Killer Lineup: Memphis' new crew

Memphis Grizzlies

Mike Conley | Tony Allen | Tayshaun Prince | Zach Randolph | Marc Gasol

Minutes Played: 540

Offensive Rating: 102.2 points per 100 possessions

Defensive Rating: 88.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works defensively

We traditionally begin Killer Lineup with the offensive analysis, but when the Memphis Grizzlies are the subject, that’s burying the lead. Memphis’ defense ranks second in the league behind Indiana (and plays in the Western Conference, home to 11 of the 15 most efficient offenses) and has set the standard of consistency in the West over the past few seasons.

That’s impressive when you consider the slow-footed Randolph is the primary big defender in the pick-and-roll, Mike Conley is a Lilliputian and Tayshaun Prince is slight of frame and relatively new to the Grizzlies' system. But the system in Memphis is now so refined, so precise in its mission, that the personnel is almost secondary to its overarching principles.

Over the course of a few seasons, the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll coverage has evolved from damage control to steady, and from steady to stranglehold. The Grizzlies down every screen with the intention of pushing the ball handler to the baseline. That’s every high screen-and-roll, every angle screen-and-roll and every side screen-and-roll.

Even if the Grizzlies wanted to toy with the idea of using the hard show as their primary defensive pick-and-roll tactic, that’s asking Randolph to jump out high, then dash back to find his man down low. The jumping out isn’t the problem. It’s the dashing back -- a brutal commute for a guy who moves the way he does. Randolph will occasionally stab or “short show,” but only when Conley is running under the pick.

The coverage schemes have worked, and we can attribute that to a common understanding of what each of the other four guys is going to do. The core of this unit has logged a lot of court time together, and it’s evident in their movements.

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The big men intuitively can tell when Conley is going to get over a pick and when he won’t. That buys them a step or two, which is the difference between being in position for the ball handler’s attack, or being off-balanced while backpedaling against an oncoming driver.

Randolph’s teammates know he prefers not to leave the body of the guys he’s defending -- a job he’s confident he can do -- rather than be responsible for guarding open space or helping, a task he’s just not as naturally equipped for. This being the case, Conley, Tony Allen, Prince and Marc Gasol are a little more attuned to the possibility that they might need to rotate or, for the perimeter guys, at least stunt very hard.

On pick-and-rolls, Gasol is an avid reader. He drops carefully, gauging angles and sizing up the ball handler while shading the roll man, if necessary. Allen and Conley know Gasol’s tendencies, and on the rare occasions he gets beat in isolation, Allen almost always funnels the penetrator to a crowded spot, while Conley usually gets it done.

Conley used to struggle defending the pick-and-roll. Early in his career, he got hit a ton trying to fight around screens. Today he ranks as one of the more punctual point guards in the league at getting over or under a high pick. That’s essential for these big men, especially Randolph. The Grizzlies help Conley out in this capacity by having him to pressure the ball handler way out to 25 feet or so. This gives Conley the option to scamper under the pick without great risk that the ball handler will launch a shot from that distance.

It’s rare to see Allen get hung up on a screen, and on the ball he’s arguably the best defender in basketball. Culturally and strategically, he and Gasol act as the bookends of the Grizzlies’ defense. It’s hard to succeed against this unit with the pick-and-roll, but Allen is a deterrent to isolate, because even a potent one-on-one player rarely produces efficiently against Allen. An opposing scorer will often look to draw a foul early on Allen in hopes of loosening the vise.

The Grizzlies view another one of Allen’s specialities, the deflection, as essential to their defensive strategy. The Grizzlies aren’t as fixed to playing a gap defense on every possession, where defending space is the primary goal. They're more of a defense that applies constant pressure on the ball and will gamble ranks possession of the ball as its primary goal. Allen, Conley and Prince are constantly aggressive, but they opt for big plays on the ball selectively. Before they commit to risk, they run a cost-benefit analysis, and calculate while simultaneously reading the offense and hounding the ball. Meanwhile, Gasol and Randolph employ a constant awareness that teammates on the perimeter might strike for the ball, an instinct that’s learned over time.

The arrival of Prince has improved the starting unit’s defensive performance by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Prince doesn’t have Rudy Gay’s closing speed, nor can he shoot the gap for a steal as quickly, but he compensates in savvy. Prince saves himself several steps a game merely by being in the right place and can navigate screens and with his sheer intuition can beat a guy to his spot, something that makes life easier for everyone else.

All of these attributes in sum lure Grizz opponents into iffy decisions, because poor choices are all that remain for an offense once the Grizzlies have taken away the best stuff.

