After struggling to create points for most of the early part of the season, the Memphis Grizzlies offense has ticked up a bit post-Rudy Gay trade. The Grizz scored 100.4 points per 100 possessions prior to the trade and have registered 103.3 since, per NBA.com. It may not seem like much, but that’s the equivalent of improving from the season-long equivalent of the 24th-best offense (Chicago) to the 12th-best (Dallas/Utah).
How did they improve? Well, it wasn’t by changing the nature of their offense. Everything with Lionel Hollins’ team mostly looks the same, both aesthetically and stats-wise. The Grizzlies still play super slow (they averaged about 91 possessions per game before the trade and around 90 after the trade), still don’t shoot very much or very well from the outside (34.4% on 13.7 3PA per game prior to the trade; 34.6% on 13.3 3PA per game since, though a slightly higher percentage of those 3s have been on more efficient corner shots rather than above the break) and still generate most of their looks through methodical sets and precise ball movement.
The main difference is in the redistribution of possessions. Gay was a high-usage player for Memphis: his 25.7 usage rate was highest on the team. His replacement in the starting lineup, Tayshaun Prince, has used just 15.2 percent of possessions since coming to Memphis, so Gay’s plays have been divided between Marc Gasol (18.5 USG pre-trade, 20.5 post-trade), Mike Conley (19.8 pre-trade, 22.5 post-trade), Zach Randolph (22.4 pre-trade, 24.4 post-trade), Tony Allen (16.8 pre-trade, 19.3 post-trade) and Jerryd Bayless (19.8 pre-trade, 23.5 post-trade).
Gay’s true shooting percentage in Memphis this season was .478. While Prince has actually shot even worse in Memphis than Gay did (.468 TS%), the players who have picked up the offensive slack since the trade have improved on that number by leaps and bounds. Randolph has been the least efficient of the bunch at .486 while dealing with injuries, Allen clocks in at .510, Bayless is at .529, Gasol’s at .557, and Conley at .558. There’s your 2.9 points per 100 possessions right there. It’s mostly just better shooting.
Better shooting, of course, comes from generating (slightly) better looks. While many of Gay’s possessions ended in off the dribble jumpers, Randolph and Gasol are posting up or facilitating from the elbow, Conley is running pick-and-roll, Allen is spotting up, cutting to the basket or doing wild and crazy things in transition, and Bayless is doing a bit of pick-and-roll and a bit of spotting up.
Gasol, in particular, has become more of an offensive hub for Memphis, though his usage rate jump a modest two points. In just 0.9 more minutes per game post-trade, Gasol is averaging a full assist per game more. His facilitation from the elbow, along with his pick-and-roll game with Conley, have been huge keys.
Gasol is also a beast in the post. Memphis ranks third in the league in percentage of plays that are post-ups behind only Indiana and Utah, and Gasol is their best post-up option. He scores 0.94 points per play on his own post-up opportunities, per mySynergySports, and the Grizzlies average 0.957 points per play on his post-ups plus passes. That 0.957 number ranks 16th out of the 53 players with a similar or higher number of post-ups than Gasol.
Memphis is very methodical in their sets because they like to let Gasol (and Randolph) establish deep position in order to generate closer looks. Gasol, for his part, likes to get the ball in the mid-post area between the block and the free throw line. He can either get it on a straight entry pass, set an off ball screen and then duck into post position, or by rolling into post position after setting a high screen for Conley.
There isn’t a more dangerous center in the league in terms of catching the ball at the elbow and creating a scoring opportunity. Whether he gets a jumper or puts it on the floor, Gasol is a huge threat. That, of course, helps when he’s looking to dish rather that score. The Grizzlies will run cutters in different directions when he catches at the elbow, and they’ll station spot-up shooters around the arc if he decides to try to attack with his dribble.
Randolph in the post is another big time option for Memphis, though he hasn’t been nearly as effective since returning from injury. His lift is gone and he’s getting pushed off his spots. He’s 38th out of those 53 players with similar or more post-up opportunities than Gasol in points per play. This is a far cry from the Z-Bo we know and love.
With Gay gone, Conley is really Memphis’ only dynamic off the bounce creator, and dynamic is exactly what he is. Conley especially excels in pick-and-roll situations, and when he gets in the pick-and-roll, he strongly prefers to pass rather than look for his own shot. Per Synergy, Conley passes to finishers rather than finishing himself on 62 percent of his pick-and-rolls, the fifth highest rate in the league (Jose Calderon, Deron Williams, Jerryd Bayless – side note: this is pretty shocking – and Goran Dragic rank ahead of him).
He generates 0.906 points per play out of pick-and-rolls with passes included, per Synergy, which is 9th out of the 35 players with similar or more plays. With 281 pick-and-roll assists in 80 games this season, 3.5 of Conley’s 6.1 assists per game come out of the pick-and-roll. A natural lefty (WOOO LEFTIES YEAHHH), Conley can deliver passes with either hand, to either rollers or spot-up shooters on the perimeter.
When looking for his own basket out of pick-and-rolls, Conley prefers to go to the basket rather than taking an outside shot. Just 43 of his 311 field goal attempts out of pick-and-rolls this year were 3-pointers, and only 104 of them were 2-point jumpers. That makes 164 runners, floaters, layups or dunks compared to 147 jumpers. His lefty drive/right floater combo can give defensive a lot of problems.
Because he’s so quick with the ball in his hands, it’s extremely difficult to keep him out of the lane, especially when he hesitates for a beat behind a screen from Randolph or Gasol before jetting to one side of the other. He’s so small, and they’re so big, that sometimes he gets lost behind them and emerges on the other side before the defense knows where he is. It’s especially tough when that hesitation is coupled with a change in direction.
And that’s the Memphis offense. They’ll throw in the occasional post-up for Prince, pick-and-roll for Bayless or even some off ball screens for Pondexter, Bayless, Conley or even Tony Allen, all working off the Gasol/Randolph post-ups and Conley pick-and-rolls, but it’s mostly run through those three hubs. Their series against the Clippers is sure to be a bare-knuckle, knock-down, drag out affair, with each team concentrating on shutting down the pick-and-roll and the post.