The Long Two: Grizzlies find their stride without Morant, Wolves lock down on D

Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves, NBA

It’s uncommon for an NBA team to play its best basketball after losing its best player, yet the Memphis Grizzlies have taken off since Ja Morant’s injury. Plus: A look at the Timberwolves’ surprisingly stingy defense.

It’s uncommon for an NBA team to play its best basketball immediately after losing its best player and offensive focal point to an injury. Yet in the weeks since Ja Morant sprained his left knee, the Memphis Grizzlies have taken off, winning nine of their last 10 games with the league’s second-best scoring margin during that stretch.

There’s no replacing a player like Morant — who was arguably playing at an All-NBA level before his injury — only different ways of restructuring in his absence. The third-year guard is one of the most ball-dominant playmakers in the NBA, posting usage and assist rates of 35 percent while directly accounting for most of Memphis’ offense when he’s on the court. It would be unrealistic to expect another Grizzly to play that role, so Memphis has instead leaned on its depth and defense to make up for a star-sized absence.

How are the Grizzlies thriving without Ja Morant?

The greatest luxury elite point guards afford their teams is the ability to consistently manufacture quality shots from the most basic offensive sets. Absent that kind of high-usage workhorse, the Grizzlies have gotten more creative in how they generate offense. Crisp passing, sound floor spacing and sharp off-ball movement have long been staples of Taylor Jenkins’ offense, but they’ve become all the more essential without the fallback option of clearing out and letting Morant work. Memphis lacks a second high-usage playmaker but abounds with capable secondary ball-handlers and keen decision-makers, each of whom has stepped into a slightly larger role in recent weeks.

Tyus Jones, Desmond Bane, De’Anthony Melton, Brandon Clarke and, crucially, Jaren Jackson Jr. have all become more central offensive cogs over the last three weeks, yet none have become overburdened by the responsibility because they can share it with one another. Bane and Jackson aren’t going to consistently break down defenses on their own but can be dangerous scorers when they receive the ball with an advantage, make a decisive move and read the defense to determine the next action. The Grizzlies rely on those sorts of chain reactions, in which everyone is a threat to score or make a play. Most often, it’s been Jackson, Bane or Dillon Brooks on the finishing end of those sequences, but that’s the product of smart interplay between all five players on the floor.

It’s with that kind of disciplined, egalitarian style that a team down one of the best on-ball creators in basketball could not only tread water offensively but show substantial improvement. Memphis has scored 116 points per 100 possessions over its last 10 games — the fifth-best mark in the NBA — and generated roughly the same shot quality with and without Morant on the floor. It helps that Bane and Jackson are shooting a combined 41.8 percent from beyond the arc during that spell, but both players have shown enough progress as on-ball creators to suggest there’s more to their breakouts than just hot 3-point shooting.

Even with the offense humming with surprising efficiency, the driving force behind the Grizzlies’ success has been their defense — the best in the league since November 28. Where Memphis’ offense required some restructuring, Morant’s absence in itself has, frankly, improved the Grizzlies’ defense.

The lanky guard has been one of the least effective defenders in the NBA for most of his career, and this season Memphis has allowed 14 fewer points per 100 possessions with Morant off the floor than with him on — one of the widest disparities in the league. That isn’t to pin all of the Grizzlies’ defensive success or failure on Morant; to do so would sell short Jackson’s improvement as a switch defender and rim protector, Steven Adams’ stalwart interior play, Brooks and Bane’s on-ball tenacity and the myriad defensive contributions from the rest of the roster.

Guards can only be so damaging to a team’s overall scheme, and Memphis has benefitted from cold opponent shooting since Morant went out — a trend mostly beyond his or any other Grizzly’s control. Still, preventing leaks at the point of attack gives the Grizzly bigs fewer messes to clean up at the rim, and indeed the team has held opponents to fewer shots and a lower shooting percentage at the rim since Morant’s injury. They’re also allowing the second-fewest corner 3s during that spell — the result of increased connection and competence.

Morant’s return will introduce a fascinating tension between maximizing his offensive value and allowing his teammates to continue playing the connected, empowered style they’ve discovered without him. The two approaches aren’t mutually exclusive, but they will require careful balancing from Jenkins, Morant and the rest of the roster. A top-five offense isn’t likely to sustain for the rest of the season, and Memphis will eventually need Morant to reassume the primary scoring and playmaking workload.

The hope is that his presence only widens the openings players like Bane and Clarke like to attack, creates even more space for Jackson to hunt shots and adds an additional layer of stability to the ones Memphis built in his absence.

Is the Wolves’ defense real?

The NBA season is more than a third of the way over, and the Minnesota Timberwolves — who have been a bottom-10 defense every year since 2015 — currently rank 11th in points allowed per possession. While that mark has been buoyed by an unsustainably strong start to the year, Minnesota’s defensive competence through this point in the season constitutes a vast improvement over recent years of ineffectiveness. The question is whether the Wolves will regain their balance and level off as an average defense, or if this is only the beginning of a longer collapse that undoes any illusions of real progress.

The case for the latter outcome is, unfortunately, more persuasive. After a promising first few weeks of the season, the Wolves have come crashing back to earth recently, allowing over 115 points per possession over their last 10 games. While Patrick Beverley helps plug gaps on the perimeter and Karl-Anthony Towns has improved as a rim protector, Minnesota’s early success was fueled largely by variables beyond the team’s control, and there isn’t much to protect against impending regression.

The Wolves allow the fourth-highest expected shot value in the league, yet teams have converted at an only average rate against them. Opponents are hitting only a third of their non-corner 3s and under 35 percent of their overall 3-point attempts, and despite modest progress from Towns, Jaden McDaniels and Jarred Vanderbilt, Minnesota has struggled to protect the rim. The Wolves also surrender the most opponent free throws and offensive rebounds in the NBA — a potential byproduct of getting caught out of position in search of steals.

The upside of that aggressive approach is the team’s propensity for forcing turnovers. Minnesota’s opponents cough the ball up on 17.5 percent of their possessions — the highest mark in the NBA — which creates both empty trips for them and easy transition offense for the Wolves. Still, a heavily turnover-dependent approach doesn’t translate to effective overall defense without other important structural elements — like rebounding, rim protection and foul avoidance — in place, and the Wolves still lack some of those critical building blocks.

Towns does appear to have a better understanding of how to contain the pick-and-roll and rotate from the weak side, but he remains underwhelming as a defensive anchor and still doesn’t have the requisite personnel around him to cover for his weaknesses. It’s quite possible that the Wolves are a meaningfully better defense than they’ve been for the last seven years, but most evidence suggests there’s more regression to come.

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