HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — Though their record is a little inflated, the Memphis Grizzlies are a team to be reckoned with. Not only do they have wins over the Heat, Thunder, Knicks and Lakers, but they’re the only team in the league that ranks in the top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Grizz were a terrific defensive team each of the last two seasons, but they were also below average offensively. And championship contenders aren’t mediocre on one side of the ball or the other.
This season, Memphis is the fourth-most improved offensive team in the league, scoring 4.1 points per 100 possessions more than it did last season. That’s a significant jump for the team, but also very consequential in terms of the NBA landscape, because, if the Grizzlies can continue to be a great team on both ends of the floor, they’re going to be a title contender come May and June.
Most improved offenses (points per 100 possessions)
As Ronald Tillery notes in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, better ball movement has been a part of the Grizzlies’ improved offense:
Grizzlies general manager Chris Wallace loves to talk about the virtues of continuity.
“Continuity alone can win you five more games in a season,” Wallace will say.
The Griz cap a five-game home stand Friday night against the Detroit Pistons with an NBA-best 11-2 record. Another byproduct of continuity is their improvement in team assists.
Memphis is averaging 21.6 assists per game — the most since the 2003-04 season when Hubie Brown won the league’s coach of the year honor. Brown’s 50-win squad recorded 23.4 assists per game and ranked fifth in the league.
Hollins & Co. are ranked 14th in the NBA this season. The improvement is noteworthy compared to the rest of Hollins’ tenure when the Griz perennially ranked in the bottom third in assists.
“There’s better ball movement and better awareness,” Hollins said. “We’re sharing the ball with each other whereas when I first got here we were more of an isolation team. We still do isolation some but we’ve got more guys getting assists. That helps when it’s just more than the point guard, more than Mike (Conley) and Marc (Gasol).”
Now, citing raw assist numbers is a bit misleading. More assists come with more buckets, whether you’re a better passing team or not. But the Grizzlies have increased their assist rate, recording assists on 59 percent of their field goals this season. That’s a big jump from 53 percent last year and an even bigger jump from 48 percent (dead last in the league) in Lionel Hollins‘ first full season as coach.
But there’s also no real correlation between assist rate and offensive efficiency. There have been some great offensive teams over the years with a low assist rate (see last year’s Thunder). And there have been some bad teams with a high assist rate. In fact, the Washington Wizards have increased their assist rate from last season more than the Grizzlies have, and that’s clearly not helping them.
What’s helping the Grizzlies is better shooting, from both the 3-point line and the foul line. They’re shooting 37.9 percent from beyond the arc (eighth in the league), up from 32.6 percent (25th) last season. And they rank second in the league at 80.6 percent from the stripe, an increase in almost five percent from last year. Combine those to jumps with a few fewer turnovers, a few more offensive boards and a few more trips to the line, and you have a much-improved offense.
Now, better ball movement might be a key to the improvement from 3-point range, but the percent of the Grizzlies threes that have been assisted (84.4 percent) is about the same as it was last year (85.2 percent).