How it works offensively

How do you design a functional offense with no real lethal perimeter threat, very little foot speed or elite athleticism up front, an offensive cipher at shooting guard, a point guard who isn’t inclined to light up the scoreboard and a veteran wing who’s more intuitive than dangerous?

Not an easy question for Memphis, because an offense that doesn’t force rotations and can’t get much separation from defenders has a tough time finding clean looks at the basket. Many believed the task would grow even more difficult with the departure of Gay, the one player on the floor who could create his own shot out of nothing. But Prince has stepped into Gay’s place in the starting lineup, and the Grizzlies’ offense hasn’t suffered -- 0.6 points per 100 possessions more efficient to be exact.

The ball isn’t nearly as sticky in Memphis as it was four months ago. Randolph still gets his share of post-ups down on the right block, but Prince isn’t hunting for many 1-on-1 opportunities. As a result, the Grizzlies have taken most of those isolation calls for Gay and converted them into more fluid offense, much of it centered around Gasol at the elbow.

Gasol has emerged as one of the NBA’s most interesting two-way players. He’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive, deferential and assertive. He’s happiest when playmaking, but still gets the urge to work over a smaller defender down on the box. That instinct is a good one, because the Grizzlies need Gasol’s scoring to be successful.

As it turns out, finding opportunities for Gasol isn’t all that difficult. The Grizzlies are increasingly looking for him in the low post, and if he draws a mismatch against the opposing power forward (or, better yet, a perimeter player), that practically initiates an auto-feed. The Grizzlies also run a sequence of high picks for Conley -- first Randolph, who often draws Gasol’s man on the dive, then Gasol, who then moves into open space against a rotating defense. Gasol will face-up or, increasingly, put the ball on the floor and take two big strides before unleashing a running hook or that big whooping crane dunk. A pick-and-pop from the free throw line, a fake handoff before a turnaround jumper or a flash to the high post to release pressure against a double-team of Randolph all work, too.

Strange as it sounds, Gasol is still figuring stuff out. Should he roll deeper to the hoop to draw the defense low, or does that infringe on Randolph’s space? Should he shuttle the ball to the weak side out of principle, or launch his shot without hesitation? Wait for a baseline cut or initiate movement himself? There’s a lot on Marc Gasol’s mind, but the contents make Memphis smarter.

Risk can intimidate a conservative young point guard, but Conley has gradually gained the confidence to play in deeper water. He’s a more willing prober and will turn the corner off a pick regardless of the big defender’s position. Conley is no longer worried about Randolph’s man cutting him off at the rim or whether Gay gets the big drumstick. He’s learned that the offense works best when he initiates. Sometimes nothing will develop and the Grizzlies will get into a play late, but that’s OK, so long as you know where the best alternatives are.

He’s been helped by the collective awareness of the Memphis staff, Gasol and, to a lesser extent, Randolph. They’re aware that Conley is a point guard who needs an alley going to the basket, especially when he goes right. When Gasol and Randolph offer picks, they’re mindful of not only where their opportunities await, but how their movement will impact the Conley Empowerment Plan.

Early and direct post-ups to Randolph used to be the mainstay diet of the Grizzlies’ offense, but defenses now scheme for these calls. To compound matters, Randolph has absorbed plenty of wear and tear, and the Grizzlies don’t feature any long-range shooters whom Randolph can find out of a double-team. These inconveniences of life in the Grizzlies' offense necessitate that he work more often in the pick-and-roll.

Getting an old baller like Randolph to buy in requires some salesmanship. Randolph understands that pick-and-rolls mean he’s more likely to be facing single coverages, often against rotational defenders and/or guards. Those rotations create additional opportunities for the patented high-low game between Gasol and him. Yet pick-and-roll sequences still demand a whole lot more exertion than just establishing a beachhead on the edge of the paint and waiting for the ball. A rolling Randolph also puts the defense in motion, which allows supporting players like Prince and Allen to sneak behind the defense.

Prince has helped matters because he can pass and handle the ball, and these skills have precipitated new wrinkles in the offense. Now the Grizzlies can have Prince bring up the ball and screen down for Conley in the corner, or run 3-man, cornerish stuff with Prince, Conley and Gasol at the elbow.

Not that it’s easy for Memphis. For example, that 3-man action with the starting unit still means Allen and Randolph are manning the weak side, an invitation for defenses to tilt toward the ball. Allen can occasionally punish that negligence by cutting back door, but for every feed he gets underneath, there are still plenty of possessions where the Grizzlies’ lack of stretch can bottle things up, especially when the ball stops.

All this means that the Grizzlies have to work harder than most teams, as has been the case for a couple of seasons. It’s getting a little bit easier. Moving the ball to the second side of the floor in Memphis used to be like sledding uphill, but over the past couple of months, the terrain has leveled out a bit.