Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Ja Morant’s game-winner vs. Suns shows what Grizzlies were missing without him, even if the results didn’t

The just in: The Memphis Grizzlies are not better without Ja Morant. Nobody with a glimmer of brainpower ever believed they were, of course, but when Memphis, a 9-10 team prior to Morant’s knee injury, shot up to No. 4 in the Western Conference behind a 10-2 stretch without its star point guard, stupid things were said. 

Morant said he felt “hurt” when he heard fans telling him to “sit back out” during his first game back, a 102-99 loss to an Oklahoma City team the Grizzlies had previously beaten by an NBA record 73 points in Morant’s absence. 

On Monday, Morant reminded those few misguided fans — and the NBA world at large — what they’d been missing with an electric, 33-point showing that included the game-winning bucket against the Phoenix Suns

Morant began the season on a first-team-All-NBA-type tear, but the Grizzlies, despite a top-10 point differential and the No. 6 overall offense, per Cleaning the Glass, were just treading water at 9-9 with Morant at the helm (I’m not counting the loss to Atlanta in which Morant only played nine minutes).

Defense was the problem. Over those first 18 games, the Grizzlies gave up 110 points per 100 possessions, per CTG, which ranked 15th league-wide, but even that mediocre mark was being propped up by non-Morant minutes. For the season, Memphis has given up over 116 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court, which would register as the worst defense in the league by a fairly appreciable margin. 

Compare that to a 104.2 defensive rating without Morant, which would rank third league-wide, toss in Morant’s minus-9.2 net rating for the season, per CTG, and you have a low-hanging statistical culprit for Memphis’ mediocre start. 

That said, the aforementioned 10-2 stretch that followed Morant’s injury requires qualifiers of its own. For starters, it’s really 10-3 as Morant only played nine minutes against Atlanta before being injured. The Grizzlies, largely without Morant, gave up 132 points that game to the largely full-strength Hawks

Full-strength is the operate qualifier there. Almost no teams are operating under such luxurious circumstances these days, and surely the Grizzlies’ wins over the Sixers without Joel Embiid, the Mavericks without Luka Doncic and the Heat without Bam Adebayo have to be considered with proper context.

Aside from that, two other wins came against the Kings, another against the cellar-dwelling Rockets, and another was the 73-point wiping of the Thunder, which obviously inflated their plus-14 point differential over the sans-Morant span. 

Offensively, Memphis sustained itself without Morant by killing teams on the offensive glass, scoring almost 29 points per 100 missed field goals off put-backs, per CTG, the top mark in the league over that 12-game span. Memphis also generated the highest turnover percentage, which led to the league’s highest transition scoring efficiency, per CTG. 

For a short period against a soft/star-depleted schedule, that was enough to cover for Memphis scoring just 90.7 points per 100 half-court plays, the seventh-worst mark in the league, without Morant, the lone Memphis playmaker who can consistently puncture and collapse set defenses. 

The slow start notwithstanding, Memphis is properly constructed to compensate for Morant’s defensive shortcomings. Unlike, say, the Blazers, who’ve multiplied Damian Lillard’s defensive issues by tying him to an equally bad defender in CJ McCollum, Memphis has flanked Morant with Dillon Brooks, one of the grittiest perimeter defenders in the league, and Desmond Bane, who is becoming a two-way monster before our eyes. 

Add Jaren Jackson Jr., who recently became the first player in history to record at least 250 blocked shots and 250 made 3-pointers in the first 160 games of his career, and Steven Adams blotting out out the paint and controlling the glass, plus a quality bench led by Tyus Jones, De’Anthony Melton and Kyle Anderson, and you can see the makings of a top-10 offense and defensive team, which has long suggested the framework of a contender. 

I wouldn’t go so far as to stamp the Grizzlies with that level of status. But I’ll tell you this: beating a Suns team that owns the NBA’s second-best record and was operating at pretty much full strength, on the road, tells us more about what the Grizzlies can be, and have been dating back to last season’s postseason berth, with Morant than anything they accomplished without him. 

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