real growth.

For the Grizzlies to achieve their ultimate goals, it’s paramount for Jackson Jr. to ultimately reach his ceiling as a player. Continuing to add layers to his scoring arsenal inside the three-point line has been fascinating to monitor. Next up, will be improvements as a rebounder and playmaker.

Desmond Bane’s Sharpshooting

In his second season in the NBA, the Memphis Grizzlies have entrusted Desmond Bane with a significant boost in usage. He went from receiving a 15.5% usage rate during his rookie campaign and since has landed a 6.2% increase in 2021-22.

Much of Bane’s impact has come in the form of perimeter shooting as usual. He shot a staggering 46.6% from beyond the arc on 6.8 attempts per game. Particularly on catch-and-shoot attempts, he was knocking them down at a % clip while going 45.8% on pull-ups from deep.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Bane converting at such a high clip on a team-leading volume of attempts has set the tone in a major way for the Memphis Grizzlies’ perimeter shooting attack. Memphis shot on average 12.0-of-32.8 (36.6%) during this stretch with no other player averaging at least four takes per game while exceeding a 35% clip.

Bane has continued to drill the simple open catch-and-shoot look at a high clip. Teams are continuing to learn the hard way that leaving him open is simply not a viable option. He’s elevated his impact as a perimeter shooting threat beyond that in ways that have added important dimensions to the Grizzlies’ half-court offense.

The Grizzlies have utilized Bane’s shooting ability by involving him in off-ball screening actions and DHOs. Memphis has been able to make defenses pay for dropping their big or simply not being close enough to the level in addition to punishing the occasional attempt to go under by the guard.

Bane has been aggressive as a shot creator from beyond the three-point line all season when opportunities have come his way to do so. That hasn’t changed with Morant sidelined and the efficiency has continued to be strong.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

Whether it’s been against a tight closeout where a quick move has been needed to clear space, or simply out of a ball screen when an on-ball defender is either going under or is too committed to the initial drive direction when going over, or there’s simply a window of daylight against a developing switch.

When facing traditional drop coverage in ball screens, Bane likes to get into the gap for a pull-up inside the three-point line. His execution on those looks has struggled during this stretch of games but he’s been quite effective on the season as a whole—shooting 45.2% on two-point pull-ups.

There’s still growth that Bane must achieve in order to become more of a reliable initiator for a half-court offense. He needs to continue to become more comfortable as an isolation scorer for the situations when he is facing highly aggressive on-ball defenders and switching—strategies that aren’t commonly deployed against him.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

The Memphis Grizzlies did not change up Bane’s role much in terms of having him involved in uncharacteristic actions. He continued to make defenses pay as a catch-and-shoot threat and that will continue to be the foundation of his impact with or without Morant on the floor.

Steven Adams Crashing the Glass

The Memphis Grizzlies managed to take charge on the glass on both ends—producing a league-best 34.3% offensive rebound percentage while giving up just a 25.1% opponent offensive rebound percentage (4th).

Creating additional scoring opportunities and capitalizing on them is important when a star player is sidelined. No team in the NBA averaged more second-chance points (18.2) than Memphis during this period of games—netting a 5.7 points per game advantage from this category alone.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

The clear-cut top contributor in this area was Steven Adams, who averaged 10.5 rebounds per game with 4.6 of those coming on the offensive boards. With Jackson Jr. being an underwhelming rebounder on both ends, Adams has taken full responsibility to overcompensate.

Adams brings a helpful presence on the offensive boards with his well-timed pursuits of the ball as well as his brute strength being too much for some matchups to handle when having to bang down-low.

When a rim protector fully commits to pressuring a finish attempt, Adams is often gaining a quality position near the top of the charge circle to get a simple putback. There isn’t a defender that will be in position to stop him while the big contesting the initial finish is completely out of position.

Adams is intentional about gaining quality positioning early in the jump shooting process when a teammate is letting it fly. If the opposition ball watches or isn’t being assertive, they better hope the ball misses and flies far away from Adams’ vicinity because he’s going to rip the ball down more often than not.

Perhaps there’s no greater display of Adams’ rebounding presence than the play against the Los Angeles Lakers when he snatched the ball from Anthony Davis’ hands and his persistence resulted in a made putback. The hand strength and just general instinct for rebounding clearly is there with Adams.

