Alright Grizznation, you all know the scene right now so I’m not going to set the table with a long winded introduction. It’s cut and dry — our Grizzlies are off to a rough start.
Arguably lucky to be sitting at two wins and three losses, it’s not the Grizzlies’ record that is sending fans running for the alarms. It’s the way the record has been developed that has us spooked.
Now first, we need a bit of a reminder: Rome was not built in a day and NBA empires are not established in November. So there’s some comfort in that, I guess. The wise man says, “it’s important to be patient.”
Yes, we have established it’s early, and most of us get that. But that is not to say that we’re devoid of cause for early concern.
A locker room is a fickle thing. It can spiral out of control at an unbelievable pace. For a Western Conference Finalist coming off of an offseason of upheaval in unlikely places for a team of its stature, and playing in a city that is already letting it rain boos from the rafters, the urgency can be accelerated ten-fold.
It also doesn’t help the patience matter when we are witnessing teams like Philadelphia and Orlando out there shocking the world by each sitting at 3-2.
So, what’s the root of the ruckus?
It’s simple: we all want to know what the hell happened to “Grit and Grind.”
Our fan base rallied around the team last season for reasons transcending far beyond end results. The 2013 Memphis Grizzlies team had a personality — an undeniable charm that flat out rejected all negative connotations of entitlement plaguing public perception of today’s professional athletics, while embodying in full, the character of the blue collar city which it called home.
The delayed gratification of awaiting results this year is one thing, but it is another thing entirely when it appears as though the boys in blue are dogging it out there. We Grizzlies fans are not cut from the cloth to stand by idly when we do not see the same drive that we have come to expect of the home team. Nor should we be.
But is that really the case? Are the same Grizzlies — the guys who buttered their bread by scratching and clawing through each and every possession last season with the same personnel — really just not putting in the requisite effort to get things done?
The somber and dejected tone of the post-game locker room on Monday night insinuates that this cannot be the truth. The guys seem just as blindsided as us about the apparent lack of fire.
So what’s the root of the root of the ruckus?
This one’s a little more complicated.
I cannot speak on the behalf of Coach Joerger or anybody within the organization, but it appears that the culprit is the increased emphasis on the offense, which has in turn is created a feedback loop, hindering the defense and making the offense look even worse.
Installing a new offensive system on an established team takes time, and with only so much of it in a day, something has to give. It only complicates matters that the Grizzlies’ personnel is not what you would call “tailor made” for a motion offense (and to be fair, I’m already seeing far less “motion” in the offense than there was in the preseason).
Consequently, I’m developing the impression that there may be a bit of a notion of “let’s work on the offense because we can flip a switch defensively and be who we were.”
At this point you’re probably saying, “but Steve, what does this have to do with the effort problem?” Well, proverbial reader – in the words of Jules Winnfield, allow me to retort.
An underrated element of who we were defensively last year was the superior communication on the court. Not just effort. Not just hustle. Effort and hustle are what we, in the stands and behind the television set, see. However, the way the Grizzlies were able to communicate, both by spoken and unspoken means, and move on a string as a team is what allowed them to go all out when making the rotation, jumping the passing lane, or hedging the screen.
Reviewing the game tape, it’s not primarily a lack of defensive energy that’s killing the Grizzlies. The real guilty party is this very lack of communication and rotation awareness that is making our guys seem lethargic.
It is not that they are failing to extend effort in fighting through screens, but rather that they are simply getting lost in them — and the help defender is suddenly unsure of when to commit and who will subsequently have his back. Opposing offensive gameplans are working because our defensive acuity is not on point.
This stems from extensive attention to detail and a unified awareness of the mission on the defensive end. Being under-prepared defensively, or to be fair to the coaching staff I’ll say under-emphasized defensively, perpetuates a domino effect of missed rotations, silly fouls, mounting frustration, loss of focus, and eventually deflated composure.
Missed rotations look lazy, but NBA basketball is a fast, fast game. Some of the most talented athletes that the league has ever seen have failed to make it because the mental element of the game is so pivotal. The ability to filter, process, and interpret data at a split second’s time is paramount.
If you’re not prepared to make the right rotation at the right time, then no amount of “grind” factor is going to save your sorry soul.
Premeditated action is critical. If you’re one step faster in your head, you’re four steps faster on the court.
Naturally, our anchor in the post and reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol has arisen as the easy-target scapegoat for the team’s early struggles on the defensive end of the floor.
He’s also the prime example here.
Last season he was the ringleader of the Grizzlies’ on court communication. Grantland’s Zach Lowe said of the Spanish big man last season:
“He is almost always in the right place, moving around the floor in sync with an opponent’s offensive sets, and with such braininess it often seems as if Gasol is one step ahead of that offense. He works with an economy of movement, rarely over-rotating himself out of position or losing touch with his man while helping elsewhere.”
Another sportswriter, the identity of whom unfortunately escapes me at the moment, referred to Marc’s defensive technique as a form of “echo-location,” in how he keeps tabs of the opposition and translates that to keep the Grizzlies’ defense in sync.
Marc is not by NBA standards fleet of foot. His rotations this season have been the furthest thing from crisp, and highlighted by his thunderous slap of the scorer’s table on Wednesday night, he’s pretty pissed off about it.
He is not fleet of foot this year, but he wasn’t last year either. He was just more prepared. He knew where he needed to be. More importantly, he knew where his teammates were supposed to be. And they knew where he would be as well as where they should be. Catch my drift?
The defense starts with Marc, but it requires everybody to be operating in synchronization. For the time being, they’re just not dancing to the same beat.
Pushing the aforementioned feedback loop, the defensive inefficiency (Memphis currently sits at 24th in the league, allowing 104.5 points per 100 possessions) perpetuates the Grizzlies’ struggles, real and perceived, on the offensive end. Bad defense accentuates the offensive inefficiencies because with a shortage of creative and autonomous sources of offense, the Grizz look hopeless from the start when trying to cut into a deficit. Enter Tayshaun Prince as the other fan base whipping boy.
So what does this all mean?
Firstly, a heavy dose of patience is in order, but there is more to it than that.
As constructed, this team needs to play in the mud. The Grizzlies didn’t get to where they were last season on talent. The 2013 Grizzlies grinded the living hell out of talented teams. They grinded the opposition them down to the bone – down to their level – and took pride in doing so.
The Grizzlies are not going to get to where they want to go this season with the defense riding off of talent, effort, or a spillover of continuity, alone. The roster does not possess enough offensive explosion potential to compensate for defensive lapses. As the Grindfather Tony Allen would say, they need to keep their “antennas up,” defensively at all times, to keep games in reach.
For now, as stressed it’s incredibly early in the year. I’m cool with them taking their time to get the offense tweaked and figured out, and I have the utmost confidence that Joerger and his staff will in fact do so.
But when that’s squared away the defensive attentiveness will have to ramp up considerably. It’s going to take them time and require a lot of “sitting tight” on our part. Save a few good games here and there, the Grizzlies’ amoebic state is likely to continue to float along until that “switch” is flipped back into position. In the interim we are left to hope that the offensive kinks are worked out as punctually as possible, while we “patiently” long for the Grizz to steal back the identity that we fell in love with at a time which seems so long ago.
“Grit and Grind” may have been exhibited on the Grindhouse floor, but it was born in the film room.