While forcing misses is an important part of the process, so is finishing the play with a successful rebound. It takes an engaged and well-connected unit to do it at a high-level and for the Memphis Grizzlies, that effort begins with Adams.

Tyus Jones Filled In Admirably

The primary point guard option the Memphis Grizzlies have turned to with Morant sidelined has been Tyus Jones, who has provided a steady hand for Memphis’ half-court attack.

Jones, who has averaged 10.7 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 5.9 assists in 31.1 minutes per game during this stretch, has been highly efficient in his play. He’s scoring when the opportunities are there but has been the main facilitator and has done so with strong efficiency—posting an impressive 5.00 AST/TO.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

It wasn’t anything fancy from Jones. He often simply runs the half-court offense getting the ball where it needs to be based on the action the team is running. As one might expect, that’s a large reason for his assists being high and his turnovers being very low—there’s minimal risk involved with a strong outlook for assists.

Whether running a ball screen or attacking out of a DHO, Jones was able to chip in some floaters to counter the defense for not respecting him more as a downhill scoring threat. Teams like to drop when Adams is setting a ball screen or involved in a handoff—creating a gap for Jones to exploit.

Other times, Jones was attacking off the catch after spacing the floor for his teammates. Knocking down the simple catch-and-shoot look when left open was one of the ways he provided a timely impact. Some defenses proved willing to leave him open to load up on other players while opportunistic chances developed at times, too.

When a defender made the effort to get out on Jones, he was able to get downhill to create a floater opportunity. Even if an awkward angle from a further distance was required, he is able to convert at a solid clip.

Essentially, relying more on top options like Brooks, Jackson Jr., and Bane involved directly in half-court actions was the plan while Jones just takes care of the ball and makes basic plays. As previously mentioned, no team gave up fewer points off turnovers to their opponent than Memphis in this part of the schedule with a sound half-court approach being key in doing so.

Higher Usage Dillon Brooks

Last but certainly not least is the contributions from Dillon Brooks, who was the Memphis Grizzlies’ highest usage option in their offense without Morant. He averaged a team-most 20.5 points while chipping in 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists while participating in 11 of the 12 games.

Somebody had to get to shot creation sequences out of DHOs and ball screens with Morant sidelined and Brooks was the primary option to answer the call. When the shots are falling, Brooks is capable of making some dynamic plays that can make a solid highlight reel. There’s more to take into consideration, however.

The efficiency that Brooks provided was underwhelming and that’s typically the case with him. A little over a quarter of his field goal attempts came in the form of pull-up two’s and he went 19-of-48 (39.6%) while going 7-of-25 (28.0%) on pull-ups from beyond the arc. These sequences combined for 38.8% of his shot attempts.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

At some point, the Grizzlies will need Brooks to become more efficient in his pull-up shooting across the board. Ja Morant is still a work in progress on theses types of looks in his own right—making it all the more important to have essentially a perimeter co-star to pair with him that is an efficient shot creator for the offense to take the next step.

Brooks struggles with his finishing in the paint when involved directly in sequences with Adams and it showed during this stretch. If Adams isn’t able to seal off the big defender, the circumstances are challenging. The big defender often being deployed in a drop tends to prevent a clean deep drive finish—requiring him to operate in the gap and often settling for a tougher pull-up with the on-ball defender trailing.

The spacing is substantially more open when Adams is off the floor and Brooks is more easily able to turn the corner into a favorable finish attempt. However, being able to execute consistently alongside fellow starting talents is key for the more meaningful games—making pull-up shooting consistency all the more pivotal.

Outlook Going Forward

By achieving such strong success while Morant was sidelined, the Memphis Grizzlies currently find themselves ranking fourth in the Western Conference. Not only that, but Memphis is ahead of the next few teams by a whole 2.5 games despite being on a two-game losing streak.

LATEST NBA NEWS: Ja Morant Continues To Make Case For “Most Improved Player”

There’s a lot of unpredictability when it comes to player availability right now. Whether it’s just a regular situation with an injury or the entrance into the NBA’s health & safety protocol, having to adjust on the fly has been pivotal. Now, they have a solid margin for error as a result of recent play.

About Grant Afseth 1055 Articles
Grant Afseth is a contributor to NBA Analysis Network who specializes in creating in-depth analysis. He also covers the Texas NBA teams for FanNation.